Online opera guide and synopsis to Korngold’s the dead city

This work belongs to the great operas of the 20th century. Korngold once again evokes the intoxication of late romantic music, narcotic in its opulence and melancholy.



Act I 

Act II





Behutsam! Hier ist alles alt und gespenstig

Glück, das mir verblieb Lute Song

Da bist du ja, Marie, ich wusste es

Prelude Act II

Was ward aus mir?

Bravo, guter Pierrot  – Halt ein! Du eine auferstandene Tote?

♪ Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen Pierrot’s song

Paul du leidest?

Sei klug, sei gut





Recording recommendation

♪ Recording recommendation



Hamburg und Cologne, 1920


Paul Schott alias Julius Korngold, based on Georges Rodenbach's 1892 novella Bruges-la-morte, and its theatrical version Le mirage (The Mirage).

The main roles

Paul, widower (tenor) - Marietta, dancer in transit (soprano) - Marie, apparition of Paul's deceased wife (soprano) - Frank, friend of Paul (baritone) - Fritz, the Pierrot of the theater (baritone).

Recording recommendation

ARTHAUS DVD, James King, Karan Armstrong, William Murray, Margit Neubauer, Donald Grobe conducted by Heinrich Hollreiser and the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin.








Korngold the wunderkind

Korngold, who was born in 1897 in Brno in the Austrian Empire, was often called the greatest musical prodigy of all time, even greater than Mozart. Even as a child, his compositions had the quality of a mature composer. He was supported but also protected by his father, the respected (and sharp-tongued) Viennese music critic Julius Korngold. Already at the age of 19, Erich wrote his first one-act opera, “The Ring of the Polycrat”, which thrilled the audience. He began composing “The Dead City” at the age of 19, but World War I thwarted his plans. He was drafted as a musician and resumed work on the opera in 1919.
During these years he met Luise von Sonnenthal (his later wife Luzi), who inspired him for the role of Marietta. Irony of history: just as the dancer Marietta was considered socially inferior by Paul (and the bourgeois society) , Luzi (an actress and singer) met with resistance from Erich’s father for the same reason.



The Libretto

The model for the work wass Rodenbach’s “Bruges-la-morte” from 1892, and its theater version “Le mirage”, which Rodenbach wrote eight years later.
An acquaintance of the family drew Erich’s attention to Rodenbach’s work and Erich was immediately enthusiastic about the subject. He wrote in a letter
“The peculiar Bruges atmosphere, the melancholy tone, the two main characters with their captivating mental conflicts: the struggle of the erotic power of the living woman against the after-effect of the mental power of the dead, the deeper basic idea of the struggle between life and death in general, especially the beautiful thought of the necessary containment of the mourning for the dear dead by the rights of life, and at the same time a wealth of musical possibilities for shaping it, all this attracted me.

The material of a grieving widower who succumbs to his obsession with a singer met a nerve of the time at the premiere of the opera. The people of the postwar years knew only too well about feelings of loss, and the works of the Viennese Siegmund Freud (whom Julius Korngold knew personally) on psychoanalysis were highly topical; his book “The Interpretation of Dreams” was published in 1900. Pauls encounter with Marietta is ultimately nothing more than an attempt at therapy that Paul unconsciously undertakes in order to resolve his inner conflict that grew out of the catastrophe of Maria’s death. Occasionally this opera is compared with Hitchcock’s psycho-thriller Vertigo, which appeared 25 years later.

The Korngolds commissioned Hans Müller, the librettist of the second one-act-opera of Korngold, but were not satisfied when they reviewed the first drafts, and Korngold senior took on the librettist’s work personally. Julius Korngold followed Rodenbach’s literary model for the most part, but changed history here and there. His most important change was that he did not portray the murder as reality, but as a dream scene, probably to take some of the violence out of the opera’s plot and to create a conciliatory, atmospheric ending.



Bruges – the dead city

Symbolically for the narrowness of Paul, Rodenbach used Bruges as the model of the “dead city”. Until the 15th century, this Belgian city was a flourishing commercial metropolis and residence city. Then the river silted up to the North Sea and the decline of the city began, cut off from the lifeline of the sea from which Bruges could never recover.



