Byrne and Workman soar with intensity in Korngold’s masterpiece
The huge orchestra required for Die tote Stadt made the NCH right for the Irish premiere
Los Angeles composer Steven Takasugi: his Sideshow is, on reflection, theatrical as well as musical
Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s third opera, provides an almost textbook example of the vagaries of operatic fortune. In December 1920, the 23-year-old composer had the honour of simultaneous premieres in Hamburg and Cologne. Korngold attended the Hamburg premiere, and was also involved in another production 600 miles away, the Viennese premiere, which would take place in January 1921. The work made its way to New York later that year, and was in demand in Germany for more than a decade until it was suppressed by the Nazis. Its later revival began in earnest in the 1970s, sparked by the first commercial recording, made in Munich in 1975 under Erich Leinsdorf. Growth in interest since then has been steady and the opera is now generously represented on CD and DVD.
The story, set in late 19th-century Bruges, is based on George Rodenbach’s novel (and, later, play) Bruges-la-Morte. It tells of Paul, a man obsessed with the memories of his late wife, Marie. He has a shrine devoted to her in their home. When he sees her doppelgänger in the street, a dancer, Marietta, he can’t resist, and invites her to visit him. They make love, which leaves him hugely conflicted, and in an argument he strangles Marietta – with a braid of his wife’s hair. Then he wakes up and realises it was all a dream. But the dream serves to focus him on the future rather than the past, and he decides to leave the city of the dead. You might think Wexford Festival Opera would be the obvious place for an Irish premiere to take place. But the huge orchestra required is well beyond the capacity of any Irish theatre to accommodate, and lush orchestration is such a feature of the piece that any cut-down version would compromise one of the opera’s key features. The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra took on what is often described as Korngold’s masterpiece in a concert performance at the National Concert Hall on Friday. The undertaking was clearly intended as a vehicle for soprano Celine Byrne, whose name in the orchestra’s advertisements was printed at twice the size of the composer’s, and nearly six times the size of tenor Charles Workman’s, even though it is Workman who was taking on the opera’s central role.
Byrne did not disappoint, and neither did Workman. Simply put, both got to sing their hearts out, soaring with searing intensity over the elaborate colours and textures of the orchestra, Byrne ardent and engaged, Workman heroic and intense. The manner of the music is late romantic. Richard Strauss with a few layers of complexity shorn off and without the harmonic richness or, if you prefer, a kind of 1920s cutting-edge musical experience for people who never really liked cutting-edge music. That may sound disparaging, but as an extended display of orchestral and vocal sensuality Die tote Stadt is pretty effective. Conductor Patrik Ringborg was an unfailingly sure-footed guide, the NSO was on fine form, the smaller roles were well taken, and the choral contributions – from a specially assembled chorus and the choristers of the Choir of St Patrick’s Cathedral – all contributed strongly.
– sopranos Genia Kühmeier and Anna Devin, and tenor Colin Balzer – projected strongly and musically. What was not to like? Well, the composer used a motto theme, heard at the very start of the work, and did really work it far too hard for what it had to yield.
Music Current festival
Composers working ideas too hard and milking them for ideas they can’t really yield is a regular feature of the Music Current festival, which takes place every April at Smock Alley. The festival is in many ways the opposite of New Music Dublin. The venue is small, the focus is on works with amplification and electronics, and a community of composers is created anew for each year’s festival. This year’s high point was the performance of Los Angeles composer Steven Takasugi’s Sideshow, an hour-long work for amplified ensemble and electronic playback that occupied the composer from 2009 to 2015. As the name suggest, the work is theatrical as well as musical. Coney Island’s amusement parks are the reference point, and the composer describes the piece as “a meditation on virtuosity, freak shows, entertainment, spectacle, business and the sacrifices one makes to survive in the world”. The players of Ensemble Tzara, looking like hatless mimics of The Blues Brothers, and with faces functioning like masks, went through mesmerising changes of character, from puppets to shivering zombies to robots gone wrong. Takasugi intricate writing blurs the line between what you see and what you hear, between what the players are actually doing and what comes from the electronics. And he does all of this with a sense of connectness, of trajectory that made the hour simply fly by.