Opera in three acts.
Libretto by Julius and Erich Korngold after Georges Rodenbach’s novel Bruges-la-Morte of 1892 (and the play Le Mirage which Rodenbach himself made from it), translated into German as Das Trugbild by Siegfried Trebitsch.
First performed simultaneously in Hamburg and Cologne on 4 December 1920

The story is set in the Belgian city of Bruges, at the end of the nineteenth century

Act 1
Paul is mourning the death of his young wife, Marie.  He has chosen to live in the faded city of Bruges, which, with its deserted quays, its silted-up waterways, its decaying houses and its bells, is a permanent reminder to him of the fragility of life and the constant presence of death.  He has devoted a whole room of his house to relics of Marie including a portrait and, in a glass case, a braid of her glorious golden hair; this is his ‘Temple of Memories’.  A friend, Frank, arrives at the house and is admitted by Paul’s housekeeper, Brigitta, who tells Frank that on the previous day, Paul’s gloomy mood changed completely.  Paul is unusually agitated and lively: he tells Frank that he has seen a woman in Bruges who looks and sounds so like Marie that he is convinced that she has come back to him, and he has invited this unknown woman to the house.  Frank tells him that he should pull himself together and get on with his life.  When Frank has left, Paul tells the portrait of Marie that he is ready for her return.  Brigitta announces that a lady has arrived and Paul tells her to show the guest in.

A young woman enters.  This is Marietta; she thanks Paul for the invitation.  She comments on how cold the room is and asks who is the woman in all the pictures.  Paul is entranced – even the colour of her dress is like Marie’s.  She guesses that he might be a painter and, picking up a lute, strikes a pose and sings a song about a love that is doomed to end.  Paul knows the song, and joins in – he is deeply affected by it, but laughter from outside breaks the mood and Marietta goes to the window to look out.  Paul pulls her back, afraid for her to be seen in his house.  She tells him that she is a dancer and that it is her friends who are passing on their way to a rehearsal.  She tells Paul about her work as a dancer and he is both repulsed and attracted by her words.  He tries to embrace her and as she moves beyond his reach she sees the portrait of Marie, dressed very much as she is and holding the same lute that she has just held.  She leaves, commenting that if Paul wants to see her again, he can always go to the opera and see her dancing there.

Alone in the room, Paul sees Marie step out of the portrait and ask him if he is still true to her.  She tells him that she left him the braid of hair to guard him.  Paul declares that his love for her is unchanged, but Marie’s figure tells him that life must go on and that a new love beckons.  As the image of Marie fades, it is replaced by a second image – of Marietta dancing seductively.

Act 2
With Marie’s words still ringing in his ears, Paul is wandering the gloomy streets of Bruges.  He is outside Marietta’s house and he sings of his passion for her and of the anguish it is causing him.  In the gloom, Brigitta passes him and he asks her why she has left his service.  Brigitta replies that she fled from sin, and that she, at least, is faithful to the dead.  Frank than passes by: he tells Paul to forget Marietta – she is a performer and it is her job to captivate other people; Paul extracts a confession from Frank that Frank is having an affair with Marietta.  The troupe of dancers, with admirers in tow, arrives on one of the canals by boat, and Paul, unseen by them, hears others express their love for Marietta.

Marietta herself arrives and says that she has managed to escape from her mournful friend for a while.  She flirts with her friends and with the admirers and then announces that she will dance her own speciality – the resurrection scene from the opera Robert le Diable, in which her character is restored to life and rises from the tomb.  A group of nuns pass in silence and stormy clouds gather.  Paul rushes forward to stop the dance and Marietta, annoyed, sends the others away before asking Paul why he is making such a scene.  Paul accuses Marietta of betraying him and of seducing Frank.  He tells her that she has sullied his dream and she responds that his previous woman must have thrown him out because he is impossible to live with.  Goaded, he tells her that she means nothing to him and that it was only her appearance that attracted him.  Marietta calms down and as she tries to comfort Paul she starts to flirt with him again.  Slowly, Paul responds and as his desire increases, Marietta tells him to take her back to his house – she wants to rid him of the burden of Marie’s memory for ever.

Act 3 
A bleak morning in Paul’s house
Marietta appears in Marie’s room in a dressing gown and addresses the portrait of Marie.  She tells Marie not to haunt the living but to rest in peaceful sleep.  Children can be heard gathering in the background ready to take part in a religious procession.  Paul arrives and orders Marietta to get out of his Temple of Memories.  She teases him, and tells him that this room is the best place to get a good view of the procession as it passes the house.  Paul pulls her away from the window and as she sulks in a chair, Paul lights two candles and prepares to watch the procession.  Marietta sings about her friends and Paul becomes more and more obsessed by the procession.  She tries to distract him, saying that she wants him for herself and will not share him with anyone.  Paul speaks of the constant presence of Marie, and Marietta taunts him by saying that at least she is alive, and it is really her that he wants, not some dead memory.  As Paul tries to force her out of the room, Marietta mocks the treasures he has kept, but when she opens the glass case and takes out the braid of hair, Paul finally snaps – he grabs the hair from Marietta and as she dances mockingly he strangles her with it.  He looks down at her body and sings ‘Now she is exactly like her’ …

The scene fades and as it is restored, Paul is looking at an empty room.  It is exactly the same as at the end of the first act.  Brigitta comes in and announces that the lady has returned.  It is Marietta, and she has come back because she forgot her umbrella and her roses.  She leaves, passing Frank on the doorstep.  Frank says that he too is leaving Bruges.  Paul covers the portrait, locks the door to Marie’s room and sings ‘Wait for me in heaven’s light, here you are gone from my sight’.


Other related OperaStory articles are on

  • Erich Korngold’s life and operas
  • Korngold’s father, Julius, who helped him with the libretto of Die tote Stadt
  • Georges Rodenbach and his works
  • The background to the writing of Die tote Stadt
  • Rodenbach’s novel Bruges-la-Morte and the play which he himself made from it, Le Mirage
  • Letting your hair down – hair imagery in opera
  • The story and background to Meyerbeer’s opera Robert le Diable

©  Roger Witts 2008