Die tote Stadt – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Paul Schott [pseuydonym of Julius & Erich Wolfgang Korngold] after the novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach [sung in German with English surtitles]
Paul – Stefan Vinke
Marie / Mariette – Cheryl Barker
Frank – Michael Honeyman
Brigitta – Deborah Humble
Lucienne – Dominica Matthews
Victorin – David Corcoran
Count Albert – Stephen Smith
Fritz – José Carbó
Opera Australia Chorus
Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
Bruce Beresford – Director
John Stoddart – Set & Costume designer
Nigel Levings – Lighting designer
Tim Dryoff – Creative director: Resolution design, Scenic projection images design
Dylan McIntyre, Daniel Symons & Anthony Hayes – Designers: Resolution design, Scenic projection images design
Timothy Gordon – Choreography
Tony David Cray – Sound designer
Ralf Zuleeg & Stephan Mauer – Audio system design
Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
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Erich Wolfgang Korngold's third opera, Die Tote Stadt, is a rare thing to encounter in a theatre (though there is a well-travelled production by Willy Decker from the Salzburg Festival of 2004, which has seen service in Vienna, Barcelona, Amsterdam, San Francisco and London), and it has never before been heard, let alone staged, in Australia. To its critics it is more corn than gold, and is not saved by two glorious creations: Mariette's ‘lute song’ (the most-recorded 20th-century German aria) and Fritz's gorgeous ‘Pierrot Lied’.
If giving a stage premiere were not enough, this run of performances also marked another first for Opera Australia: the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra was not in the pit, but in a nearby room, with the sound piped in using a new technique called "holographic sound". With about 100 speakers in the pit, the stated purpose is to overcome the notoriously poor acoustic of the Opera Theatre, as well as the problem of the pit being too small for the large orchestra that Korngold requires. This last point is dubious: Salome has just been staged, and that requires a very full orchestra, too. (The acoustic from a pit-based orchestra I shall report on soon when I hear Les Pęcheurs de perles.)
Regardless, this holographic sound gave very mixed results indeed, and I regret its use. Solo playing came across without distortion and with superb clarity. However, passages of fuller scoring lost all sense of individuality and immediacy, and reminded of thick soup, as well as sounding artificial. For a rich score such as Korngold's, this is to its detriment. The balance between the too-loud, piped-in orchestra and singers was occasionally off, too.
The task of bringing this dead city to life has fallen to notable Australian film director Bruce Beresford, with designs by compatriot John Stoddart. The gloomy city of Bruges has been woefully recreated as a chocolate-box creation that would sit easily into Disney World: dreamy colours and bridges whose outlines light up, never any sense of oppression. The Dead City is a world of doppelgangers and disturbed dreams, yet here everything progressed merrily and with a shrug of the shoulders. Even Paul's murder of his friend Frank (albeit in his dreams), and his slaying of Mariette, raised a few chuckles. Nowhere is the theme of destructive obsession explored. (Hitchcock did it so well in Vertigo.)
The challenging role of Paul, who has not got over the death of his wife Marie and is infatuated with a look-alike Mariette, was assumed with authority by Stefan Vinke, who relished Korngold's long lines and lush music. He was thrilling, and produced passionate sounds from his clarion tenor with unforced clarity and directness. The object of his desires, Mariette, was not so seductive in Cheryl Barker's assumption, and was shaky. Her teasing of Paul found her voice with the requisite bite, though.
Paul's friend Frank was sung by Michael Honeyman: a small role, he nonetheless made it count with his bright and optimistic voice. Similarly, Brigitta (Paul's housekeeper) was touchingly assumed by Deborah Humble. José Carbó as Fritz almost stole the show with a quite beautiful account of the ‘Pierrot Lied’.
No doubt the Choir and the Orchestra performed well, but a shame they were heard in this artificial way. A more concentrated staging would allow the opera’s destructive emotions to be relished, something at least conveyed by the singing.