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Die tote Stadt (The Dead City)


Opera Australia presents Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) : An Opera in three acts by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Libretto by Paul Schott (pseudonym for Julius and Erich Korngold), after Georges Rodenbach’s novel BRUGES – LA – MORTE (1982). Sung in German with English surtitles, translated by Jonathan Burton. In the Opera theatre, Sydney Opera House.

I believe Opera to be the greatest of the performing art forms.

I also know that it is the hardest of all the forms to get right to justify such an observation. I have had GREAT experiences. A Meistersinger; aTristan; a Parsifal; a Tosca; a Boheme; a Boris; a Cosi; a Cendrillon; a Faust; a Jenufa; a Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; a Dialogues of the Carmelites; a Glass; an Adam. I have been going to the opera as a fan ever since the next to last seasons of the Australian Opera at the old Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown. Which means I have to, should, include my first ever opera Turandot with Morag Beaton and Donald Smith, and my second experience, Der Rosenkavalier, if not great, then, life changing.

Really, I HAVE seen and heard some great stuff, uh? But then, my youth is so golden in its remembrances.

My remembrances.

My theatre diary has had fewer and fewer attendances at the opera, simply because I cannot afford it and the Australian Opera repertoire is too repetitive and the artists not interesting enough. So, I go now, when I do, mostly, because there is an artist’s work that I need to see and hear or it is a work that I have never seen and really feel that I ought to know.

Hence, my attendance at Die tote Stadt by Erich Wolfgang Korngold at the Opera Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. Despite its silly libretto and the intriguing fact that it was written by father and son, Erich only 20 – the text is quite bizarre and different from the original source – : murder sex, the usual opera fantasises. (Freud should have analyzed this collaboration). The music is, was, the draw card.

Korngold was born in Brno in 1897 and died in Hollywood in 1957. At the age of 10 he played a composition of his own, GOLD, for Mahler who declared he was a genius. At age 11 he composed a ballet, DER SCHNEEMANN (THE SNOWMAN) – it was a sensation at the Vienna Court Opera. Strauss responded to Korngold’s first orchestral works, written when he was 15: “One’s first reaction that these compositions are by an adolescent boy are those of awe and fear…”. “Puccini was impressed with his first opera VIOLANTA (1916). His early fame reached its height with the appearance of his operatic masterpiece, Die tote Start, composed when he was 20 and acclaimed the world over after its dual premiere in Hamburg and Cologne (1920).” [1]

Max Reinhardt having collaborated with Korngold on work in Germany, took him to Hollywood in 1934. Reinhardt directed a version of Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM for the Hollywood Bowl and the Warner Brothers Studios decided to film it. The score used for the film was based on the Felix Mendelssohn’s music, but, it and other Mendelssohn music scores were re-arranged and re-orchestrated by Korngold. This was his first Hollywood film. The Nazi invasion of Austria, the Anschluss, prevented Korngold returning to Europe, and he remained in Hollywood composing music for the cinema. Two scores, ANTHONY ADVERSE (1936) and THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938), received Oscars – the Academy Award. After the war he returned to absolute music.

“Korngold was one of the last great Romantic composers. Over the years, however, he suffered neglect and savage criticism, largely because of changing trends and his association with Hollywood. Then in 1975, Die tote Stadt was revived to capacity houses in New York and the first recording was released… “.(1)

92 years after the original production, 37 years after its revival in the World Opera Houses, we get to see and hear it in Australia. Why wouldn’t one make an effort to see it? Coincidentally, Michael Curtiz’s THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD with Errol Flynn, Olivia de Haviland, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains was on the big screen at the Dendy Circular Quay, a couple of Monday’s ago, so, in preparation for the opera, I went (the Korngold score, my excuse).

