Die tote Stadt in Kassel

Erich Korngold’s Die tote Stadt creates difficulties for performers in two respects. The leading roles require voices capable of sustained lyricism above a large orchestra; and the stage director has to provide a convincing blend of fantasy and realism, while presenting a coherent psychological portrait of a morbid individual torn between devotion to his dead wife and the erotic charms of her look-alike dancer. My previous encounters with the work failed on either or both of these grounds. Not so the thrilling performance at the Staatstheater Kassel which provoked a wholly justified standing ovation from an enthusiastic audience.

Credit must go in the first place to the conductor Patrik Ringborg who was responsible for a committed, passionate account of the luxuriant late romantic score. He looked an emotional wreck when appearing on stage at the end and I can understand why. The voice of tenor Charles Workman cracked a couple of times and needed careful husbanding to survive. Dramatically, he did not probe the psychological depths of Paul but, given that he was required to strip almost naked and engage in physical contortions on top of singing this most strenuous role, it was a brave and commendable performance. Irish soprano Celine Byrne had the necessary coolness and swagger for Marietta and vocally came into her own in the last act, as she poured out her frustration with Paul’s obsession. These two were guest singers but the strength of Kassel’s ensemble was revealed in the smaller roles, all of which were well sung. Let me pick out for particular mention Marta Herman who created a strong and moving profile for Brigitta the landlady and Hangsung Yoo whose warm expressive baritone rendering of the Pierrot’s song was one of the highlights of the evening.

What then of Markus Dietz’s production? He and designer Mayke Hegger were certainly prepared to take risks with a multitude of stage effects some of which, notably the use of video sequences and backstage photographic images, might be considered excessive. But the idea of having the dead Marie on stage, acting and dancing throughout, worked very well, as did the raising and lowering of religious, sometimes blasphemous, images. I loved too the use of space at the rear to emphasise the stifling claustrophobic atmosphere of Bruges – and Paul’s mind. All in all, a gripping and exciting evening of musical theatre.