ENO The Dead City review – Korngold’s study of grief, guilt and obsession is full of queasy beauty

Coliseum, London
Annilese Miskimmon’s new production of Korngold’s hallucinatory 1920 work sacrifices some of its disturbing power but musically it is magnificently alert to the mood-shifts and beauty of its sound-world

ENO’s artistic director Annilese Miskimmon’s new production of The Dead City (Die Tote Stadt), conducted by Kirill Karabits, marks the first time Korngold’s opera has entered the company’s repertory. A study of loss, grief and renewal, the work struck deep chords in post-war Europe and the US after its simultaneous world premieres in Hamburg and Cologne in 1920, when its lionised wunderkind composer was only 23. Hearing it post-pandemic inevitably heightens our awareness of its beauty, trauma and sadness.

ENO has by and large done it proud, though Miskimmon doesn’t always ideally capture its twists and ambivalences. Based on Georges Rodenbach’s 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte, which also preempts Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the opera depicts the widower Paul’s attempts to make over the sexually assertive Marietta in the image of his saintly wife Marie, to whose memory he has turned his house into a shrine. The narrative of murderous passion that follows is revealed to be an almost therapeutic figment of Paul’s imagination that enables him to move on from his grief. Miskimmon, however, makes us aware from the outset that what he is experiencing is a hallucination, and some of the tensions and ambiguities slip in the process.

The Dead City by Korngold
Murderous passions? The Dead City by Korngold at English National Opera. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Rather than having Rolf Romei’s Paul stalk Allison Oakes’s Marietta though the streets of Bruges, Miskimmon allows Marietta, together with her libidinous companions, to invade his home and shrine in an increasingly surreal phantasmagoria. Unseen in some productions, Marie (actor Lauren Bridle) is a ghostly, at times accusing presence, and her deathbed, hospital drip stand and coffin are wheeled on to be defiled. Paul’s friend Frank (Audun Iversen) has become a sleazy priest hankering after Marietta himself, while the loyal maid Brigitta (Sarah Connolly) leaves Paul’s service for a convent, eventually joining the guilt-inducing religious processions that file monotonously through the fog outside. The problem is that the escalation of Paul’s and Marietta’s relationship into violence loses some of its horrific force, if we’re overly aware from the outset that its context is illusory.

Musically, much is superb, though Romei was singing with an apology on opening night: his tone was occasionally gritty and a couple of high notes came adrift, but he’s such a remarkable actor that Paul’s torment really hit home. Oakes sounds suitably sensual, her voice soaring comfortably in its upper registers: she and Romei were notably beautiful together in the famous Lute Song. Connolly, luxury casting in a role that is sometimes underplayed, is deeply touching throughout, and Iversen does fine things with his Act II serenade. Karabits, meanwhile, conducts it magnificently, wonderfully alert to the score’s shifts in mood and accumulating tensions, as well as the almost queasy beauty of Korngold’s sound-world. The playing and choral singing are first rate.

• At the Coliseum, London, until 8 April


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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