Lyndon Terracini, the Artistic Director for Opera Australia, and Adrian Collette, Chief Executive, have been on a very active touting of the opera as a choice for the contemporary public to make in their leisure options in the last year or so. On Wednesday, July 11, 2012 the publicity department of Opera Australia achieved what must be a wonderful thing, two articles on the same day in the same paper, The Sydney Morning Herald. The first, on the front page, believe it or not! Banner headline: “Marriage of Figaro and footy will be a giant leap for fans”- a photograph of AFL players leaping for a ball in front of the Opera House arches accompanied the article. It seems footy fans for the AFL Greater Western Giants games will enjoy half-time arias courtesy of opera choirs with AFL players returning the favour by giving motivational talks to performers (I hope they video Cheryl Baker listening to the motivational talk, before she goes on to sing SALOME, or, guest soprano, Latonia Moore, just before AIDA, next week. Should be good reality television, don’t you think?). On the Arts Page, same day, another article “Opera Australia taps into singers in the suburbs” concerning choir practice out at Campbelltown Catholic Club as part of The Community Choirs Project. All good stuff, for the Opera Company to be seen as an active member of the the community, a model of cultural outreach, indeed. The Government will definitely love it and take note. So, it should. “I have always believed there are parallels between sport and opera,’ said Mr Terracini, whose approach to opera has included warning opera singers to shape up or ship out…” (maybe the singers can join the training sessions with the footy blokes in return for singing lessons?), “…staging opera on the harbour (LA TRAVIATA) and having orchestras play in different halls from the singers” – (Die tote Stadt). All very, “We’re just like you football fans (freaks), except we like opera too. Maybe, you could as well – be an opera fan (freak)”.

This and other ‘populist’ conversations that Mr Terracini has had with the press, radio and television are indeed great examples of recipes for bringing Opera to the attention of the general public. But, still, the proof that opera is a vibrant contemporary choice, that all this work by the artistic, corporate and publicity employees of Opera Australia, must add up to  palatable ‘puddings’ that we can ‘eat’: that is see and hear and ‘swallow’, the work in the theatre. No matter the hype, it is, surely, the final test of the great experience of the Opera, the performance. It will warrant the success of the Company.

And, if Die tote Stadt is an example of the new opera company for contemporary audiences at its best, than I must be crazy. For it was, by and large, in my experience, abominable. An excruciating night in the theatre. If any of Mr Terracini’s converts, AFL supporters or otherwise, are persuaded to attend this production they may never go again. All that effort for nothing. LA TRAVIATA on the harbour, all those fire works, all that sweating on the rain gods, all those choirs in the suburbs of Sydney, for nothing.

Now, I must declare that I am no expert in music. I simply attend it. Whatever the musical standard of preparation and performance may have been for this performance, it is not my territory of expertise. The music critics can judge that better than I. And, what I did hear, seemed, mostly, OK. The experiment with the orchestra downstairs in the Studio (as the orchestra required for this work is too huge to fit in the pit), conducted by Christian Badea, while Assistant Conductor, Anthony Legge (I assume) signalled the singers, in the theatre, was finely balanced. Tony David Cray, the Sound Designer, deserves high praise and recognition. The choir coming through the speakers in the latter part of the opera, perhaps, would have been better present around the auditorium, as in past productions e.g. FAUST – the stereo sound may have been more present.

However, musically, what I do wonder is, is the voice of Stefan Vinke, who sang the extraordinarily difficult role of Paul, the hero, too big for this hall? – I felt some of the guest singers that Simone Young had invited to sing in this theatre, in her Artistic time, were too big for the space, as well – the sound coming from Mr Vinke, and I was sitting in the Stalls, Row R, seat 26, seemed to be enormous, and I apprehended it as loud to blaring, with little real modulation? It became a little monotonous to the ear. And it seemed to me that Cheryl Barker, as Marie/Mariette, to balance her co-lead, was forced to sounds that were also noisy, loud, and full of vibrato. Is it, that, if the orchestra were in the pit that that musical ‘scoring’, on the page, was to overcome the volume of the orchestra, but in this case where the orchestra was being modulated through electronics, from a distant studio, that no adjustment had been made? I, merely, seek information, for other than Mr Vinke beginning a little raggedly, and I seeing an apparition of an arm from the prompt side of the wings proffer in its hand, a glass of water, which was drunk, in front of us, by Mr Vinke, (not seeing this kind of ‘thing’ since my experience in Shanghai at a performance of one of Madame Mao’s opera/musicals, where puffs of smoke from a back stage staff also wafted onto the theatrical action, a pulled back tab curtain revealing the culprit!), before his next eruption of sound, the water having smoothed away the “rags”, one was in awe of the concentration and stamina of Mr Vinke and Ms Barker. Of the other singers, Jose Carbo as Fritz and Deborah Humble as Brigitta were arresting in their modest opportunities.

