When Sofie Sings

von otter good

I chose to kick off the Music-Video Fridays series on my site, The Tannhauser Gate, with Anne Sofie von Otter, from her live-in-Paris 2004 DVD Voices of Our Time—a Tribute to Korngold.

The daughter of the Swedish diplomat Baron Göran Fredrik von Otter, Anne Sofie von Otter studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and made her début as Alcina in Haydn’s Orlando paladino in Basel in 1983.

In addition to her notable successes in the oratorio and opera music of Bach, Bartok, Elgar, Handel, Monteverdi, and Mozart, von Otter’s art-song repertory encompasses Brahms, Grieg, Korngold, Mahler, and Sibelius. In 1993, her Grieg song-recital CD (with Bengt Forsberg) became the first song recording ever to win Gramophone magazine’s “Record of the Year” award. Were that not enough, she has also collaborated with Elvis Costello, and with Brad Mehldau.

Anne Sofie von Otter’s Mahler “Ürlicht” (from Des Knaben Wunderhorn) is one of my favorite interpretations. However, I think she outdoes herself here, singing (as the last item in, or an encore to, a live recital program) the tragic “Glück das mir verblieb” (“Marietta’s Song”) from Erich Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) (1920).

Richard Strauss, as well as Gustav Mahler, praised Korngold’s precocious genius. Korngold composed the opera, his third, at ages 20-23, to a libretto by himself and his father, adopting the 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach. Scott Cantrell of The Dallas Morning News claimed, “No opera ever composed has music more gorgeous, more sumptuous, than Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt.”

Speaking of Richard Strauss, Die tote Stadt has some of the fin-de-siècle soundworld of Strauss’ über-weird Die Frau ohne Schatten. And as far as plot goes, Die tote Stadt is almost up to the level achieved by Die Frau ohne Schatten on the International Opera Weirdness Scale (IOWS).

Without question, the action of Die tote Stadt is “modern,” somewhat hard to take in, and definitely, more than a bit creepy. In the Belgian city of Bruges, a widower named Paul has turned his apartment into a shrine or museum to his late wife Marie’s memory. Paul’s friend Frank visits, to try to reel Paul back in from the brink, only to learn that Paul had met on the street a dancer named Marietta, who looks exactly like Marie; also, that Marietta is to visit Paul. Much insanity ensues.

I think Die tote Stadt is the first Surrealist opera (in that much of the action that is played out is actually a hallucination or dream of Paul’s). However, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is generally regarded as the first “modern” or avant-garde opera because it is atonal; where Die tote Stadt is post-Romantically tonal in the line of Mahler, and of the Schoenberg of Gurrelieder. (The term “Surrealism,” by the way, was introduced in 1903, by Guillaume Apollinaire.)

Die tote Stadt was one of opera’s sensational hits of the first quarter of the 20th century. Coming as it did after World War I, people were acutely attuned to the toll of loss on love. Interest in Germany was so intense that there were two simultaneous premières—in Hamburg and in Cologne. (The Cologne première was conducted by Otto Klemperer.) Performances were quickly staged around the world, including at the Metropolitan Opera.

All that said, Die tote Stadt is rarely performed today. The Nazis suppressed Korngold’s music; the opera vanished from public performance until 1975. Safe in Hollywood, Korngold often quipped that Errol Flynn’s lackadaisical work habits saved him from Hitler. Indeed, Robin Hood is perhaps Korngold’s most famous Hollywood score. And of course… no Korngold movie music, no Star Wars music. (While that is axiomatic; it is another blog entry.)

The music heard on this YT clip is somewhat a reworking of what happens in the opera. In the opera, once Marietta shows up, Paul predictably goes nuts; but Marietta, perhaps having been “unlucky in love” herself, grabs a conveniently handy lute and begins singing “Happiness, please stay with me” (my translation). Paul joins in for a while, but then creeps her out. Marietta departs. However, accidentally or purposefully, she leaves her umbrella behind (plot-device alert!).

So, to recap: In the opera, the soprano pretends to play a lute as the orchestra accompanies her singing, then the tenor joins in for a duet.

Whereas for the concert performance on this video, the accompaniment is piano-plus-string-quartet, which allows the Hyper-Straussian Overbaked Romanticism of Korngold’s score to shine through as it would not with piano only. (Note also the occasional string pizzicati that reflect the lute-miming on stage.) Furthermore, von Otter sings both sets of verses.

In the event, and especially for the last piece on a live program (or an encore), von Otter knocks it out of the park. I love the wry little head-shake and Mona-Lisa smile she gives the first violinist, after it’s over. “Whew! We made it!” is what she seems to be saying. And, no question, the camera is loving her.

It just doesn’t get any better. Miss von Otter’s live-in-Paris DVD is still available new, from the usual sources.

Note: the original video is not universally available, so we’ve substituted an authorized recording — jb

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6 Replies to “When Sofie Sings”

  1. NoID

    *Opens link to RG from e-mail*
    *Something something fancy music…TL:DR*
    *Sees video at bottom, decides to expand horizons and listen. Maybe I’ll culture myself*
    *video unavailable*

    That’s what I get for trying to be sophisticated.

      • NoID

        I’m also behind a corporate firewall, which doesn’t tend to upset YouTube but there’s a first time for everything.

        Maybe our management is concerned that we’ll stop cranking out the kinds of vehicles purchased by the well-heeled Joes Dirt of the world clan if we get a taste for proper European sophistication.

        This kind of outcome would be a net negative for your new employer, so maybe it’s for the best.

  2. bjarnetv

    The first classical concert i went to was Des knaben Wunderhorn with the Oslo Philharmonic.
    At the time, i hadn’t heard a whole lot of classical, and i found it a weird mix of corny and catchy, but ultimately decided that i probably liked my classical better without the singing.

    About one year ago, i bought the Anne sofie von otter/Thomas Quasthoff recording of Wunderhorn, instantly grokked it, and blasted it at full tilt all day long for weeks, much to the enjoyment of my neighbors.


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