KORNGOLD: Die Tote Stadt 
Angela Denoke, soprano (Marietta); Torsten Kerl, tenor (Paul); Yuri Batukov, baritone (Frank); Birgitta Svenden, mezzo-soprano (Brigitta): Barbara Baier, soprano (Juliette); Julia Oesch, soprano (Lucienne); Christian Baumg”rtel, tenor (Victorin); Stephan Ganz, baritone (Fritz); Chorus of the National Opera of Rhin; Strasbourg Philharmonic Orch; Jan Latham-Koenig, cond. 
ARTHAUS DVD 100 343 TT:  145 min
ERICH WOLFGANG KORNGOLD  The Adventures of a Wunderkind
ARTHAUS 100 363 DVD TT: 144 min.

Here are two essential DVDs for devotees of music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957).  

Korngold's first operas, Violanta and Der Ring des Polykrates, both written in 1916, were highly successful,  admired by Gustav Mahler, Bruno Walter and Richard Strauss.  Opera houses vied for the premiere of his next opera - Die Tote Stadt - and there ended up being two simultaneously, one in Hamburg, the other in Cologne, December 4, 1920. The opera takes place in Bruges at the end of the 19th century.  Paul, obsessed with the memory of his beautiful deceased wife Marie, meets Marietta, a dancer in a traveling group from Lille, who resembles his late wife.  Marietta tries to make Paul forget Marie but his faith in love and loyalty are not swayed by her taunts and he kills her. Then the vision (it was all a dream) ends, Paul realizes his fantasy about Marie is a thing of the past and he leaves Bruges, the "city of the dead."  The music is Korngold at his finest containing one of his most beautiful arias, Marietta's Glück, das mir verblieb, which actually isn't an aria, it's a duet.  Usually when extracted for concerts, a soprano sings both partsThe two leading roles are taxing to the extreme; the composer had in mind Maria Jeritza and Richard Tauber. Marietta's aria has been recorded often, but it wasn't until 1975 that the first complete recording of the opera was made for RCA with Carol Neblett a fine Marietta, RenË Kollo a serviceable Paul, and Erich Leinsdorf conducting, a recording produced by Charles Gerhardt still available on CD (7767).

The Rhin National Opera production of Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City) is generally first-class. Of the singers, the star is tenor Torsten Kerl who is superb as Paul.  Soprano Angela Denoke, after a somewhat tentative start, is excellent vocally as Marietta/Maria.  However, it appears she is expecting a child, which is a bit off-setting when one thinks of the role she is portraying.  In spite of his youth, Stephan Genz is outstanding as Fritz - his exquisite Pierrot's Lied in Act II is glorious. Birgitta Svenden is fine as the housekeeper, Yuri Batukov somewhat stressed as Frank.  Conductor Jan Latham-Koenig obviously knows and loves this music, the orchestra and chorus are excellent, sets and costumes are imaginative.  Recorded sound is excellent, particularly in surround, the live performance camera work outstanding.  According to the score, Paul is supposed to strangle Marietta with Marie's hair; for some reason in this production he stabs her instead. Separate track information is given - except that some of the timings are wrong, particularly track 18, the conclusion of the opera, which is listed as 11:31 and instead is 36 minutes plus or minus. Although not identified in the tracks, we also have about 4 minutes of applause, curtain calls, and final credits.  The audience was more than enthusiastic in their ovation; rightfully so.  There is no libretto, but subtitles solve that problem.

This DVD devoted to composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold is called "A Portrait and Concert" and is a fitting, beautifully conceived and executed "documentary / concert."  There is much informative commentary from Brendan G. Carroll, author of the composer's definitive biography, and from Hugh Wolff who also conducts the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra.  Featured soloists are violinist Leonidas Kavakos, cellist Quirine Viersin and pianist Alexander Frey.  The program is logically presented.  After a brief introduction, cued segments are:  A "Wunderkind" in Vienna; First studies; Violanta/first world war/chamber music; "Die Tote Stadt;" Marriage to Luise von Sonnenthal/"Das Wunder der Heliane;" Operette; Emigration to Hollywood; Korngold's approach to scoring; "Deception"/Cello Concerto; Living in Hollywood; Violin Concerto; Return to Europe/failure of first symphony; and Second Symphony/posthumous comeback.  All entertaining, well and good - except that some vital information isn't provided either on screen or in the DVD booklet.  In an excerpt from Die Tote Stadt we are not informed that what we are hearing/seeing is Paul's monologue at the beginning of Act II, nor are we informed who is singing it - no tenor is listed anywhere in the credits.  The same applies to the aria from Das Wunder der Heliane - again no identification of the singer...and it is unfortunate producers elected to use the first part of the great aria "Ich ging zu him" when the second section is far more impressive. 

After the biographical presentation which includes many family scenes of great interest there is a concert of music by Korngold beginning with the Cello Concerto in C used in the film Deception passionately and athletically played here by Quirine Viersin, who almost seems to be attempting to outdo Yo-Yo Ma in body gyrations and facial grimacing.  Pianist Alexander Frey then plays three piano pieces:  Don Quixote and his longing for heroic deeds from Don Quixote - Six Character Pieces, and Gnomes and Epilogue from Fairytale Pictures, Op. 3.  The program ends with a magnificent performance of the Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35 written in 1945 and premiered two years later with Jascha Heifetz as soloist.  This includes themes Korngold used earlier in four of his movies:  Another Dawn, Juárez, Anthony Adverse and The Prince and the Pauper.  Leonidas Kavakos (who made an impressive BIS recording in 1991-1992 of both the original and standard versions of the Sibelius violin concerto) plays the incredibly difficult concerto magnificently, with exquisite sensitivity in the lovely second movement.  Hugh Wolff obviously knows and loves the composer's music.  Orchestral playing is superb, camera work among the best I've ever seen in this sort of program, and the sound is outstanding in every way. 

Both of these DVDs are highly recommended.

R.E.B. (April 2003)