Lights, Camera ... Die tote Stadt
By Brendan G. Carroll
This cinematic opera by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (who later became one of Hollywood's greatest film composers) gets a rich multimedia production at New York City Opera Sept. 24-Oct. 14.
City Opera's innovative use of film to realize the hallucinogenic mise en scène of this extraordinary work was a pioneering modern response to the bizarre effects required by the libretto. But it also made apposite reference to Korngold's later illustrious career in 1930s Hollywood, where he would revolutionize motion picture scoring and effectively create a new art form — the symphonic film score. Unable to remain in Europe and compose operas because of the Nazis, he emigrated to Hollywood and instead composed them for the silver screen, bringing the emotional intensity and romantic sweep of Die tote Stadt to an audience that had never set foot in an opera house.
Back in 1975, certain critics complained that Die tote Stadt was too redolent of the film scores for which Korngold was so justly famous. They failed to realize that Korngold had actually developed his style long before he ever arrived in a Hollywood studio, and had already begun perfecting his film scoring techniques many years before he ever set foot on a soundstage.
Korngold's first important composition, a two-act ballet entitled Der Schneemann, composed when he was but 11 years of age and premiered at the Vienna Hofoper in 1910, already demonstrated his innate skill at character delineation and his remarkable acuity at underscoring dramatic action with colorful music. His operas Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta, composed while he was in his mid-teens, are even more dramatically sure-footed. The voluptuous overture to Violanta is a striking example of how Korngold could set the tone and mood of a story within a few bars, a gift he would regularly bring to his film assignments. Later still, his delightful incidental score to Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, composed for a Vienna stage production in 1919 (just as he was completing Die tote Stadt) demonstrates how he had by then already grasped the subtle technique of effectively underscoring dialogue.
Die tote Stadt, based on Georges Rodenbach's novel Bruges la Morte, has a story made for opera — and for the movies. In fact it had already become a film even before Korngold began his opera. A Russian film entitled Gryozy (Daydreams), directed by Yevgeni Bauer in 1915, was based directly on Rodenbach's novel and was recently rediscovered and restored. Freely using double exposure and other early cinematic effects, it makes for a fascinating comparison with Die tote Stadt. In 1919, as Korngold was completing his opera, Rodenbach's widow signed a contract with a European studio for yet another film, which was apparently never made.
While Korngold's opera cites Rodenbach's novel as its primary source, it is actually a reworking of a German translation by Siegfried Trebitsch of a later play based on it, Le Mirage, first performed as Die stille Stadt in 1902 and then as Das Trugbild in 1913. As is now well known, after an unsuccessful collaboration with librettist Hans Müller (who was himself to work for MGM in the late 1920s), Korngold decided to write his own libretto in collaboration with his father, the much-feared music critic, Dr. Julius Korngold, under the pseudonym Paul Schott.
As a consolation to Müller, Korngold agreed to compose (without fee) an incidental score to the latter's play Der Vampyr in 1922. The strangest composition ever penned by Korngold, it is full of dissonant harmonies and peculiar instrumental effects, and further demonstrates his skill at building atmospheric musical structures to underscore dramatic action and dialogue. The manuscript of this extraordinary unpublished work fortunately survives in the Library of Congress and awaits rediscovery.
As for Die tote Stadt, it is impossible now to establish whether the many significant changes the Korngolds made to Rodenbach's story derive from Müller's abandoned libretto (which appears to be lost) or from the Korngolds' own imaginations. In any case, one cannot fail to be struck by the cinematic potential of these changes. Neither the Act I Vision Scene, in which Paul's dead wife Marie appears to him, warning him to cease his obsession with the dancer Marietta, and the conclusion of Act III, in which Paul wakes from his dream and finds he has imagined everything, exist in Rodenbach's novel. By transforming most of the action of the story into a dream, Korngold not only raises the story far above the gloomy symbolism of the original, but makes it a natural for the use of film and its techniques. Die tote Stadt is an ideal opera for film because it demands the suspension of belief for its uncanny effects, its extended dream sequence, its ghostly apparitions, and its Freudian overtones. This opera could easily have become a film noir classic in 1940s Hollywood. Indeed, it did, in a way.
In Fritz Lang's seminal thriller The Woman in the Window (1944), Edward G. Robinson is obsessed with a woman's portrait, then meets its subject by chance in the street. After becoming embroiled in a sordid murder, he awakens at the end to find it was all a dream, in a departure from the novel by J. H. Wallis on which it is based. Certainly Lang must have seen Die tote Stadt in Germany in the 1920s — when it was the most frequently performed 20th-century German opera after those of Richard Strauss — and borrowed his "twist ending" from Korngold.
