Korngold - Die tote Stadt

ONP Paris - Thursday October 22 2009

Conductor: Pinchas Steinberg. Production: Willy Decker. Sets and costumes: Wolfgang Gussmann. Lighting: Wolfgang Goebbel. Paul: Robert Dean Smith. Marietta: Ricarda Merbeth. Frank/Fritz: Stéphane Degout. Brigitta: Doris Lamprecht. Juliette: Elisa Cenni. Lucienne: Letitia Singleton. Victorin: Alain Gabriel. Graf Albert: Alexander Kravets. Orchestra and chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine⁄children’s chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. Coproduction with the Vienna Staatsoper and the Salzburg Festival.

It’s a rare enough treat for those who like Die tote Stadt to have it staged at all. And it’s a wonder any leading couple can be found to sing it, let alone give us a stunning third act performance like Thursday night’s. These facts, plus near-universal praise in the press (apart from one French sourpuss dubbing it a mere “curiosity for the curious”) have made me dither over writing it up, not wanting to seem ungrateful or nit-picking by admitting I was still left wanting more: “Sur ma faim,” as they say here.

However, having discussed it with friends and heard the live broadcast, I’ve concluded that the Bastille’s peculiar acoustics are probably mostly to blame. To cut a long story short, for several years I always had the same seats, on the front row of one of the projecting side-sections of the second balcony. This year, unexplained chaos at the box office has meant that, despite being a long-standing subscriber and despite asking for the most expensive tickets for all performances, we have ended up with a mixed bag of seats in various categories, not even at the dates we wanted. As a result, on Thursday evening we were, for the first time, in the very middle of the first balcony meaning, at the Bastille, further from the stage than in the side sections, which jut forward. And in case you didn’t know, acoustics at the Bastille are patchy and can play odd tricks. (Yes, that was the short story.) So…

Robert Dean Smith is not the clarion or bull-in-a-china-shop kind of Heldentenor. His is a softer, grainier timbre, though still powerful enough (what fool dismissed him as a “tenorino” on one of the French opera fora?), more human and better-suited to Paul’s troubled persona. He navigated his way through this crippling role, not only without a wrong note but with moving, musical phrasing thrown in. Ricarda Merbeth, meanwhile, was perhaps an even more remarkable Marie, making the highest notes in the score sound (and resound) easy. Some critics mentioned a worrying wobble. It wasn’t in evidence on Thursday evening - and I might urge them, when they then say they preferred Angela Denoke, to listen to the latter’s Salzburg recording, though it’s true Denoke is a more natural actress and, especially, dancer. The last act was, as I said above, stunning. However, grateful though I am for that, they (understandably, I freely admit) held their voices back somewhat during the whole of act one and half of act two and, as a result, from these new seats sounded disappointingly distant – a fact not helped by the staging (see below). It was only when they started to let their hair down in the second half of act two that I realised the evening wouldn’t be a washout after all.

Stéphane Degout was, as you might expect, a super Frank/Fritz and the rest of the cast was just fine.

Now, the orchestra. The press have tended to praise Pinchas Steinberg for avoiding Schmaltz. To me, the performance seemed to take the score note-by-note and lack overall “sweep,” if that makes any sense. It didn’t sound joined up, and I sat there thinking “I must get to see this in Vienna one day and hear the VPO in the Staatsoper acoustics.” In other words, I could have done with at least a touch of that missing Schmaltz. I could also, as is often the case (so maybe it’s just an obsession of mine) have done with a bit more drive (something the singers might have been grateful for too: the slow tempi must have made their breathing that much harder). But on the radio the orchestra sounded wonderful, throwing up a mass of gorgeous detail in the potentially overblown score. So again, I now put it down to the new seats.

The production has been around and is in rep in Vienna, so many of you will have at least seen photos of it – and very photogenic it is. On the Bastille’s huge stage it was framed in black to make a smaller proscenium, set so far back from the pit that I assumed Marietta’s pals’ antics and the religious parade would take place in front, on the apron. They didn’t, but the effect was to distance the singers even more than usual (the Bastille auditorium is vast) from the audience.

The main set was a large, gloomy, ugly room in Paul’s house: brown parquet floor; two brown club armchairs (much climbed-upon as the action progressed, especially by Marietta, who tended to perch on the arms); white ceiling with mouldings; black walls with some scribbling near the ceiling (couldn’t see what it was about); big, double doors to the left; and one large and many small canvases of a particularly unattractive, doe-eyed Marie (though not as blatantly unattractive as the giant, porcine Madonna that used to hover over Paris’s Tosca). The atmosphere generated – authentically Belgian - brought to mind the surrealists Magritte and (worse still) Paul Delvaux, definitely one of my least favourite painters.

So I thought we were in for a visually grim evening, but once Paul started having his visions things perked up: the room fell apart to reveal various livelier novelties at the rear: a smaller version of the same room for his vision of Marie; a cluster of white-robed beguines bearing a white cross and a crucified Doris Lamprecht (that was dangerously close to laughable); dancing houses with lit windows for the scene where he’s supposed to be on the quayside (it was clever making everything come to him rather than the other way round, meaning he had his visions without ever leaving his room); Marietta’s troupe in all-white commedia dell’arte costumes; the Fellini-esque religious procession.

The acting seemed to me a touch stiff, but only a touch, and Ricarda Merbeth isn’t really built for twirling gaily round like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music: she's more like Deborah Polaski as Elektra. The production didn’t knock my socks off, but it handled the themes well and I wouldn’t mind, as I said, seeing it again in Vienna and having it on DVD. In fact, musically (I say this now having heard the radio broadcast) it might just be the best recent version available.

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