The virtues are clear – this is delightful music full of action and romance. Korngold weaves genres together with ease and freedom. The Meyerbeer segment is a joy. He connects a tradition of popular opera while alluding to the most recent incarnation of the Pierrot story – Pierrot Lunaire, Schoenberg’s greatest hit, a sensation before the First World War. He references Wagner, the Strausses (Richard and both Johanns) and plenty of Puccini, particularly Madama Butterfly, another tale of obsessive love and death. Korngold is no ignoramus. He knows his music history and knows his audiences will relish the allusions. The good moments in this opera are superb, torrents of chromatic colour, sonorities so luscious one could almost drown in their gorgeousness.
Korngold, like Richard Strauss in Elektra, seems to pull back from the edge. However much his admirers may champion his later work, it is Die tote Stadt that is his masterpiece. There isn’t place in this review for an assessment of Korngold’s career as a whole, but the very fact that he chose this ambivalent narrative is revealing. The libretto was written jointly by Korngold and his father, the domineering Julius Korngold, but this was concealed until 1975. How far did Julius’ arch-conservative hand hold sway over what the son did, consciously or otherwise ? Since the hero’s dead wife holds vampire-like control of his life, the relevance may not be purely accidental.
This Die tote Stadt made a convincing case for Korngold’s reputation. Glorious as it is, though, there are elements in it which make us realize in retrospect why the composer would later excel in music for film. Early movies were a kind of “extreme opera”, where music intensified dramatic action, where emotions were whipped up even if the plots were thin.
Korngold was writing for film long before the Anschluss, which caught him already in