The Director of this work, Bruce Beresford, with his Designer John Stoddart have produced a design solution for this work that is an uncomfortable, disconcerting visual puzzle. Together they have created a setting of a room in the hero of the opera, Paul’s house, in Bruges, in which, since the death of his wife, Marie, he has preserved mementos, alongside a portrait of her. It has become ‘a shrine of the past’. It is at an enormous scale with large wallpapered side walls and a huge veiled back wall, that can be raised to reveal projected scenic views of the city outside. Furniture is clinging to the side walls, a glass cabinet on one side wall, and on the other a conventional, small, hall stand to hang clothes, umbrellas etc., except for a small table and two chairs just off centre, prompt side. It has the look of a gigantic vestibule – an odd public space that, for me indicated an intermediate space from the outside to the main rooms – hardly that of a shrine in remembrance. The most peculiar interior design, architectural contribution, however, is the entry to this space, which is via a large u-shaped staircase – one lower end in the wings, entering and rising diagonally into the space, with ornate period railings, and the other end, declining well into the room. Just what was the architectural reality of this fancy and cumbersome stair entrance, I could not help being distracted, thoughtfully by.

I did find some, albeit, unhappy solution to the peculiarity to this interior design problem, when the second act commenced, and I saw that the same staircase had been brought onto stage and was now doubled as a bridge across a canal in the scenic solution to: “A Square in Bruges”. I gathered that the libretto had invented this story as a neurotic dream sequence for Paul, and, so, I began to wonder whether the staircase in the interior of the house for act one and three was also some projection by Paul, of the bridge in the second act? Some Freudian allusion? or, just budget lunacy? (all spent on the harbour TRAVIATA? Who knows?) Whatever? It was really very strange. I, sadly concluded, it had to be for budget or space reasons. (N.B. Bridge in above photograph is also the interior staircase for the room in Act One and Three)

Mr Beresford, is a very famous film director. In this production he has had designed Scenic Projection Images (Resolution Design. Creative Director, Tim Dyoff. Designers: Dylan McIntyre, Daniel Symons, Anthony Hayes. Executive Producer, Kent Boswell). In the first and third act, the interior veil, blind is raised at the back wall and blue tinted moving images are screened of the outside city of Bruge. Sometimes images are broadcast across the whole of the set, murkily. These images are haunting and give the character of the dead city a real presence. The metaphor of Bruge is a looming literary conceit of the novel, apparently, and is also in this libretto. It is unfortunate that in the third act we realise that these brooding images are on a loop and that the film repeats itself in a very obvious way (budget again?). One’s mind is entirely distracted for the wrong reasons.

In the second, outdoor act, projected images loom at the back of the stage. This is a contemporary element of design, metaphorical, haunting and impactful. Or, they would be, if the rest of the set had the same kind of aesthetic. Instead, Mr Beresford and Stoddart have contrived on one side of the stage, as a kind of proscenium mask, a realistic, full height, tall, brick convent like edifice, with a practical doorway to allow the nuns to enter and exit, topped with gold, moving bells that toll like ridiculous robotic cartoons, making sometimes no noise at all; and, on the other side of the proscenium, a matching realistic facade of a large brick house with practical front door, and, also, large gold bells on the top, similarly tolling a computer generated pattern – soundless, unless, co-ordinated, generally, by the score of Mr Korngold. Two huge, dominating realistic pieces of scenery from a handbook of design circa 1880, framing projected visual images circa design 1990, compete in a struggle for aesthetic vicissitude. It just doesn’t work. But worse is to come.

The stage space is perforce small and unfortunately, the opera requires a troupe of actors to arrive across the bridge (the first act staircase), crowding the space calamitously, dressed in the most outlandish silver-white costumes, ever I have seen on this stage. (see Photograph above – it a cropped image !) On top of that there is a dance. The choreography and the standard of dance is so woeful that one winces to relieve watching it (Choreography, Timothy Gordon). Were these costumes designed for the performers movement abilities or the tiny space or…???? If ever a photograph of this actual setting with this costume design and staging, were taken, there could not be further proof needed that this stage reduces this company to artistic offers worse than the worst of provincial opera houses or provincial theatres that I have attended. Rockdale Opera where are you? I thought. How did this happen? When did Mr Terracini see the design decisions (too late, it seems!) and why did he think they would be worthy of his touted new Opera Australia Company? Is it the reputation of Mr Beresford and Mr Stoddart that seduced or overrode his Artistic Director sensibilities? What happened?

