Live review: Die Tote Stadt (Opera Australia)

Cheryl Barker, Stefan Vinke, Jose Carbo
Directed by Bruce Beresford
Sydney Opera House, June 30

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Cheryl Barker as Marie or Mariette and Stefan Vinke as Paul. Photos by Lisa Tomasetti
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Cheryl Barker as Marie or Mariette and performing artists of Opera Australia
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Cheryl Barker as Marie or Mariette and José Carbó as Fritz.

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First performed in 1920, Die Tote Stadt was the opera that sealed the 23-year-old Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s reputation as Viennese wunderkind and a major talent to watch on the European opera scene. Sadly, sociopolitical factors conspired to ensure that this reputation never fully bore fruit, but classical music’s loss was Hollywood’s gain, as Korngold emigrated and produced a dazzling catalogue of film scores. His populist sound is fully apparent in this, his most successful opera and Lyndon Terracini is to be heartily applauded for giving Australian audiences their first opportunity to hear this luscious, late-Romantic score in all its glory. 

A lot of comment has been bandied about regarding the need to place Korngold’s oversized (at least as far as the SOH pit is concerned) orchestra in a nearby studio and "piping" the sound into the auditorium. The results on opening night should silence the naysayers, for the sound was at least as good as anything I have heard in this house, if not better. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra played their hearts out under Christian Badea. String tone was sumptuous with some excellent solos and fine woodwind playing. Only the brass at times felt a little less prominent than they might have been (perhaps a concession to the singers required to ride over this opulent orchestration). 

Alas, if musical considerations were all it could have been a triumph, but an awkward central performance, disappointing design and Bruce Beresford’s fatally over-literal production served to scupper the ship before its maiden voyage. 

Paul is a morose, bereaved widower, obsessed with the memory of his deceased wife, a braid of whose hair he preserves in a casket. When he meets her doppelgänger in the street, he descends (in his imagination) into a world of sexual jealousy and murder. His pursuit of the libidinous Marietta, in contrast to his chaste Marie, should be a Freudian gift to a contemporary director. Paul’s home should feel morbidly claustrophobic, heavy with his hagiographic memories. In the second act, the city of Bruges should feel sinister and shadowy and crucially, as it is part of Paul’s nightmarish hallucinations, somehow off-kilter.

But Beresford, for all his cinematic talents, seemed unable to come up with anything more imaginative than a few ominous clouds, a clumsy gauze and a series of uninspired projections – hardly the "celebration of the possibilities of opera in the 21st century" we were promised.

John Stoddart’s gaudy sets with their odd splash of art nouveau smacked of Walt Disney rather than the over-ripe sensuality of Gustav Klimt. His realisation of Bruges was dominated by an over-lit bridge straight out of Cinderella’s castle, while trashy costumes turned the commedia dell’arte scene into high camp rather than sinister grotesquerie.

Nigel Levings’ lighting appeared to favour parts of the set rather than the crucial lead characters. Timothy Gordon’s choreography was the last piece of unpalatable icing on this overcooked Viennese strudel.

Struggling with this lacklustre production were two experienced leads and an excellent supporting cast. For all his reputation in European houses, and in particular in the dangerously demanding role of Korngold’s Paul, the German tenor Stefan Vinke seemed ill at ease. His substantial voice was always audible but the top felt forced and a tendency to freeze with mouth open wide on long notes gave him a most ungrateful appearance. His acting was limited to vague gestures.

Opposite him as Marietta, the flirtatious young dancer who bears an uncanny resemblance to the dead Marie, was Cheryl Barker looking more Iron Lady than ingénue. Matronly costumes and hair did not help and, sadly, Beresford compelled her to execute several faintly embarrassing dance routines, the last of which ended in her being strangled with the aforementioned hair braid, drawing titters from some in the audience. There was absolutely no sexual chemistry between her and Vinke. Despite all this, her voice carried well, her diction was exemplary and she can ride easily over even Korngold’s dense orchestrations. 

The smaller roles were uniformly well taken. Michael Honeyman sang pretty well as Paul’s best friend, although his acting was rather wooden and his murder comical. Deborah Humble proved a most sympathetic housekeeper, her warm rich alto voice a standout, and José Carbó was luxury casting as Fritz – his rendition of Pierrot’s Lied (surely Korngold’s homage to Lehár) was one of the evening’s musical highlights.

The rest of the commedia troupe sang extremely well but my heart went out to Sharon Prero and Domenica Matthews in hideous silver fairy outfits, looking like refugees from Iolanthe. Their coy hint of girl-on-girl action was half-hearted and silly. 

Sadly then, a disappointing, missed opportunity. My advice: go, but keep your eyes closed. Better still, try to wangle a seat in the studio with Badea and the orchestra – now that might be a night to remember.

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