An exquisite Die Tote Stadt, Longborough Festival Opera

Loughborough Festival has scored a glorious success with this exquisite and moving production from Carmen Jakobi of the until recently long-neglected Die Tote Stadt.

With central performances of extraordinary power and beauty, this telling of Korngold’s 1920 opera relies on compelling acting and singing from Peter Auty as Paul, who is locked in a world of mourning for his dead wife, and Rachel Nicholls as the dead wife Marie and also Marietta, the actress who strikingly resembles her. The roles are massively demanding and emotionally and physically taxing.

Peter Auty and Rachel Nicholls

Rachel Nicholls

Stephane Windsor-Lewis and Benson Wilson

The opera is based on the Georges Rodenbach novella Bruges-La Morte. Locked in despair at the death of his wife, a man becomes obsessed with a living woman who is her doppelgänger and believes he can recapture the past. They may look alike but this is where the resemblance ends.

Auty was just magnificent as the unhinged, to use a modern term in this psychological thriller, husband who loses himself into the darkness of loss, grief, and desperation. From the richness of the lower register to some heart-ripping anguish in impossible soaring passages the singer conveys both pain and ecstasy. The inner torment, the melancholy, the near psychotic outbursts, were captured in a fearless performance.

Just as compelling was Rachel Nicholls. This so exciting performer excelled in the dramatic demands as well as giving a vocal performance that is ravishingly gorgeous as well as a powerhouse of intense singing. She too ran a gamut of emotional extremes and displayed a character multi-layered, gentle, and sympathetic but also basic and worldly. Just as Frank has an alter ego in the form of Fritz, the Pierrot in the theatrical troupe, Marietta is the worldly antithesis to the pure Marie. Vocally and dramatically, this required both the most gentle, delicate signing to near animal intensity.

There were no weak links in this cast with Stephane Windsor-Lewis’ Brigitta, understanding and compassionate of Paul’s mental meltdowns and Benson Wilson the mental and emotional mirror roles of Frank and Fritz.

Nate Gibson’s staging melds the worlds of reality and dream, alive and dead, using empty picture frames to create a two-level set and also a bridge from Paul’s chaise, crossing a Bruges canal, to a shrine to his dead wife, filled with candles, framed photographs of her and a morbid glass reliquary containing a large plait of her hair. There is also a life-size portrait of Marie which also acts as a portal between worlds, living and dead, real and psychological.

Conductor Justin Brown gave us a reading of the daunting score that still makes us marvel that this complex and compelling work was written by a 23-year-old.  It is a marvellous achievement by Longborough, delighting us with this score that is blessed with the richness and lushness of Strauss, oozing evocative melodies and haunting emotion.

Main image: Rachel Nicholls and Peter Auty

Images: Matthew Williams-Ellis

Longborough 2022 reviews:

Siegfried, Longborough Festival Opera

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