Christopher Walker reviews The Dead City by Eric Korngold

It’s always exciting when a major opera company digs out the work of a rarely performed composer.

But sometimes it can confirm why their work is buried.

Eric Korngold enjoyed huge success in his own lifetime.

A child genius, his first composition was performed at the Vienna court opera when he was just eleven.

He was very Austrian, and his music is rooted in that country’s traditions – the sweeping strings of Strauss and the complex lieder of Schubert.

But being Jewish he was forced to flee, quipping “we thought of ourselves as Viennese; Hitler made us Jewish.”

Korngold reinvented himself as a popular composer of Hollywood film music.

The Dead City Music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold; Credit and copyright: Helen Murray

A relatively early death cut short this career and he remained largely undiscovered until RCA released an album in the 1970s The Sea Hawk: the Classic Film Scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

His work inspired Star Wars composer John Williams. The current ENO audience is of that era.

Korngold wrote The Dead City when he was only 23, though his more seasoned father collaborated on the libretto.

It was a huge hit in the 1920s, perhaps because its key theme of grief resonated with war torn populations in Europe.

The plot concerns Paul (a well-cast Rolf Romei) who lives in a creepy house in Bruges – a mausoleum to his late wife (well done set designer Miriam Buether).

When a girl resembling his wife appears, Paul is thrown into crisis.

Blousy Marietta (Alison Oakes in fine voice) challenges everything he holds dear.

In recent years it has rarely seen the light of day.

Perhaps because the music is quite difficult, perhaps because the central theme is so morbid.

Definitely because the vast majority of the opera is supposedly Paul daydreaming. Never a convincing plot device.

There are some truly sublime moments. Especially Marietta’s aria “Happiness that remained,” and much of the music sung by Paul and his friend Franz (Audun Iversen).

Kirill Karabits firm conducting is excellent.

But one can’t help thinking of a past critic’s description of Wagner – “some beautiful moments but terrible quarter-hours.”


Image credits Helen Murray.

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