Music of late romanticism

What is the best way to describe Korngold’s music? For a long time his music was denigrated as a copy of more famous originals. As an example, the influential American opera critic Harold Schonberg wrote in 1975: “Since his own creative imagination was not as strong as his technique, all he could do was repeat what previous composers have done.” This criticism weighed all the more heavily because Korngold, with his later work in Hollywood, magnetically attracted this cliché.
Indeed, in Korngold’s music we encounter a tremendous force of sound, wrapped in expressionist garb, with loud dissonances and the ringing of bells reminiscent of Mahler. We hear the music shimmering in a heat and expression that reminds us of Richard Strauss’ Salome. And finally, we hear melodies which, with their sensuality and sweetness, can take on Puccini.
Julius Korngold knew Gustav Mahler personally through his work, and the then Viennese court opera director got to know the then nine-year-old Erich when he was allowed to play a cantata to the master in his apartment. Mahler is said to have excitedly exclaimed “A genius! A genius!”. Four years later Mahler invited the then 13-year-old to attend the rehearsals for the premiere of the 8th symphony. This experience must have made a deep impression on the young Erich, because the orchestration of the dead city is almost identical to Mahler’s number eight. Like Mahler, Korngold complemented the orchestra of late romanticism in full size with colorful instruments such as celesta, harmonium, church bell, mandolin and piano. In addition, like Mahler, he used a wind machine and a boys’ choir.
After the 1970s the dead city gradually found its way into the repertoire of opera houses and Korngold was attested genius and independence. No one denies that Korngold was influenced by great forerunners and contemporaries. Korngold and Richard Strauss knew and appreciated each other, but nowadays it is generally agreed that Korngold was not a second Strauss, but the first Korngold.




Korngold used various leitmotifs for the opera. The most dominant is the beautiful theme of the aria “Das Glück, das mir blieb”, which we encounter again and again. The Bruges motif is also audible, a particularly beautiful example can be found further down in the description of the scene at the beginning of the second picture. In addition, there are other leitmotifs, but due to the richness of the score, the abundance of the orchestration and the complexity of the motifs themselves, some of them are difficult to hear (hair motif, resurrection chords, transience motif, etc.).



World premiere and the fate of the work

When Korngold announced the completion of his “dead city”, the opera houses were fighting for the rights to premiere the work. Finally, three opera houses, Hamburg (conducted by Pollack), Cologne (conducted by Klemperer) and Vienna, were granted the rights to perform the work for the first time on the same evening. Vienna then had to cancel for reasons of cast.
The work was cheered from the beginning and Korngold, who was present at the premiere in Hamburg, was celebrated. The audience fought for tickets, in Hamburg the work was performed 26 times in the first season alone. Shortly thereafter, the work was performed in Vienna, New York, Prague and Zurich and became a succes story for ten years. This phase was abruptly halted by the Nazi seizure of power, when the works of Jewish composers were banned from performance.
Korngold emigrated to America in the 1930s and became active in the film industry for the first time through an invitation from Max Reinhard, who was working in Hollywood on a film adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Over the next 10 years he became the most renowned film composer and groundbreaking work and was even awarded an Oscar for his film music to “Robin Hood”.
“The Dead City” never recovered during Korngold’s lifetime and disappeared from the repertoire. After the end of World War II, Korngold himself, already suffering from heart disease, attended a revival of the opera in Munich in 1954. Korngold had to bitterly realize that “the dusty symbolism” of the work was no longer in demand.
It was not until the 1970s that its renaissance began with Leinsdorf’s recording, and since the beginning of the 21st century the work has been able to reestablish itself in the international repertoire.








Synopsis: In Paul’s gloomy apartment in Bruges. The housekeeper Brigitta receives Paul’s old friend Frank, who has rushed over. They look at the decorated picture of Marie, Paul’s late wife, in front of whom a hair-weave of Maries is displayed like a relic. Brigitta talks about Paul’s strange state.

Right from the beginning the orchestra sparkles in all colors. Brigitta sings revelling music from late-romanticism, voluptuous passages and the large orchestra sings expansive melodies before Paul’s arrival.

Behutsam! Hier ist alles alt und gespenstig


“The dream of returning”

Synopsis: Paul comes back to his apartment and is pleased to see his friend Frank. Paul does not appear to him at all like Brigitta described him. Almost ecstatically, he tells of an encounter he had with his imaginary wife in his arms during one of his lonely walks. He saw a woman who looked like his Marie. The next day he spoke to her, her voice was the Marie’s, God had given her back to him! Frank tries to explain to him that he had fallen into the delusion of “the dream of returning”. But Frank does not want to know anything about it.

After Frank’s greeting, Paul dives into Marie’s world. Introduced by flute and harp, Paul sings long lines with a restrained orchestra.

Frank! Freund!


