Die Kathrin, Korngold’s last opera, still awaiting rediscovery


Through the years 1934 – 1938, Korngold commuted between Hollywood and Vienna. He worked on film music in winter and spent the summers on his “more serious” works. This was also the time of Die Kathrin, an opera that he had already begun in 1932 and which would remain his last. The story is set during the First World War and deals with the love between a French soldier and a German maid.

The premiere was planned for January 1938, but Jan Kiepura, who was to sing the role of François, unfortunately had to cancel, due to his obligations at the MET. The premiere was postponed. And then came the Anschluss.

Just in time, Korngold was called back to Hollywood, where he was required to finish his score for Robin Hood in just a few days. On January 29, he set sail on the ‘Normandie’, coincidentally together (oh, the irony!) with Kiepura and his wife.

The composer was safe, but his possessions, including the manuscripts and scores, were confiscated. In a sly manner (page by page sewn in between the safe Beethovens and Strausses) they were sent to America.

Die Kathrin was performed in Stockholm in October 1939 and it was an enormous fiasco. This was partly due to the weak libretto, but mainly due to the anti-Semitism which also prevailed in Swedish newspapers.

More than sixty years later, the opera was recorded by CPO. That is fortunate, because there is a lot to be enjoyed. It is filled with really brilliant music, presenting a fusion of opera, operetta, musical and film. A common mix in those days – a “Zeitoper” therefore. There is a lot to listen to and the many arias lend themselves to singing along.

Kathrin’s ‘letter aria’ is strikingly similar to Marietta’s song from Die Tote Stadt, and her prayer brings tears to the sensitive listener’s eyes. And of course the tenor has some lovely music of his own.

Below Anton Dermota sings ‘Wo ist mein Heim’ in a recording from 1949 conducted by Korngold himself:

The love duet is perhaps the most beautiful in all of Korngold’s operas and even the villain, Mallignac, gets to sing beautiful notes, which immediately makes him more human.

The last word on Die Kathrin has not yet been said, but will we ever get to experience a live performance? The music deserves it. Was something like this perhaps Puccini’s intention when he thought of writing an operetta?

Below, Renee Fleming sings ‘Ich soll ihn niemals mehr sehen’:

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