Hitchcock's Vertigo uses a similar plot device, wherein James Stewart portrays a man obsessed with his dead wife, and then meets her doppelgänger, played by Kim Novak. Like Marietta, she dies at the protagonist's hands (falling from a bell tower, like his dead wife), but the twist here is that she has deliberately made herself resemble the other woman. This film so closely recalls Die tote Stadt that a 1977 Düsseldorf production was based on it, with the singer portraying Marietta made up to resemble Kim Novak!
Die tote Stadt itself was nearly filmed in Hollywood, albeit as a spoken drama. In the mid-1940s, MGM actually began negotiations with Korngold to buy the rights, planning to film the story with Greer Garson in the double female lead. This fell through, though, once Korngold realized that the studio had no intention of retaining any of his music for the project.
Nevertheless, the sound world of Die tote Stadt found its way into several of Korngold's own film scores. And in at least one of these cases, the theme of a love that survives beyond the grave found its musical reference point in Die tote Stadt.
Korngold was one of the very last to compose in the grand German Romantic manner, which is why his exuberant, highly emotional, and sweeping style was so perfect for romantic films — and why it continues to influence this genre to this day. The effulgent Prelude to Act III of Die tote Stadt almost seems to look ahead to the jubilant overtures to such Korngold-scored films as The Constant Nymph and Escape Me Never.
The correspondences do not end there. As Jessica Duchen has pointed out in her biography of Korngold, the syncopated, descending, chromatically sinuous Death motif first heard in Act I of Die tote Stadt, as Marietta sees Marie's portrait, makes a surprising reappearance in Korngold's score for the film The Sea Hawk (1940), when Errol Flynn and his crew are lost in the steamy jungles of Panama and facing death in the swamp.
Of all Korngold's films that were touched by Die tote Stadt, it is Between Two Worlds (1944) that seems closest in mood and style. Organ, bells and harmonium color the sumptuous orchestration, and the eerie quality of the Vision Scene in Die tote Stadt hovers throughout this strange story of a couple who, facing separation in wartime, commit suicide so that they can stay together, and then find themselves aboard a ghostly ship sailing between earth and heaven, awaiting judgment.
Korngold, like his mentor Richard Strauss, was a master of descriptive tone painting. The massive "sound picture" of the city of Bruges in the opening of Act II of Die tote Stadt — the incessant tolling of bells, the swelling of the church organ, the swirling strings to match the flowing robes of the Beguines as they scurry through the dark alleyways — is cinematic in its effect, and underscores the action so effectively that we hardly need to see the city depicted on stage.
Later, in films such as The Sea Wolf, Kings Row, and The Adventures of Robin Hood, Korngold demonstrated his gift for tone painting in much the same way.
Korngold once described his film scores as "operas without singing", underlining how important operatic form was to him in every medium in which he worked. He responded to a film script much as he did to an opera libretto, devising a Leitmotif for each character and situation and developing them contrapuntally, and subtly varying the orchestration as the story and characters developed. His music was not composed in small blocks, but was durchkomponiert — composed with ongoing continuity.
At its most basic level, Die tote Stadt is a rattling good thriller with a direct emotional punch that can leave audiences breathless. Its fascinating text affords unlimited opportunities for directors to let their creativity be unfettered. Each new production to appear provides a different, yet always tantalizing, take on the story. In Kiel, it was set firmly in Freud's Vienna; in Strasbourg, in a post-nuclear bombed city; and in Catania it was a Bauhaus fantasy. Recently, in Berlin, it was set in a nightmarish circus, replete with clowns and acrobats and even a high-wire Marietta!
It was the undoubted hit of the 2004 Salzburg Festival, where it was given a surreal, expressionist canvas, and it swept into Vienna a few months later to begin a run of sold-out performances, once again becoming a mainstay of that city's repertory. And at the time of this writing, further European productions are being prepared, and the first-ever staging in Russia is being planned for 2009.
Gustav Mahler — the composer who first recognized Korngold's genius when he was just nine years old, and whom Korngold revered above all others — once observed that a composer attained immortality only if his works were still performed 50 years after his death. In November 2007, 50 years after Korngold's death and over 80 years after Die tote Stadt first swept the stages of Europe, he would be very happy to know that at last, he has — like Mahler — achieved it.
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