“Glück, das mir verblieb” – Korngold’s great Lied

Synopsis:The bell rings, Paul is already expecting Marietta. He looks at the picture of his wife and is happy that God has given her back to him! Marietta enters, and Paul is fascinated by her, who looks so deceptively like his Marie. When he gives her a scarf, and she throws it over herself, he calls ecstatically “Marie!”  Marietta is a dancer who is passing through during an engagement in Bruges. When she sees a lute in the apartment, she happily sings a song to Paul. Paul is moved, it is exactly the same song that Marie used to sing.

This piece is Korngold’s most famous ever. It is a nostalgic solo piece (which turns into a duet) in the middle of a psychodrama. It has the function of making the relationship between Paul and Marietta emotional for the listener, in order to create a maximum contrast to the drama that follows, which goes as far as Paul’s murder of Marietta. The character of this piece is songlike or even operetta-like. Already at the beginning the orchestra glitters, which with glockenspiel, celesta and harp has a typical late romantic coloring. The bells of the celesta conjure up a romantic, almost childishly naive mood.

We first hear the duet in the original instrumentation for soprano and tenor with with Jonas Kaufmann and Julia Leiter. Kaufmann debuted in 2019 in the role of Paul.

Glück, das mir verblieb  –  Kaufmann / Leiter


The following recording is a heavenly solo versions for version of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, which is characterized by the slow tempo. The longing of her voice, hoarse with excitement, languishes in the best sense.

Glück, das mir verblieb  –  Schwarzkopf


The apparitions and the bacchanale

Synopsis: The coquette Marie is boisterous and does not take Paul seriously. When she sees Marie’s picture, she is amazed at the resemblance to her and is surprised at Paul’s strange behavior. From the street she hears the calls of Gaston, who calls her to hurry, because the evening show is about to begin. She encourages Paul to visit her at the theater and leaves the house. Paul is alone, Marie appears to him and warns him to be faithful, Paul explains to her that he sees only her in Marietta. The apparition disappears and Paul sees Marietta’s apparition dancing in a flowing fantasy dance costume, magnificently decorated, seductively enticing. Orgiastic dance rhythms sound to this.

The two voices sing at a measured tempo in a relatively high register, Marie can be heard as if from a distance, the illusion becomes more chromatic and ghostly and sinks back into the calm of the beginning until it degenerates with the appearance of Marietta into a bacchanal dance frenzy.


Da bist du ja, Marie, ich wusste es  –  Vogt / Pavlovskaya










The bells and the Bruges theme

Synopsis: The outlines of a desolate, abandoned quay become visible. It is night. We can see a bell tower and next to it residential buildings, dimly lit by gas lamps.

The second act begins with an expressive prelude. Over flickering strings we hear church bells and in the winds the Bruges motif is heard repeatedly:

Brügge_Thema, Bruges_motiv; the dead city, die tote Stadt, Korngold





Synopsis: Paul appears and walks towards the house where Marietta lives. His thoughts are dark, he hadn’t met Marietta in the theater and wants to go to her apartment. He looks at her window and sees a shadow behind the curtain. A group of nuns approaches him. He recognizes Brigitta among the group, who had left him. She sees him and accuses him of having been unfaithful to Marie.

The threatening bells remind Paul of the day when Marie was buried. In between you can hear the wind (of the wind machine) sweeping over the abandoned quay. In Jetzt trage ich die Unruhe des Begehrens… ” (“Now I carry the restlessness of desire… “) the wind becomes stronger and the orchestra sounds with a heavy fff, until it dies and Brigitta appears.

Was ward aus mir?



Paul sees Frank

Synopsis: As Paul approaches the house, he sees a man unlocking the door. It is his friend Frank. To his horror, Paul learns that Frank too is her lover. When he demands that Paul leave her alone, the two get into an argument and Paul takes the key to Martta’s apartment from him. Frank breaks off their friendship and leaves the place.

Wohin?  –  King / Armstrong


Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen

Synopsis: Suddenly he hears the noise of an approaching company. Marietta comes home with her theater group on a ship and he can hear them singing and laughing. Among them are the rich mecenas Count Albert and the actor Fritz, who is wearing a Pierrot costume. They have champagne and food with them and make themselves comfortable on the nightly quay. Marietta asks Fritz to sing her a song, she knows that Fritz is in love with her.

Pierrot sings a song full of melancholy with a slow, waltz-like accompaniment. It is one of those Korngold songs with its rich colors and lavish melodies. This song is complemented by a beautiful humming choir, which inevitably makes us think of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen  –  Hampson




Synopsis: Exhilarated, Marie wants to re-enact a scene from a play for her patron Count Albert. She wants to play Helene from Meyerbeer’s “Robert le diable”, in a scene where she rises as a dead person. In the background you can hear church bells ringing, and the nuns pass the theater troupe on their way back. Paul watched the scene of the resurrection unrecognized. He bursts into the scene and grabs Marietta. After a short scuffle, Marietta sends the theater people away and is left alone with Paul. Bitterly, Paul accuses her of having cheated on him with his best friend. Revengefully he tells her that he only desired her because she resembled his dead wife, and that he is now is going to leave her.

