Die tote Stadt Synopsis

The Story of Korngold's 3 Act Opera

20th Century composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, wrote the opera Die tote Stadt and premiered it in the European cities of Cologne and Hamburg on December 4th, 1920. Die tote Stadt takes place in late 19th Century Belgium.

The Story of Die tote Stadt

Die tote Stadt, Act 1
Paul sits alone in his home and mourns the death of his beloved wife, Marie.  Outside, the once bright and vibrant city, now dilapidated, constantly reminds Paul of his past.

 Unable to get over the death of his wife, he converted a room within his house to a “temple of memories”.  It is full of pictures and paintings of his wife, a lock of her hair, and items and trinkets the couple once shared.  Paul’s friend, Frank, stops by and urges his friend to honor his wife by moving on with his own life.  Paul becomes upset and insists that his wife is still alive.  In fact, he met her earlier that day and invited her to his home.  When the girl arrives, it is clear that she bears a striking resemblance to Marie.  The girl introduces herself as Marietta, a dancer.  Paul is so overcome with joy that he attempts to hug her.  Marietta steps away from Paul to keep a slight distance away from his awkward behavior.  However, she still finds him attractive and continues to flirt with him, even going so far as to dance for him.  As the day progresses, she accidentally uncovers a portrait of Paul’s wife.

 Finding the situation to be a bit disturbing, Marietta leaves and joins her friends on their way to rehearsal.  Alone again, Paul is conflicted and confused by his feelings.  Should he feel guilty for possibly falling in love with another woman?  Should he choose his late wife instead?  Suddenly, an apparition of Marie appears to step out of her portrait and approaches her anguished husband.

 She advises him to choose the living rather than fixate on death.  Before departing, she transforms into a beautiful dancer.  

Die tote Stadt, Act 2
Paul struggles with the decision he must make.  His housekeeper has quit because she believes he has been unfaithful to his wife.  Paul decides he cannot seek help from Frank; he views Frank as a contender to winning Marietta’s love.  When Marietta and her dancer friends are seen approaching, Paul quickly hides himself in order to spy on them.  As they rehearse their upcoming ballet, Marietta’s character dies and resurrects.  Paul cannot believe Marietta would disrespect him by performing this dance and confronts her.  He shouts at her and tells her he is only attracted to her because she looks like his wife.  Marietta doesn’t believe him.  She turns on her charm and convinces him to bring her to his home to spend the night, where they can banish the ghost of his late wife.

Die tote Stadt, Act 3
In Paul’s house, he and Marietta begin to argue.  Paul cannot help but obsess over the memory of his wife.  Marietta gets extremely irritated with him, and begins to mock him.  She dances seductively around the mementos of his past while stroking the braided lock of his wife’s hair, sending Paul into a fit of rage.

 He grabs the braid of hair and strangles Marietta.  As she lies lifelessly on the floor, he proclaims that now she is exactly like Marie.  Immediately, Paul snaps back to reality and finds himself in his room. He sees Marie’s braided lock of hair exactly where it has always been.  His housekeeper walks by in search of Marietta’s umbrella.  Marietta has only been gone for a few minutes and returned to the house to fetch it.  Paul is still in shock over his vivid dream.  He comes to the conclusion that is best for him to move on with his life.  He calls in Frank and tells him that he has decided to move and start a new life.  He tells him that though it may be slow, he will be putting his past and “temple of memories” behind him.

Other Popular Opera Synopses:

Mozart's The Magic FluteMozart's Don GiovanniDonizetti's Lucia di LammermoorVerdi's Rigoletto, & Puccini's Madama Butterfly