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Best Recording of Die tote Stadt

There are certain operas that I adore that simply don’t have a common place in the repertory. Often times with these operas there is only one good recording of the opera (if there’s even one) that I can recommend as a means to try to make others appreciate it as I do. That’s why every so often I’d like to go off the beaten path of this series to offer you lesser performed operas that don’t have a long discography. Even with the scarcity of recordings for these operas I still feel enthused to share with you that one good recording. Today I’m sharing Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt.

Die tote Stadt is a musical and theatrical titan, the depth of which is all the more impressive when you consider that Korngold was 23 at the time he wrote the opera. The plot revolves around Paul, a widower unable to move on from the death of his wife. The pain of Paul, the exuberance of Marietta, Frank’s concern for his friend, it all feels so real, whilst having a remarkable absence of histrionics. All of this brings us a message that, to quote the libretto, “the dead send dreams like that to haunt us when we do not allow them to in slumber find peace”. We must grieve, but we must move on. Grief is such a universal emotion, we all feel it at some point, but Die tote Stadt might be the only opera to take on the subject honestly.

I’m constantly amazed by this opera any time I revisit it. Today I have selected one live recording of this opera. I hope you enjoy listening.



1983 Deutsche Oper Berlin: James King, Karan Armstrong, William Murray w/ Heinrich Hollreiser Conducting

In this live production everyone does their part. William Murray pulls double duty as Frank and Fritz(Pierrot). He finds a way to effectively convey the deep concern Frank has for his friend Paul. But, he also sings a tender, pathos driven Tanzlied des Pierrot. Karan Armstrong, more commonly associated with heavier German roles, sings Marietta with flexibility and a full throat. She also carries herself well as the exuberant, vivacious Marietta. She is a treat an auditory and visual treat in this production.

But, this performance is carried by the herculean effort of James King. The role of Paul is why there aren’t more good recordings available for this opera. I was once told by a teacher that James King had described this role as having a Puccini tessitura with a Wagnerian orchestra, and that this was the only role that ever truly scared him. When one listens to this performance they can’t hear that fear. James King handles the emotions and vocal demands of Paul with aplomb. There’s nothing in this performance that misses the mark. His high notes are stentorian, he spins out incredibly long phrases, and he does all of this whilst being so relatably vulnerable. King turns in one of my favorite performances in recorded history this production.

The true strength of Die tote Stadt can be found in the luscious score. Director Max Reinhardt asked Korngold to write the score for his 1935 film version of A Midsummer Nights Dream. Due to this request, and the rise of the Nazi regime, Korngold decided to move to America to become a film composer. He is considered by many to be the father of the symphonic style of film scores, and in the process won two Oscars for best score, Anthony Adverse in 1936 and The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938. In Die tote Stadt we can hear this larger than life score front and center at all times. Hollreiser understood the full demands of this score and brings it to life for this live television production. Without the expert conducting of Hollreiser this production could have very well fallen flat.

James King singing the Finale of Die tote Stadt


Final Thoughts

This score simply takes my breath away. Its absence from the repertory could simply come down to the difficulty of Paul, but it’s our loss. The scarcity of this opera is no clearer than in the fact that the Metropolitan Opera has only produced this opera once, in 1921. This opera does live on in young artists often singing arias from this score for auditions and competitions. Any time I’m at an audition and I hear the Tanzlied des Pierrot or Marietta’s Lied I grin, because I’m infatuated with this score. The recording I recommended today is available on DVD on Amazon, or to watch in its entirety on YouTube. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

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