Helsinki, Finnish National Opera
Die tote Stadt
The Finnish National Opera once again expanded its repertory in a welcome fashion with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s early masterpiece, Die tote Stadt. The artistic director Mikko Franck, who conducted the performances, even stated that this is his favourite opera—and, certainly, a lot had been invested in Kasper Holten’s splendid production.
I could not agree more with Holten that Paul, the protagonist of this drama of morbid all-encompassing longing, should not be treated as an agonized madman. That almost inevitably leads to clichés, and keeps the audience at a distance from the genuine human concerns that the work touches on, at times quite penetratingly. Erich and his father Julius, who wrote the libretto, made some fundamental changes to Georges Rodenbach’s story. In the novel the main character kills his mistress, who mocks his obsession with his dead wife. In the opera this takes place in what turns out to be a dream, after which Paul is cured from his neurotic attachment to his memories and is able to leave the melancholy city of Bruges, which he has come to associate with his departed wife—or rather, with her ‘departedness’. This twist of the plot does convey a healthy message, but it could easily be a bit of an anticlimax as the dramatic events you have just seen are suddenly washed away. The director and the singer playing Paul have to be really careful to maintain a sense of constant psychological development as the true focus of the story.
Holten was quite successful in creating an environment in which the distinction between dream and wakefulness was subtly blurred. Marietta is, in a sense, a victim of Paul’s pathetic inability to encounter her as a real person, an individual different from his dead wife, however much the two may look alike; this aspect came out quite well in Camilla Nylund’s performance. Above all, Klaus Florian Vogt acted excellently as Paul. Despite his morbid attachment and certain religious narrow-mindedness, Paul emerged as a charming young gentleman, with whom one could to a degree sympathize. The strong presence of his dead wife in his life was incarnated by Kirsti Valve in the silent role of Marie.
The set, designed by Es Devlin, was quite impressive, really just one big room lined with shelves of Marie memorabilia from top to bottom on the side walls, their perspective exaggerated. The floor was cluttered with many, many models of cathedrals, such as are supposed to be carried in front of a religious procession, like that in the third act, with some of the caskets containing even more relics of Marie. Through the back of the room one could see an aerial view of Bruges.
However much Franck may love this work, on December 16 I felt he didn’t quite succeed in bringing out its full lyricism. Even Marietta’s Lied could have sounded more tender, as could Pierrot’s Tanzlied. The latter was sung by Markus Eiche, who also played Paul’s friend Frank. For some reason he was portrayed as an army officer, which didn’t make his character any more plausible, interesting or sympathetic. Brigitta, Paul’s housekeeper, is a similarly functional character, and Sari Nordqvist did this role probably as well as it possibly could be done. Expectations were running high regarding Nylund’s first appearance at the FNO after some 15 years, and she was pretty well up to the task. For most of the evening Vogt’s rather tense voice lacked the kind of smooth ring the role calls for. But he was at his best at the very end, as if in a genuine state of relaxation. At this point the orchestra was again fully with him, bringing the evening to an