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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The face of modern opera

By Norman Lebrecht / January 14, 2009

Not that long ago, in the crush bar of any opera house, you could have heard one of the interval bores deliver a categorical statement that opera came to an end in 1924 with the death of Puccini. Full stop.

Such epitaphs are still spouted in a few bars in New York’s Little Italy and the Lincoln Center, but since the turn of the 21st century there has been a quiet shift in the balance of operatic repertoire, a decisive advance that has yet to be generically acknowledged - and is about to be confirmed at Covent Garden with the belated premeire of Die Tote Stadt.

One statistic tells it all, and you are reading it here first. Twice as many operas written between the two world wars are now on our stages as are those that were written at the tail-end of the so-called Golden Age. Go on, count them.

The years 1900 to 1918 gave us Pelleas et Melisande, Rusalka and Madam Butterfly; Salome, Elektra, Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos; Bluebeard’s Castle and Palestrina. The greatest future pointer, though not recognised at the time, was Leos Janacek’s Jenufa, premiered in Brno in 1904 and made to wait a dozen years for a Prague performance and international exposure. That makes ten for the era.

The post-War wave was driven by the elderly though indefatigable Janacek with Katya Kabanova (premiered 1921), Cunning Little Vixen (1924), The Makropoulos Case (1926) and From the House of the Dead (1930) – all of them now standard fare.

But Janacek, with his simplistic Czech locutions and emotional overload, is just one facet of a post-War surge that allowed opera to break free from Italian and German hegemonies into an engagement with a reality that reflects more vividly than Puccini’s verismo the audience’s unsettled relationships and recent wartime experiences.

The new realism brings Berg’s Wozzeck (1926) and Lulu (1937), a soldier and a party girl, brutalised beyond endurance. Shostakovich, in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934), explores rural boredom and desire. George Gershwin with Porgy and Bess (1935) drags opera into dire poverty and racial persecution.

Prokofiev veers from levity in Love for Three Oranges (1921) to libertinism in The Fiery Angel (1922-3). Kurt Weill pioneers social satire in The Threepenny Opera (1928). Richard Strauss is stubbornly antediluvian – Intermezzo (1924), Egyptian Helen (1928), Arabella (1933), The Silent Woman (1935) – while Busoni with Doctor Faust (1925) and Hindemith with Mathis der Maler (1938) claim the intellectual high ground, along with Schoenberg who never quite finishes Moses and Aron (1932).

Apart from Strauss, who sticks to the past, all of these works were peripheral as little as a decade ago. Today they are performed without fuss or apology to an audience that has lost its fixed idea of what an opera ought to be and is prepared to take limited risks. Two more candidates hover on the fringe of acceptance – Szymanowski’s sensual and exotic King Roger (1926), seen last summer at Edinburgh, and Bohuslav Martinu’s psychosexual Julietta (1938), which will get several shots at posterity in the composer’s anniversary year; Martinu died in 1959.

Still counting? Altogether, more than 20 operas of the inter-war period are now integral to our culture, confirming that opera, like history, does not end and that the search for the ultimate sensation continues. But before we get carried away on a wave of renewal, there are two flaws in this analysis.

In the first place, art does not obey the rules of the pack and the retrieval of works from a particular period may be coincidence rather than zeitgeist. Second, what we are missing is a link that connects pre-1918 decadence to post-1918 verité, an opera that represents continuity of form and confirms the existence of a trend.

That opera is about to land at Covent Garden. Die Tote Stadt – Dead City, or City of the Dead – was premiered in Hamburg and Cologne on the same night in December 1920 and was seen soon after at the Met with the effulgent Maria Jeritza as heroine.

The composer was Erich Wolfgang Korngold, 23 years old, son of Vienna’s most influential music critic, a promising talent who had been touted as the next Mozart ever since Gustav Mahler gave him a ballet commission when he was a kid of nine.

The opera is set in Bruges, Belgium, at the end of the 19th century but its atmosphere is unmistakably Vienna after the First World War, a former imperial capital reduced to provincial insignificance, a city that mourns its war dead but manages to turn out in all its finery for the opera ball.

The hero, Paul, cannot get over the death of his wife, Maria – a common condition after 4,000 Viennese, mostly young and healthy, perished in the end-of-war Spanish flu epidemic. Paul develops an erotic, homicidal fixation on a ballerina, Marietta. He struggles to distinguish between the two women, between cities of life and death.

The opera was an instantaneous hit with 80 different productions and, though it soon faded from the Met and was never seen in Britain, it packed the house every year in Vienna until Hitler marched in and Korngold was consigned to an oblivion from which he has returned only in recent years.

Die Tote Stadt is far from being a perfect work. The libretto, by the composer’s over-bearing father, is riddled with clumsy clichés. One senses the father looming at Korngold’s shoulder as he makes love to Marietta and the sensation is altogether too creepy to warrant prolonged contemplation.

The music has been likened to a halfway house between Puccini and Strauss, wrongly in my view. The overriding textural signature belongs to Alexander von Zemlinsky, Korngold’s teacher (and Schoenberg’s brother-in-law) whose opera, The Florentine Tragedy, enjoyed concurrent success. The spiritual influence, though, is Mahler - long dead, but leaving in Korngold’s ear the pentatonic chinoiseries of Das Lied von der Erde, along with its stretched tenor voice and the ‘ewig, ewig’ ending that rears up in Paul’s first great aria. The City of the Dead is an opera that mourns its godfather.

Antecedents aside, it is a work of seductive melody and emotional impact that is doing the rounds in Willy Decker’s ROH co-production, already seen in Vienna, Salzburg and San Francisco. There have been other stagings in Zurich and New York's City Opera. Die Tote Stadt is well and truly back on boards.

But what makes this more than just another operatic retrieval is the work’s original context. Korngold was writing of Vienna in the here and now, a city where each day threatened hunger, disease and revolution. Die Tote Stadt captures the fragility and ephemerality of a society that has lost its certainties. Imagine a credit-crunch opera by Thomas Ades with an Aids sub-theme and you have some idea of the mind-shift that Korngold performed.

In Die Tote Stadt he moved opera from escapism to current affairs, from play time to real time, giving the unborn John Adams a license to write Doctor Atomic and Scottish Opera to prepare a forthcoming short this year on the death of David Kelly, in the Iraq weapons affair. Die Tote Stadt is the threshold to operas that deal with hard news. It is the missing link between past and future, the beginning of opera as a modern art.

Korngold on dvd and cd

1 Die Tote Stadt (Arthaus DVD) Dark and over-decadent Strasbourg production with Angela Denoka as Maria/Marietta

2 Die Tote Stadt (BMG CD) First-ever 1975 recording with Carol Neblett, Rene Kollo, Leinsdorf conducts

3 Das Wunder der Heliane (Decca CD) Another Korngold opera, heard last year at the South Bank

4 Korngold compendium (EMI CD) The symphony, violin concerto and Tote Stadt arias; Kiri sings, Franz Welser-Most conducts

5 Korngold - Adventures of a Wunderkind (Arthaus DVD) Life story plus live performance

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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