Die tote Stadt
Heinrich Hollreiser, cond; James King (
); Karan Armstrong (
); William Murray (
); Margit Neubauer (
); Sylvia Greenberg (
); Donald Grobe (
); David Knutson (
); Berlin Deutsche Oper Ch & O
ARTHAUS 101656 (DVD: 122:00) Live: Berlin 1983
It’s sometimes hard to put yourself “in the audience” when watching a video of a past performance that once received rave reviews, and this was the case for me with this production of
Die tote Stadt.
It wasn’t that Götz Friedrich’s direction was bad—far from it, it was very good. It wasn’t that the singing was uniformly bad, although Karan Armstrong, then only 42, had such a terrible wobble and strained high notes that she sounded like a singer in her late-50s. No, the problem with
Die tote Stadt
is that the interesting and dreamlike libretto, written by the composer’s father under a pseudonym, is set to some of the trashiest music I’ve ever heard. This was my impression when I first heard it, in an RCA recording with soprano Carol Neblett back in the 1970s, and neither time nor Friedrich’s well-conceived direction has improved it any.
One may forgive or look askance at certain aspects of an opera score that is otherwise a fine dramatic piece of work. Thus I overlook some of the out-of-character tunes in certain moments of
for those scenes that are cogently dramatic and work extremely well. I was also able to overlook the three scenes set to really treacly music in Menotti’s
when reviewing the riveting production given on German television in the early ’60s because the acting, as well as the direction, circumvented those scenes and the rest of the score was really Menotti’s finest. But here, there is nothing but bouncy tunes from start to finish, and in an opera where the principal character (Paul) becomes fixated with a street singer (Marietta) who he believes to be his dead wife, and strangles his best friend because he is a rival for her affections, it really goes beyond the pale to hear music that sounds like it was cut from the opening scene of
Aside from Friedrich’s direction, what impressed me the most in this performance were the conducting of Heinrich Hollreiser, the superbly sung and acted performance of James King (then 58 years old) as Paul, and the equally well-acted and well-sung performance of the maid, Brigitta, by mezzo-soprano Margit Neubauer, whose career was generally in performing cantatas and oratorios. In fact, it was an embarrassment to Armstrong to hear Neubauer (before Marietta’s entrance) sing a phrase from the latter’s famous “lute song” with a more ravishing tone and greater vocal control than the principal star. I heard Armstrong in person five years before this
and although she had unsteadiness in her voice, her high notes were secure. In this performance, everything above the staff is strained, whether sung soft or loud, and by the end of act I she begins wavering from pitch in an alarming fashion.
Sets and costumes are both excellent, and very much in the period of the early 1920s. An
article from 2004, briefly quoted on the DVD box, claims that “If Berlin’s opera devotees were asked to name the most thrilling, most memorable productions in any of the city’s three houses during the last 25 years, hardly anyone would hesitate to include Götz Friedrich’s 1983 Deutsche Oper staging of…
Die tote Stadt.
” Either this article is exaggerating, or there haven’t been many memorable productions in Berlin during the previous quarter-century. If, however, you like this music, and if you can tolerate Armstrong’s tremulous, strained and occasionally off-key singing, go for it.
Lynn René Bayley