Image by B Cooper, borrowed from http://www.musicomh.com

Many stage works contain dream sequences, but perhaps not many have dreams that last for more than half the performance? Also, I don’t think that any I have seen evoke quite so well the surreal and disjointed imagery of dreaming (or some of my dreams, at least!) For me, the stars of this performance of Die Tote Stadt were Willy Decker’s beautifully-judged visual production, and the ROH orchestra.

Paul (Stephen Gould) lives mostly in one room, paralysed by grief over his wife Marie’s death, and watched over with concern by his housekeeper Brigitta (Kathleen Wilkinson) and friend Frank (Gerald Finley). He is temporarily roused from his stasis by encountering young dancer Marietta (Nadja Michael), who looks uncannily like Marie (although does not act like her; the two women are cast in the traditional female stereotypes of “saint” versus harlot). The story, such as it is, concerns Paul’s struggle to separate illusion from reality and retain (or regain) his sanity.

Hearing Korngold’s score for the first time, I cannot make any comparisons regarding musical decisions such as tempi and balance. At the start of each act, and particularly the 3rd, the music sounded very cinematic – although it’s possible I was biased by knowing that film music would in later years become the main part of Korngold’s career! At these points the music bordered on schmalzy, but for most of the time this was not the case. Orchestral timbres and textures were varied and interesting, and although strongly melodic and tonal, the ‘big chords’ were often subverted by quiet dissonance. I wonder if it would be going too far to suggest that the use of bitonality could represent the duality of the conscious/unconscious mind? Anyway, the orchestra were on top form and played beautifully under Ingo Metzmacher. Special props, as usual, to the woodwind section.

The staging was of a style I particularly like; a fairly minimalist and uncluttered main stage are (in this case a wooden floored room, door, 2 chairs and a large portrait of Marie) with side walls, but no back wall, and an infinite-looking empty space behind. This missing-wall-space also contained a thin screen for projections, which was very effective, particularly when more and more identical images of Marie appear before the tormented Paul.

In Act 2, when Paul begins to dream, a duplicate of the stage area appears behind the first, and a duplicate Paul gets up and acts out his dream (involving Marie returning from the dead to talk to him, his best friend’s betrayal, and the irritating antics of a bunch of white-clad hyped-up drama school types), while the real Paul lies asleep in his chair. After Marie/Marietta’s appearance, the two separate arenas of action slowly begin to merge, until finally actors step easily from one to the other. For anyone who tends to experience hypnagogic states, this was an unnervingly accurate portrayal of the way dream elements (f0r example, people we have been thinking about) can superimpose themselves on what had appeared to be reality. It is unsurprising that Paul was confused, upon waking, thinking that he had just strangled Marietta with Marie’s hair (echoes of Porphyria’s Lover).

Talking of which, considering the number of lines in the libretto about Marie/Marietta’s hair, it was an interesting decision to make dream-Marietta bald. It was very visually striking, and with her slim dancer’s frame made her look quite alien, or perhaps like a mannequin come to life. However, when she repeatedly invited Paul to touch and admire her hair, it did make one think ‘What are you talking about? You haven’t got any hair, you daft woman.’ Nadja Michael threw her all into acting the role physically, and was very impressive. Vocally, she had some great moments, but could be uncontrolled at times in volume and pitch. Power was not lacking, but greater subtlety and variation would have improved things. Still, it did seem an awfully demanding role.

Even more demanding (as far as I can tell) was Gould’s role. Again, he sounded really very good at times, particularly in the middle register, but he sounded like he was straining to deliver volume at the top. However, although forced-sounding from the start, his voice did not deteriorate at all throughout around 2 hours of singing, so full marks for stamina. His acting was rather wooden, but it didn’t matter too much in this role, as he was in a trance-like state or actually asleep for a lot of the time.

The supporting roles were all competently-sung, but the most enjoyable voice on stage by a long way was Gerald Finley, and although the Pierrot-lied was lovely, it was a shame he didn’t have more to do. Looking forward to hearing him in Dr Atomic next month…