Before this scene the singer of Paul could take a short break. Now comes a scene that is one of the most dramatic and exhausting passages of all. Paul’s eruption corresponds to that of a volcano, the passages are notated in high tessitura, some passages are even notated in the score as “screaming”.

The American tenor James King once described this role as having the pitch of a Puccini opera, accompanied by a Wagnerian orchestra, being as difficult as Othello and the only role that frightened him.

Bravo, guter Pierrot  – Halt ein! Du eine auferstandene Tote? –  King / Armstrong



The ecstatic end of act

Synopsis: Marietta reminds him of the ecstatic hours of love they both enjoyed and Paul feels that he cannot leave her. The two kiss passionately on the park bench. Marietta now wants to go with him into his house and fight against the ghost of his dead wife who owns him.

This passage is one of the highlights of the opera. Marietta recognizes Paul’s mental anguish. She has to sound dramatic and seductive in this scene to make Paul’s torments of conscience and erotic desire credible. The second act closes with a Tristan-like ecstasy.

Paul du leidest? (Marietta, Paul)  –  King / Armstrong










Marietta seeks the showdown with Marie

Synopsis: It is morning and Marietta appears in white morning dress in Marie’s church-like room. She remains motionless for a short time and then rushes wildly in front of the picture of Marie. Marietta urgesthe spirit of Marie to leave the living behind. From outside she can hear children’s singing, which comes from a procession passing in the street. Paul appears, the procession had driven him to the outside. Now he wants Marietta to leave the room. Marie wants to stay. She flirts with him and asks him to kiss her in the room. Paul brutally pushes her back into the chair.

The prelude to the third picture shows Mariettas agitation. You can literally hear the storm inside her, the music becomes more and more urgent and rapid. Korngold uses the prelude to prepare Marietta’s appearance with many written out dramatic rubati.

As the scene unfolds, Marie watches the procession of children from the window, their singing overlapping the music of the drama that is taking place in the room.

Prélude …Dich such ich, Bild  –  King / Armstrong


Synopsis: The religious ceremony awakens delusions in Paul. Marietta teases Paul because of his piety and asks him to kiss her. But Paul is trapped in his delusions.

In the recording below the ecstatic delusion of Paul begins after 3 minutes. The religious ceremony and his emotional state make him fall to his knees. The procession seems to come into the room and capture Paul. The music literally explodes, no words are no longer possible to express his feelings, only the music can describe the demons in Paul.  When he comes to rest, one hears the choir singing latin word sung in an ostinato rhythm. When Marietta scornfully calls out to him “You are pious!” and wants to kiss him, he falls back into madness, calling out words in a high voice and collapses.

Sei klug, sei gut  –  King / Armstrong


The great finale

Synopsis: She had to save herself from a difficult childhood and she wants to have the right to have Paul all to herself. Only this night he wanted to have her full of lust and during the day he plays the pious. She goes to Marie’s painting and grabs her hair braid, which is displayed like a relic. Paul warns her not to desecrate the hair braid. All the more Marie flirts with it. Paul is beside himself when Marie dances wildly with the braid, Paul loses his temper, tears the hair out of her hand, and strangles Marietta with it, stammering how much the dead Marietta resembles Marie.


Synopsis: The light goes out. When it comes back on, Paul wakes up and the room is like it was at the beginning. Brigitta appears, and a little later Marie, who had forgotten her umbrella. Last but not least Frank appears, who sees in Paul’s face that a miracle has happened. In fact Paul realizes that the episode was only a dream and that he was able to break away from Marie and Marietta. He goes to the door and leaves the room saying goodbye.

Little by little Paul awakens from his dream, the orchestra accompanies him tenderly. With the appearance of Brigitta, the orchestra calms down and Marietta appears, accompanied by flutes. When Frank appears, the music changes to a radiant B flat major and the piece ends in a broad adagio with melancholic confidence.

Die Tote, wo, lag sie nicht hier … Glück, das mir verblieb  –  King / Armstrong





Recording Recommendation


ARTHAUS DVD, James King, Karan Armstrong, William Murray, Margit Neubauer, Donald Grobe under the direction of Heinrich Hollreiser and the Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin




Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on “THE DEAD CITY” by Erich Korngold.






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