Marietta (Rachel Nicholls) seeks to soothe Paul (Peter Auty) with her lute Picture: Matthew Williams-Ellis

Die tote Stadt

Longborough Festival Opera


Visiting Longborough Festival Opera is – has always been – one of the delights of the Midlands, and for those (including London) further afield.

 It’s not just a pleasure to sit, stand or picnic with its gorgeous hillside view across the Vale of Evesham (only Nevill Holt, looking out over the River Welland Valley, offers something comparable). But its achievements are not just highly diverting, but serious too.

It was Wagner that induced Martin Graham, its founder, to turn a chicken barn into an opera house. Martin is dotty about Wagner, perhaps of all relishing his four-part Ring Cycle (Munich 1869-70, and the last two at Bayreuth, both 1876, the year Bayreuth opened, as part of the first complete Ring cycle).

Not surprisingly, Wagner has featured in sixteen of Longborough’s annual programmes. Next year (2023) has been announced. It includes Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, a bold, large-scale choice (Eugene Onegin featured in 2007). And Gluck. Inevitably some regular repertoire has also to be accommodated: Mozart, Verdi, Bizet (this year), Britten.

But Erich Korngold’s Die tote Stadt played to full houses: surely a message there about Longborough’s regular audiences having faith in the Grahams (their elder daughter, at a young age experienced in Opera production, is now Artistic Director). She has directed not least in London, and it’s worth mentioning (I have elsewhere) that one of her acclaimed productions was Simplicius Simplicissimus, by Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963), a truly great indictment of war. Longborough’s audience would love it – and be enchanted by it.

Frank and Paul

Paul's friend Frank (Benson Wilson) attempts to calm the frantic Paul (Peter Auty). The hoard of photos and tresses of dead Marie's hair are on the right.

Die tote Stadt (‘The dead city’) is set in Belgian Bruges, a location distinguished by its canals, cobbled streets, and surviving medieval buildings. A place, however, which the central character, one might almost say hero - the superlative, galvanising (here Helden-) tenor Peter Auty - finds as depressing as he himself is - immersed and absorbed by its purported gloom.

The character is called just plain Paul, much as the hero of Franz Schreker’s Der Ferne Klang, from a similar period (the Great War) as the writing of Die tote Stadt, is called Fritz. Does it make him, and his melancholia, somehow universal? Perhaps, though that is not suggested in the libretto (partly Korngold’s own, partly his highly cultured father’s).

Despite two characters, both creditably performed, the first moved and sung by Benson Wilson (baritone Frank, Paul’s supportive companion, who strives to haul his friend out of his appalling obsession – and finally, it seems, succeeds); plus Brigitta, a gloriously sung, trusty housekeeper (Stephanie Windsor-Lewis, a ravishing mezzo), plus a harlequinade of strolling players, with Paul reappearing as Pierrot, the action focuses almost entirely on two (or three) personalities – one, bizarrely, dead.

The figure who becomes Paul’s idol, then temptress, is Marietta, a dancer with the local opera house. Rachel Nicholls, Longborough’s Isolde (2015 and 2017), bravely took on the role as a replacement. It’s a big voice – a match for Paul. You might almost call her a Heldensopran.


Rachel Nicolls (Marietta) takes wing

Usually chirpy, she like Frank is critical of Paul’s obsession. To instance this, she spots Marie’s velvet dress and shimmering braid of hair in a glass cabinet. Paul has clung on to everything he associates with her - and that includes, naturally, black and white photographs (which show the action to be later 19th century).

Part of Paul’s dream – for that is what it is – brings Marietta, who has just left, back as, supposedly, his lost Marie. He has also pleaded, ‘I want the glow of roses in this room Marie, Marie, I see you, I feel you’. Marietta, doubling disturbingly as Marie, steps out of a huge image – one of many powerful moments of the opera’s script. He thinks she’s really Marie,

Frank, as it happens, also has a yen for the immensely desirable, initially optimistic but then disappointed Marietta, but here addresses Paul’s self-imposed, desolate state: ‘Du bist ein Träumer, ein Geisterseher’: You’re dreaming, you’re spellbound by a phantom (ghost), your deep obsession has distorted your mind (…’hat dich verwirrt.’)

But Paul will not be consoled. Surrounded by countless candles, this devises his ‘temple of memories’ (‘Kirche des Gewesenen’). He dwells endlessly on the memory of Marie; surrounds himself with mementos, and focuses entirely on his grief. We don’t know how old Paul is, and more important still, how young Marie was when she died (and what she died of). His life is given over to solitariness, weeping, grieving, sobbing; and anger that she has been taken from him. He is frustrated, anguished, despairing, all of which lead to his illogical urge to bring her back.

Auty is absolutely superb from beginning to end. He is on stage almost the whole opera. His massive Act I aria, ‘Nein, nein, sie lebt’ –‘she is not dead, but alive!’ and start of Act 2, ‘Was ward aus mir?’ ‘What has happened to me?’ were stupendous – two mighty endeavours, a masterpiece of remembering, matched not quite by Marietta’s ‘You were beautiful like me; say, are you still like me?’ and ‘Those who love you have to share you with Saints and the dead’; and her final reprimand, ’She is dead and gone, she has no feelings. But I am living, I have feelings.’

The production, so horrendously gloomy yet so alive with Paul’s misery, was by Carmen Jacobi, and caught the feel of Korngold’s opera – I would say – to perfection. The Longborough orchestra, for some years enlarged to house a complete Wagner retinue, and capable of producing the most sturdy, resounding, robust and substantial sounds, relished under conductor Justin Brown the fact that individual solo instruments (or pairs, eg of flutes) equally came across so vividly and intensely.

A mighty undertaking, then, and an unadulterated coup for Longborough. In its time it has staged many, and its Wagner in particular has drawn huge accolades from critics and audiences. And this? Yet another masterstroke.

Roderic Dunnett


Longborough Festival Opera 

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