Die tote Stadt
"(The Dead City)"
The opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) happened to be playing on a very grey, rainy and unseasonably cold weekend in May in the dead-looking city of Hagen, at the edge of Germany's Ruhr District.
Hagen has over two hundred thousand inhabitants, but hardly any of them were out walking around in this kind of weather. (Actually it's a nice enough town when the sun comes out. I was here once before, forty-five years ago on a bicycle trip, and it was fine that time.)
Korngold's opera takes place not in Hagen but in the Belgian city of Brugge, which is known as Brügge in German and Bruges in French. The opera is based on the novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898).
Korngold was only twenty-three when he completed this opera in 1920. It had two simultaneous world-premieres in Hamburg and Cologne, and went on to be one of the most successful and often-performed operas in Germany and Austria in the 1920s.
In later years, especially after he was forced to emigrate to escape from the Nazis, Korngold became one of Hollywood's first elite composers of film music. He was awarded two Oscars for his film scores in 1936 and 1938.
In the Hagen production, Korngold's opera was staged in the style of Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo from the year 1957 (which happens to be the year of Korngold's death), with soprano Dagmar Hesse made up to look very much like the actress Kim Novak from the film.
This has been done before, I'm told, but it was new to me, and I thought it worked remarkably well. Both the film and the opera have to do with a man obsessed with the memory of a long-dead woman, and in both he finds another woman who looks exactly the same...