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Die Tote Stadt
Opera in Three Acts by Erich Korngold (1897-1957)
First performed 1920
Libretto by Paul Schott
(a collective pseudonym for the composer and his father Julius)
based on the novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach
Marietta, a dancer
Marie, Paul’s dead wife
Frank, Paul’s friend
Brigitta, Paul’s housekeeper
Juliette, a dancer
Lucienne, a dancer
Gaston, a dancer
Victorin, a stage- manager
Fritz, a Pierrot
Count Albert
members of
Silent role
Gaston has a few lines sung off-stage. These are usually taken by the singer of
Act I
Brigitta, Paul’s housekeeper, shows Frank, Paul’s friend, the “Shrine from the Past,” a room in
which Paul keeps the portrait and mementos of his deceased wife, Marie. Paul enters, exclaiming
that he has met a woman who uncannily resembles Marie and that he has invited her to visit him.
This woman, Marietta, arrives. She is a dancer in a touring company that is visiting Bruges with
the popular Meyerbeer opera, Robert le diable.. Accompanying herself on the lute, she sings a
nostalgic song and then performs a seductive dance. She accidentally dislodges a curtain, exposing
Marie’s portrait, and is startled by its resemblance to her. She then leaves for her rehearsal of
Robert le diable. Paul is torn between his loyalty to Marie and his desire for Marietta. When Marie
appears in a vision, Paul vows his fidelity. Marie bids him “look and understand.” The apparition
vanishes, replaced by an image of Marietta dancing.
Act II
Paul is spying outside Marietta’s house, where he encounters Brigitta, who has left his service to
become a nun, and then Frank, who has arrived for a tryst with Marietta. The two men jealously
struggle, and Paul wrests from Frank the key Marietta gave him. Frank runs off. When members of
Marietta’s troupe appear in boats, Paul hides. Marietta is serenaded and then enters with the dancer
Gaston. After Fritz, the troupe’s Pierrot, sings a sentimental love song, Marietta proposes a toast
and suggest an impromptu performance of Robert le diable. Portraying Helene, she rises from a
mock bier and flirtatiously dances toward Gaston. Paul, outraged by this burlesque of resurrection,
emerges to stop the proceedings. Marietta is left alone with Paul. Berating her, he reveals the
reason for his bizarre attraction to her, and declares that he never loved her. Marietta, challenging
her dead rival, seduces Paul. She insists they go to his house to banish the phantom forever.
The next morning, Paul finds Marietta in the "Shrine of the Past". She refuses to leave, for she
wants to watch Bruges’ annual religious procession from the window. Paul becomes engrossed in
the ancient ceremony, finally falling to his knees in religious fervour. Marietta attempts to regain
Paul’s attention by again seducing him. Haunted by his guilty conscience, Paul imagines that the
procession is menacingly entering the room. When Marietta ridicules his superstition and accuses
him of hypocrisy, Paul orders her to leave. But Marietta again challenges Marie -- “life against
death.” She seizes Marie’s golden braid and begins an alluring dance. Paul, furious, strangles her
with the braid.
When light returns to the darkened room, Marietta’s body is gone and the braid is untouched.
Brigitta announces Marietta, who has returned because she forgot her parasol and roses, suggesting
that this is an omen that she should stay. When Paul does not respond, Marietta exits. Frank enters,
and Paul tells him he will never again see Marietta; a dream of reality has destroyed his dream of
fantasy. Frank asks Paul to go with him, and Paul agrees to leave Bruges, “the dead city.”
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