Die tote Stadt at this level of production, no matter if it is sung well or not, musically ingenious or not, cannot bear close examination as a reasonable choice for the dollars of a contemporary audience. This opera is too large in every way for this dinky theatre. DINKY THEATRE. Fit the work to the stage. Help us believe in it. Stop deluding us with a sense of real possibility. The pit is always too small – ask the musicians. The stage is too small – ask the craftsmen and mechanics. It is an entirely unsuitable space for the opera company for most of its work. Either have a theatre that permits great things to happen or hand the funding to some other form that can aspire to this. Opera Australia cannot be an International Company of high reputation in such a space.

I am sure that Mr Teracini and Mr Collette and members of their Board know this. Why can’t the governments that want Sydney to be this World Centre (the tourist dollar) bite the bullet? Many, many years ago, someone else in government did. (Premier Cahill). Think big picture, not little. I prefer to see dance in Melbourne or the Capitol Theatre. I prefer my Opera there as well. The huge arts re-construction in the big centre down in Melbourne reflects a Big Vision for the Arts, and will shift all competition between cities completely away. Invest in the Harbour, and the tiled arches of the Utzon design, to keep them sparkling. Forget about any thing else. Put your vaudeville, Contemporary Ideas-think sessions, bread and circus, hip-hop acts, celebrities in the building. Shift the name away from the Sydney Opera House to the fast becoming Sydney Performing Arts Complex and we may have it right. The commercial wing of the House management are getting it right. It recognises there is no market in the ARTS with a capital A in Sydney. Take me to Melbourne. Shift the Opera Company to Melbourne. The Victorian Arts Centre can accommodate it. Isn’t that why the Opera Australia “Ring” is being done there? (tickets on sale, now). I’m going down there to catch it. Just as some of us travelled to Adelaide.  Adelaide/Sydney? Sydney does not have a theatre that can accommodate it. Too true. I’d rather see the Opera as a guest company at the Lyric or Capital than at the Sydney Opera House.

I found the visual choices of this production disappointing and worse embarrassing. This year in Sydney, via the Metropolitan Opera High Definition broadcasts – I have seen the New York Metropolitan Opera Company present many pieces of work. True, on the big screen but, still, impressively (like Die tote Stadt, the sound is technologically produced but it is superior in every way). If one wants to see a cutting edge theatre company, let alone Opera Company, merely witness the Robert La Page “Ring” cycle. To be even more dazzled look at the Metropolitan’s production of Philip Glass’ SATYAGRAHA – a work of design and interpretative brilliance that belongs on a 21st century stage. Look at their productions of the ‘war horses’ – LA TRAVIATA etc and weep. At $23 -$29, a steal. I say go to the Orpheum, the Chauvel, The Dendy, the Verona with your money, time and patronage until our government thinks again.

I know the Metropolitan in New York is the greatest, or one of the greatest opera houses in the world. The Metropolitan infrastructure, stage and budget allow it to be so. It is absolutely stupid for Australia, Sydney, to claim to be an International city or a centre for the arts. Or even to have ambition to be so without immediate action. The Sydney Opera House is externally a Wonder of the World – that is the tourist attraction, not what happens inside it. None of the present theatres can command that reputation. While Government continue the delusion that the world comes to Sydney to see the arts the more disastrous the future will be. A running gag about Australia and Opera in the National Theatre production, ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS by Richard Bean, raised no laughter in the Sydney audience I saw it with (at the Chauvel). We know about opera in Australia and it is no laughing matter. Sydney needs a theatre that can create, at proper scale, the Great Performing Arts for the 21st Century. We do not need another Casino Mr Packer, Mr O’Farrell but a new Opera Theatre. How about it, Mr Packer? How about it Mr O’Farrell? Barangaroo or bust, I reckon. Casino for a decent Opera House. The Packer Family Opera House. Or, the Gina Theatre!

Die tote Stadt, whatever its virtues, finally got me riled with enough enraged humiliation for our Opera Company, I just had to say, what Dame Edna would, should, if she could. Barry, don’t retire, create a new character to advocate for a decent Opera House, performance space, post haste.

Julia, Tony, tax the rich and call it philanthropy, benevolence. Say, your ‘gunna’ do it, ‘garn’. Bi-partisan agreement. Garn…..

1. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley sadie. Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1980.