Korngold opera the “Hair” of its day

The obsession with it reached an early high point in Dante
Gabriel Rossetti’s painting of wife Elizabeth Siddal as Beata Beatrix
and came to a late conclusion in Erich Korngold’s 1920 opera Die
tote Stadt
, which opened a 6-performance run at the San Francisco Opera
on September 23. Paul, central figure of the story, is a man of only 30 who
has made of his home an altar of worship to his dead wife Marie, and his
continuing adoration of her focuses upon a heavy lock of her hair that he
keeps at his side.

In the current age of sanitized death many who attended the superb SFO
production first seen in Salzburg in 2004 found the story morbid and were
cheered that the opera ended with Paul’s realization that he must put
an end to this life-in-death and return to the real world. That ending,
however, is the work of Korngold and it prompts one to go back to the 19th
century — to the days of divine decadence and sultry symbolism —
and to retrace significant steps — that led to this sumptuous score.

For a look-alike of the deceased Marie, designer Wolfgang Gussmann turned
to John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Miss Elsie Palmer, an
1890 oil-on-canvas now in the Colorado Springs Art Center. A huge
reproduction of the painting was on the SFO stage and smaller versions of it
were projected on the walls of Paul’s salon from time to time. To be
sure, Palmer was a beautiful woman and since she was only 17 at the time of
the painting Gussmann’s choice of it suggests early and unjust death.
But would not Rossetti’s rendering of his wife as Dante’s guide
into ethereal realms have been even more fitting — or are we
embarrassed by the excesses of the decadent imagination of his age? For it
was Rossetti who entered fully into the esthetic of this age.

Siddal, although painted by many, is remembered almost solely through
Rossetti’s pre-Raphaelite masterpiece, and the role played by
Beatrix’ ample red hair points directly toward Die tote Stadt. When
Siddal died a mere two years after their marriage the distraught Rossetti
tucked into her hair a book of his unpublished verse and had it buried with
her. Alas, thereupon his creative well ran dry. What to do but have Siddal
exhumed to retrieve his poetry? Approval was given by the courts, and the
exhumation — Rossetti was not present — was carried out at night
to avoid attracting attention.

Korngold’s Paul would have understood — and have been far more
captivated by the muted pain of Beatrix than by the innocent plainness of
Elsie Palmer. The heavy, slightly stifling hothouse atmosphere aura of
Rossetti would also have appealed to that great father of decadence
Joris-Karl Huysmans, who wrote the basic guide to this life style in his 1884
¿ rebours (or Against the Grain).

This is the “poisonous” but unnamed book that so fascinated
Dorian Gray and that Oscar Wilde was later forced to name at his trial.
Huysmans knew the art of his day and paid incensed tribute — above all
— to the achievement of Gustave Moreau, whom he praised for his several
opulent paintings of Salome. “Des Esseintes saw at last the Salome,
weird and superhuman, he had dreamed of,” Huysman writes of his esthete
hero. “No longer was she merely the dancing girl who extorts a cry of
lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her
body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her
quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a
sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old ice, the goddess of immortal
Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the
cataleptic spasm that stirs the flesh and steels her muscles.” Here one
encounters full force the irresistible sensuous appeal of the femme
, of whom Korngold’s Marie is a late descendent.

Korngold found the story of Hugues Viane — the composer rechristened
him Paul — in George Rodenbach’s brief 1892 novel
Bruges-la-Morte, a near-forgotten work found worthy of a new
translation by Mike Mitchell, published with a perceptive introduction by
Alan Hollinghurst by Dedalus Press in 2004.

Bruges in its moribund medieval majesty served Rodenbach not only as
background, but as a character in the novel as well, for in the stasis of its
beauty it reflected the continuing presence of Marie — dead five years
at the time — in Paul’s life. Indeed, Hollinghurst describes the
book as a study of passion whose other principal aim is the evocation of a
town, not merely as a backdrop, but as an essential character, associated
with states of mind, counseling, dissuading, inducing the hero to act.

In its proximity to the worlds of Wagner, Baudelaire and Freud,
Bruges-la-Morte is a significant work and it seems a shame that
Korngold felt called upon to return Paul to an active life. Why deny him the
Liebestod that was so rightfully his? And is he really going to be
happy back in the 9-to-5 world?

Was Korngold, who later found greater fame in swashbuckling scores for
films starring Errol Flynn, pre-programmed to favor the happy end then
traditional in Hollywood? Be that as it may, the composer’s
“mÈlange of Straussian modernism and Viennese schmaltz,” as one
critic has called it, stands as a major achievement of David Gockley’s
beginnings as the new general director of the San Francisco Opera.

Die tote Stadt is a good — not a great opera — and
fully deserving of the affection lavished on it in this staging.

Wes Blomster

Click here for a review of San Francisco Opera’s production of Die tote Stadt.

image_description=Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1864)
product_title=Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Die tote Stadt
product_by=Above: Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1864)