English National Opera 2023 Review: The Dead City

Annilese Miskimmon’s Surrealist New Production of Korngold Probes & Enthralls

By Benjamin Poore
(Photo: ENO/Helen Murray)

One wonders what Bruges ever did to Georges Rodenbach. His 1892 novella “Bruges-la-Morte” pumps the city full of a repressive religious and psychosexual fog. Its gloomy streets represent a labyrinth of grief, recrimination, and sexual guilt trodden by Paul, the protagonist of Erich Korngold’s 1920 opera “Die tote Stadt,” here billed and sung in English at the London Coliseum as “The Dead City,” in ENO artistic director Annilese Miskimmon’s new staging (Korngold authored the text with his father under the pseudonym Paul Schott). 

It is a work with a titanic central tenor role that is regularly staged on mainland Europe, but only heard infrequently in the UK, and is a bold choice for a company who are under pressure to make sure everything is a hit. A rare opportunity for London audiences then, to hear Korngold’s gleaming, luxurious score, studded with spectacular and disconcerting orchestral effect, conducted by Kirill Karabits. 

Miskimmon sets the piece in the late 50s, locking into the influence of Rodenbach on Hitchcock in “Vertigo” – and the associated psychic claustrophobia – as well as the Korngold’s own exilic career in the US as composer resplendent Hollywood soundtracks (When Marietta sings her sad songs she spins up a record, in a suggestive image of sterility, remembrance, and repetition). 


The hallucinatory quality of Miskimmon’s production – designs by Miriam Buether, and costumes by Nicky Gillibrand – eschews the haze of ambiguity that hovers over what is real and imagined. The action takes place in one room, which surreally comes to life in response to Paul’s anguish and lust. Marie is visualized in the non-singing wraith-like Lauren Bridle, who haunts the action, and gazes balefully on Paul as he gets together with her doppelganger Marietta. The light fixtures drop from the ceiling to let in the snow and fog, or a pole-dancing Marietta, or Marie on her own coffin; children come streaming out of the fireplace, as if in some kitsch Hollywood festive movie; the rear wall rises to reveal a gloomy, purgatorial procession of mourners and nuns, behind a scrim (think Magritte). 

Paul relives Marie’s illness, and death, and funeral, but as someone whose mourning is incomplete, perhaps because of his own tortured sexual attitudes to women, which fixates on idealization and degradation. Miskimmon’s stage picture has all the cruelty and excess of a dream – which, it is revealed, is what all this is in the end, albeit one that has the effect of a psychoanalytic catharsis. Paul is someone, we learn, who had the experience but missed the meaning, as Korngold’s contemporary T.S. Eliot put it.

This vision is often garish – Marietta and Paul have sex on Marie’s former hospital bed; she grotesquely toys with the lock of hair Paul has saved from his late wife; her pink umbrella implies a priapic potency that disgusts and attracts Paul, and which he only ultimately articulates through a terrible act of violence. The doctors who tended the dying Marie become the drunken troupe of performers in Act two who taunt Paul, in a nightmarish version of “Ariadne auf Naxos.” This would be too much if it weren’t for an understated ending that keys into the score’s lyrical tenderness and wistful sense of farewell, redolent of the finale of “Der Rosenkavalier,” as Paul learns to feel his loss and part from it thereby. As a portrait of the vicissitudes of grieving it is keenly felt, though a few moments threaten to spill over into silliness – and the explicitly hallucinatory quality of the action means that Paul strangling Marietta doesn’t have the same stakes when we know she’s simply an extension of his psyche. That being said, the relative flatness of Korngold’s supporting cast – including even the substantive role of Marietta – make the case this archetypical treatment, and the production’s blend of realism with surreal daydream. 

Mixed Picture

Vocally the picture is more mixed. Rolf Romei is an experienced Paul and well aware, one imagines, of the Everest-like challenges of the role. In Miskimmon’s production he is onstage almost throughout the two-and-half hour runtime, even when not singing. He was unwell on the opening night but pressed on regardless, with decidedly uneven results – notwithstanding a superbly sympathetic physical and dramatic portrayal of the character, which had plenty of impact in and of itself. 

Otherwise he faced considerable challenges navigating the murderous tessitura, with strained and uneven top notes above the stave and a noticeable loss of color lower down too; by the end of a first half that lasted nearly one-and-three-quarter hours he was frequently off the voice and hoarse; his professionalism allowed this to be (mostly) folded into the character. Korngold’s unforgiving orchestration didn’t help. But the final sequence of the piece, which called for limpid, otherworldly singing, was beautifully careworn and had an exquisite sense of line. Romei is clearly a fine artist, but on that night sailed dangerously close to the wind. 

Allison Oakes was his counterpart as Marietta, as well as the offstage voice of Marie. She makes her house debut at the Coliseum, and has previously sung the role in Hamburg. As with Strauss the music calls for a complex calibration of power and control, with the ability to change color on the head of a pin. She did not want for power – save a little lower down – and the voice was all burnished bronze, with a terrific luster and sheen, which gave her more tender, loving exchanges with Paul a backlit quality.  

Elsewhere this brightness was turned to more capricious and then malevolent purposes, especially in her climactic scene, where a cruel vibrancy came to the fore. Diction, perhaps understandably, got cloudier above the stave, with some vowels sacrificed on the altar of musical line. But the lute song duet with Paul was an especially fine sequence, her warm tone melding well with Romei’s lighter sound that evening, and her etiolated, reedier timbre when singing the dead Marie was testament to her vocal flexibility. 

Sarah Connolly gave a rounded if sometimes hard-toned portrayal as maid Brigitta, though her businesslike demeanor was dramatically well-judged indeed.

Baritone Audun Iversen sang Frank with classy restraint, a more brusque foil to Paul’s feverish yearning in the Act one and then a more sleazy, ardent one in Act two, as he admits his love affair – real or imagined – with Marietta. His Pierrot’s Tanzlied was honeyed, though a slightly bungled phrasing decision linking the final line of the refrain with its preceding one unbalanced the text, even if the breath control was impressive.

Innocent Masuku, William Morgan, Hubert Francis, Clare Presland, and Rhian Lois all made a crisp and zesty impact in the garish Act two party. 

Kirill Karabits draws out the many fine details of Korngold’s score. Strings had Hollywood polish, tempered by flecks of Straussian bitonality – whispers of “Salome” and its own psychosexual mess of obsession and guilt – and Karabits shone the spotlight on as Korngold’s carefully-crafted textures: a coiling combination of contrabassoon and lower strings, or rasping flutter-tonguing from woodwinds. The piece overall may not be quite as good as its influences, but one could not have asked for a more engaged account of it from the pit. 

Korngold’s extravagant orchestration – extra brass packed the boxes at the side of the stage – doesn’t always help his singers, and Karabits could’ve done more to let Romei and Oakes through at times, with the heavy string scoring sometimes making its presence too felt.

The ENO chorus sang with gusto as assorted nuns, mourners, priests, and the other gloomy denizens of Bruges, in an acute production that offers a strong account of the size of ENO’s artistic imagination and ambition. 


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