The Dead City (Die tote Stadt) by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. English National Opera: The Coliseum, London WC2. 4****. Clare Colvin.

The story of the opera and of the composer are both equally strange. Erich Korngold’s life was marked by the middle name gifted him by his ambitious father, who saw in his son a similar child prodigy to that of the Austrian musical wunderkind from 150 years earlier. Korngold’s third main work, translated by ENO as The Dead City, was his breakthrough opera, written at 23. The young composer followed no further along Mozart’s classical footsteps, for in 1934 he was forced by Hitler’s invasion to leave Vienna and make his career in Hollywood where he turned his skill in composing romantic scores to such as Captain Blood, starring Errol Flynn, or The Adventures of Robin Hood. The classical career was virtually forgotten until the present century.

The curious plot of The Dead City is derived from the Belgian symbolist poet and novelist Georges Rodenbach’s 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte. A young man, Paul, mourns for his wife Mary who died five years earlier. He has shut himself in his Bruges home and transformed the bedroom into a shrine to his wife. Her blonde plaits become a sacred relic in a safe above the bed. Then Paul recognises a young blonde dancer, Marietta, as a doppelgänger, and becomes obsessed that Marietta is actually the dead Mary. Guilt and new found desires blur lines between dream and reality – it’s no wonder that the plot appealed to Alfred Hitchcock for his 1958 film Vertigo.

Artistic director Annilese Miskimmon, in her second production for English National Opera, brings a lushness to the production that complements the rich Straussian quality of the score. As Sarah Connolly’s housekeeper Brigitta opens the shrine for Paul’s newly arrived friend Franz (Audun Iverson) to witness the extent of Paul’s obsession, boys come in bearing huge bunches of crimson roses, as if to furnish a monomaniac flower shop. A long procession of towns’ people drift forward and back, appearing as indistinct as memory. In contrast, the advent of Marietta brings forth a raunchy number “to come indulge your senses and hail to all who love the arts.”

The role of Paul is pitched dramatically high, and missed notes indicated Swiss tenor Rolf Romei was not at his best voice on the first night. As Marietta, Allison Oakes also has to reach a range of demanding high notes. The composer’s decision to turn the violent encounter at the end into a hallucination, seems something of a cop out compared with the original novel where the blonde doppelganger is killed. Doubtless the young composer and his father, who wrote the libretto, knew which ending would best please the Viennese audience in 1920s post-war Europe.

Conductor: Kirill Karabits

Director: Annilese Miskimmon

Set designer: Miriam Buether

Costume designer: Nicky Gillibrand

Lighting designer: James Farncombe

Movement director/intimacy co-ordinator: Imogen Knight

Production pictures: Genevieve Girling

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