“The Dead City”
Dramatic opera in three acts
Libretto “Paul Schott” (E.W. Korngold and his father, Julius Korngold)
World Premiere 4 Dec 1920, Hamburg Stadttheater
4 Dec 1920, Cologne Stadtteather
19 Nov 1921, New York, Metropolitan Opera
30 Jun 2012, Sydney, Australia
Instrumentation link to Schott Music
Source: Freeman, John W. The Metropolitan Opera Stories of the Great Operas. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 1984.
The action takes place in Bruges, Belgium, late in the nineteenth century. As the curtain rises, the housekeeper Brigitta is explaining to Paul’s friend Frank that her employer has created a shrine in his home to his wife, Marie, who died some years earlier. Paul has shut himself off from the world, but now he appears, excited at having met a woman who so closely resembles Marie that he feels she has been brought back to life (Nein, nein, sie lebt!). Though Frank warns of the danger of such fantasies, Paul, being an artist, insists on believing in his vision. He has invited the unknown woman to his house, and presently she arrives. She is Marietta—a dancer, cheerful and coquettish. When he puts Marie’s shawl around her and hands her Marie’s lute, which had been hanging on the wall, she obliges with a song about two lovers who will soon be parted by death (Glück, das mir verblieb). When the voices of some of her colleagues are heard in the street, Paul learns that Marietta is a dancer; she says dancing is her very life (O Tanz, o Rausch!). She is due at a rehearsal of Robert le Diable, in which she dances Hélène. Inadvertently, she uncovers the life-size portrait of Marie and is struck by its resemblance to her. After she has left, a vision of Marie steps out of the portrait to ask Paul whether he still loves her. She senses he is attracted by another woman—life beckons—and as she disappears, he imagines Marietta in her place, dancing seductively.
As at the close of preceding act, Marie’s voice is heard saying that life beckons to Paul. His vision continues, showing events that will happen in the future. On a canal in Bruges, a convent and Marietta’s house are visible. Walking in the autumn mist at evening, Paul meets his housekeeper, Brigitta, who has joined the convent because of loyalty to her former mistress, though Paul protests he never broke faith with his departed wife. Frank appears, warning Paul that his attraction to Marietta is unhealthy; when it becomes apparent that Frank himself is attracted to Marietta, Paul breaks with him, snatching away the key to Marietta’s house that Frank says she gave him. Paul steps into hiding as a boat approaches, carrying members of the theatrical troupe and Count Albert, another admirer of Marietta’s. Fritz, who plays Pierrot, serenades the moon, likening Marietta to a fickle Columbine (O Mond, vernimm die traurige Litanei), Marietta appears from her house, flirts with the count and proposes a toast condemning Bruges (Schach Brügge!). Fritz obliges Marietta’s request for a Rhenish serenade (Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen), After a while, tiring of the attentions of the men, Marietta decides—having missed today’s rehearsal—to dance her seduction scene from Robert le Diable. As she gets ready, nuns in the neighboring convent appear at their windows as spectators. Trying to stop her, Paul steps out of the shadows, but she begins her seductive dance; he seizes her and forces her to stop, whereupon the nuns disappear. Fritz and the count try to come to Marietta’s aid, but she sends them away, saying she will deal with Paul alone. He curses her promiscuity, but she denies any liaison with Frank. Though it becomes obvious that Paul has been her lover, he says he was really making love only to the dead Marie. Using her wiles on him (Paul, du leidest), Marietta coaxes him into admitting that he really loves her. To confirm her triumph, she wants to make love with him in his own house. They rush off.
In the cold morning light, Marietta confronts the portrait of Marie, asking it to allow the living to go on with their lives (Dich such ich, Bild!). Children’s voices outside sing a religious song, reaffirming the power of life. Paul appears, having wandered off to hear the prayers in the streets. He seems to reject Marietta, who sings to herself, recalling Pierrot’s serenade (Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen) while Paul places lighted candles in the window, a local custom. He is increasingly involved in the ongoing procession outside, while she sulks, then insists on embracing him—at the very moment when he imagines the procession entering the room. Exasperated by his fixation on death and the past, she cries out that she is alive here and now (Und wieder die Tote), daring Paul to deny his attraction to her; she stands before the portrait and defies it. Seeing a braid of Marie’s hair in a glass case, she holds it up, wraps it around her neck, and starts dancing (Ich tanz). Outraged by this sacrilege, Paul strangles her with the braid, gasping that now she—in death—is just like Marie.
The scene reverts to the end of Act I, just after Marietta’s departure from her first visit. Emerging from his reverie, Paul finds no body of Marietta, while the braid remains untouched in its reliquary. Brigitta comes to announce the lady’s return: Marietta, having forgotten her umbrella and the roses Paul gave her, comes back. Despite her hints that she might stay, Paul lets her go. On her way out, she greets Frank, who tells Paul that the “miracle” appears to be over. Paul replies that though he will not see Marietta again, the dream of reality that she represented has shattered the hold that Marie’s memory exerted over him (O Freund, ich werde sie nicht wiedersehn), Realizing he must go on with his life, he will leave Bruges with Frank. He covers the portrait of Marie and, locking the door to her room, looks back in farewell.
Page last updated July 2012