Sunday, March 15, 2009

In Bruges (not the movie)...

Disclaimer: I am not a music critic. I don’t even play one on TV. And I am not an opera maven. I am a lover of fine music, with a decided preference for the lush romantic scores, powerfully played by a large symphony orchestra. Should that include a sensuous vocal line as in Puccini, I’m there.

Ditto, Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

Korngold, opera?? Isn’t he the guy that scored those Errol Flynn swashbucklers for Warner Brothers in the ‘30s and ‘40s? The Sea Hawk? Elizabeth and Essex? Right. And many soaring, romantic, lyrical scores as well. But that was after he fled the Nazis from his beloved Vienna in the ‘thirties and settled in Hollywood.

Korngold was a true musical Wunderkind, praised by no less a figure than Gustav Mahler. That Korngold loved and understood the power of a large symphony orchestra and all its textures can be appreciated in listening to any of the fine audio showpiece recordings in conductor Charles Gerhardt’s “Classic Filmscore Series” for RCA in the ‘70s (See note at end of this post for availability). Or check out his Symphony and other “serious” orchestral works. (How I hate that term “serious” and the notion of inferior quality it's use often implies regarding some of the finest symphonic film scoring ever done…)

Anyhow, back to Korngold…opera…and a magical place called Bruges. If you’ve not visited this “Venice of the North” with its meandering canals and characteristic Flemish architecture, the gothic Bell Tower, and cobble-stoned byways in the northwest of Belgium, perhaps you have some recent images in your mind’s eye from the 2008 film “In Bruges.” Please hold onto them, or any other images you may have of Bruges, preferably by night, while I attempt to tie this all together…

When Korngold was but 23, he created a powerful, romantically intense opera (with his father’s collaboration as librettist) based on a troubling story of a young widower in Bruges who cannot move past the death of his beloved wife. He sees her doppelgänger in a young actress/dancer in a troupe visiting Bruges and what ensues is highly romantic, erotic, turning violent, but only in his frightening dream journey through love, lust, and grief over a loved one he cannot replace.

The opera was “Die tote Stadt.” The title, German for “The Dead City,” was derived from the novel by Paul Rodenbach “Bruges-la-Morte.” That “Dead City” reference is to the decline of Bruges as a seaport as its harbor silted up. There went its commercial life, and its glory. Of course, that was before the big modern tour buses and “If it’s Tuesday this must be Belgium,” oh yes, with a quick stop in that quaint little Bruges. Culottes, anyone? But I digress.

To the passionate strains of Korngold’s music, the protagonist, Paul, whose house is a shrine to his deceased wife Marie, spies the young(er) Marietta. She is warm and inviting and receptive to his attentions, until…

“Die tote Stadt” was immensely successful for Korngold. It even had simultaneous openings in Hamburg and Cologne. It quickly made its way around the world and was a big hit at the Metropolitan Opera. Perhaps a part of its immense success was in being the right work for the times, with audiences having just come through the turmoil and trauma of “The War to End All Wars.”

Sadly, unjustifiably, for many years, all that was really heard from “Die tote Stadt” was the meltingly beautiful “Mariettas-Lied,” the song with which Marietta enchants Paul in the first act, as she plays the lute that belonged to Marie.

The opera's time for full rediscovery– finally – came in 1975, with a magnificent production by the New York City Opera, featuring soprano Carol Neblett in the dual roles of Marietta/Marie. She had also appeared in a full length recording on RCA conducted by Erich Leinsdorf.

And here’s where the magic of “Die tote Stadt” and Bruges came together for me.

In 1984, the NYC Opera production was staged at the Kennedy Center in Washington. By this time, I’d already discovered the recording mentioned above, actually on a superb two-reel Dolby-B tape set. I can still remember being lost in this quintessentially romantic ocean of sound as the reels turned at 7.5 ips on my Dolby system equipped Revox and those analog electrons journeyed down the cables to my then-new Yamaha C-1 preamplifier, thence to my warmly glowing McIntosh 275 tube power amplifier, and down the thick speaker cables to my AR-3 speakers, augmented by the MicroAcoustics tweeter arrays. Ahhh, it is times like these when living in a detached house on a hill is the only way to go, especially at 2 AM or thereabouts….

So, I knew the “sound.” But was I ever not ready for the visuals! When the action of “Die tote Stadt” is not in Paul’s gloomy high-ceilinged house, it is on a quay overlooking one of Bruges’ many canals, at night. NYC Opera’s scenic design was – and there is no other way to say this – breathtaking in its use of both sets and scrims derived from actual night images of Bruges. These very effective projections even included moving images on film.

It was visually indelible…as I was to discover later that year, when I first visited Bruges and roamed its nightscape with my cameras…I still remember that incredible déjà vu of the Belfry, seen from across a canal…the quays…the stolid Flemish architecture, the forbidding-looking religious buildings, all emerging from the indigo night sky, glistening in the after-rain ambience. All the while, Korngold’s achingly beautiful score filling the rest of my senses (no Walkman required).

Hundreds of Agfa, Perutz, and Ektachrome images of Bruges, many by night, fill my image bank. A relative few managed to get printed and displayed over the years. So many more reside in boxes of slides in my filing cabinets. Perhaps time to get them out and scanned to D-files. Guess you can imagine what will be on the audio system while this activity is going on…

There’s a more recent chapter to this “Tote Stadt”/Bruges musical journey. Please stay tuned.

Meantime, my applause and gratitude to for ensuring the continued availability of several of those great Charles Gerhardt recordings of Korngold film scores and those of other masters of the genre (sadly neglected by the original company). You'll find other Korngold offerings in their catalog, as well.