A Moving Production of Korngold’s ‘Dead City’ at ENO

The Dead City Music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold; Based on a translation by Kelley Rourke ; Production ; Director: Annilese Miskimmon ; Set Design Design by Miriam Buether ; Lighting Designer: James Farncombe ; Conductor: Kirill Karabits ; Movement Director and Intimacy Coordinator: Imogen Knight ; Costume Design: Nicky Gillibrand ; Translater: Kelley Rourke ; Cast: Rolf Romei as Paul ; Allison Oakes: Marietta and Voice of Marie ; Lauren Bridle as Marie ; Audun Iversen as Frank/Fritz ; Hubert Francis as Graf Albert ; Sarah Connolly as Brigitta ; Rhian Lois as Juliette ; Clare Presland as Lucienne ; William Morgan as Victorin ; Innocent Masuku as Gastone ; English National Opera; London, UK ; 22nd March 2023 ; Credit and copyright: Helen Murray http://www.helenmurrayphotos.com

The Dead City by Austrian composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold was an operatic hit in Europe in the 1920s. Korngold seemed destined for a brilliant operatic career. The opera however sunk into musical oblivion in the 1930s when Hitler’s censorship and the changing tastes of audiences sent Korngold to Hollywood. Invited by the great director and actor, Max Reinhardt, Korngold went on to have a successful career composing award-winning filmic scores.

Today, Korngold’s Dead City stands up as a robust work and English National Opera has done well to take up the challenge of staging it. At first glance, it doesn’t seem an easy opera to put on. For one, it is inward looking and most of the action takes place inside the main protagonist’s head.

Based on the novel Bruges-la-morte (1892) by the Belgian symbolist poet and novelist, Georges Rodenbach, it is the story of tormented widower, Paul, his dead spouse Marie, and her physical doppelgänger Marietta, a lively singer and dancer who Paul has just met.

In this new production, the set was simple and very effective. We saw Paul’s apartment, filled with roses, furniture, clothes in glass cabinets, all the things that Paul’s deceased wife held dear. Outside the room there lay Bruges, the city of canals and mists which Paul alluded to as the ‘dead city’. The city was revealed to us at key moments, when Paul’s guilt for conducting an affair with Marietta gets the better of him. The wall rose to reveal priests, choirs, a funeral procession before closing again, leaving the audience back in Paul’s apartment which has become a shrine to his wife.

For this psychological thriller to work, the relationship between Paul and Marietta needed to be convincing. And it was. Swiss singer, Rolf Romei, impressed with his highly affecting tenor. Paul’s is not an easy sing, and on opening night, we were told that Romei had recently risen from his sick bed. He wasn’t singing full throttle at first, but his voice loosened and his precious golden tenor came through. Alison Oakes, playing feisty Marietta, was magnificent in the role. With her Valkyrian soprano, she flirted, annoyed and hounded Paul. She also knew how to soften her tone in the exquisite Glück, das mir verblieb duet with Paul, Act 1. Meanwhile, Dame Sarah Connolly as Brigitta, Paul’s loyal housekeeper, was beautifully reassuring in her warm mezzo, and Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen gave a spellbinding performance in the role of Fritz, singing ‘My loving, my yearning in the Pierrot dance song.

The success of the evening was also down to the orchestra and Korngold’s extraordinary score, finely handled by Ukrainian conductor, Kirill Karabits. The tone turned increasingly aggressive as the opera progressed, as Paul’s and Marietta’s arguments became more protracted. There were moments when I felt the audience were pushed to the limit with the harshness of the vocals and score; and then a beautiful aria, an exquisite lyrical passage of grief and pathos would break through. There was a memorable orchestral interlude when vocals ceased, the wall came up of the apartment to reveal a never-ending funeral cortege of Bruges citizens filing past in the mist.

The finale was intensely moving. When Paul sings “The dead deliver us these dreams” and there was reprise of the music from the love duet Act 1, we had come full circle in Paul’s grief.

The Dead City is a remarkable psychological opera with stirring music, intelligently staged by ENO.


Five performances left of The Dead City at English National Opera: March 28, 31 and April 3,6 at 19.30. April 8 at 15.00. Sign Language performance: Monday 3 April.

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