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Die tote Stadt at Longborough Festival Opera - a youthful masterpiece

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THE composer Erich Korngold (1897-1957) is best-known for writing the music for films during the Golden Age of Hollywood, which has tended to overshadow his formidable talents in the “classical”, or “serious”, genre.

Fortunately Korngold’s brilliance as a creator of music well beyond the world of film scores is currently undergoing a revival and Longborough Festival Opera in the Cotswolds is at the forefront of it.

Die Tote Stadt at Longborough (57601149)
Die Tote Stadt at Longborough (57601149)

Recently it staged four performances of Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), which is only the second time the work has been put on in this country in the 102 years since its world premiere in Germany in 1920, when Korngold was a mere 23 years of age. And the first UK production was as recently as 2009 with the Royal Opera at Covent Garden!

Born in Brno, in what is now the Czech Republic, Korngold had been a child prodigy and later a composer admired by such luminaries as Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini before he went to Hollywood at the invitation of the Austrian-born theatre and film director Max Reinhardt.

At Reinhardt’s request Korngold adapted the music of Felix Mendelssohn for Reinhardt’s 1935 film version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream starring, among others, Olivia de Havilland and James Cagney. Korngold then wrote the original scores for 1930s swashbucklers such as Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood, both starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.

Die Tote Stadt at Longborough (57601143)
Die Tote Stadt at Longborough (57601143)

It is with this knowledge of Korngold’s mastery of film music that one inevitably approaches his youthful opera Die tote Stadt. It’s worth noting that this was actually his third opera – he’d previously written two one-act operas that were conducted in 1916 by no less a figure than Bruno Walter.

The first thing to be said about it is that it is awash with rich, late romantic textures and some beautiful melodies even though the subject matter – a man’s conviction that his dead wife has come back to life when he meets her double – is rather morbid, to say the least. And the dead city of Korngold’s opera, in this stretching of symbolism, is Bruges of all places, known to modern-day tourists as a medieval attraction of cultural magnificence.

The widower Paul in Longborough’s production was the tenor Peter Auty, who first made his name as a 13-year-old choirboy when he sang Walking in the Air in the 1982 film The Snowman. (Ironically, Korngold wrote a ballet called The Snowman (Der Schneemann) when he was only 11!)

It is a very demanding role – on a Wagnerian scale – and Mr Auty gave it all he’d got (which was plentiful).

Die Tote Stadt at Longborough (57601147)
Die Tote Stadt at Longborough (57601147)

But the most striking feature of the performance on Thursday, 23rd June was the fact that soprano Rachel Nicholls – playing the part of the dead wife Marie and her doppelganger Marietta – had a throat infection and “walked the role” while her “voice” was provided by Luci Briginshaw, singing from the side of the stage.

This is the second time this season that this has happened at Longborough. During the run of Wagner’s Siegfried – the first of the four operas being staged at the festival this year – the role of Alberich the dwarf was sung from a box close to the stage by the Hong Kong-born British bass-baritone Freddie Tong while the regular singer of the part, Mark Stone, acted and mimed the role. (Mr Stone had “not been feeling 100 per cent” but was fit enough to go through the motions on stage without using his voice.)

It says something about the quality of singers available to Longborough that the “stand-in” performers are of exceptional calibre. In this instance Ms Briginshaw was so brilliant in her supportive role that she got the biggest round of applause at the end of the show. Her vocal range and eloquence of articulation were impressive, and her impact on the audience was electrifying from the start.

JON HOBLEY (57601145)
JON HOBLEY (57601145)

The rest of the cast for this production – New Zealand-born baritone Benson Wilson, tenors Alexander Sprague and Lee David Bowen, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Windsor-Lewis and soprano Rosie Lomas – all contributed to this tremendous restoration of a youthful masterpiece by a composer whose work is now undergoing something of a renaissance.

It is to the credit of director Carmen Jakobi and conductor Justin Brown, and all the powers that be at Longborough, that they had the wit and vision to bring Erich Korngold back to life – even if poor Paul could not quite do the same for his dead wife in Die tote Stadt.

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