So, Die Tote Stadt.
An opera I have loved since I first saw it on TV one afternoon in the now legendary performance from Strasbourg. And finally I have seen it in the flesh. And I am happy I did.
But, before we start I think we need to get something sorted first. Die Tote Stadt (the dead city) has something in common with another show I saw this year: Company (Sondheim)
They are both shows that stand or fall by whether you care about the lead male. If you cannot care about the lead, be it Paul in DTS or Robert in Company, you will find the performance trying. No matter how good the others, the person at the centre undergoing the transformation has to be someone you care about, or it all falls apart and there is nothing to keep your interest. No matter how much you may enjoy the music, if the character does not interest you, it all ends up a bit hollow.
Now, with DTS, I have to say, this opera is full of gorgeous music. Full of it! It is a lush, melodic mass of beauty that should leave you awash and blissed out, assuming you like late romantic era lushness. And at its heart is a man who has failed to deal with his wife's death. He is living in a house that has become a shrine to her, and failing to build a new life with out her.
Then of course, he meets a young woman who is the image of his dead wife. Of course it all seems to good to be true, and thus it proves to be. But not without lots of gorgeous music, and he comes out of it stronger, once again returning to the land of the living, not the city of the dead.
So, what did I think of this performance? Well, to be honest, while I love this music, I found the problem I referred to above. Our Paul was not someone to care about. Having a Marietta who was more interesting (and frankly, a much better singer) than Paul meant that the person we needed to care about was a blank space, a dead weight the other characters had to carry.
To my mind, as Paul, Stefan Vinke was far and away the weakest performer in the whole show. While he was the character around whose actions the whole story revolves (and in whose dreams much of it happens), he was not a performer you wanted to be central. Through out the first act, I was worried about how he sounded. His was the voice of someone struggling to handle a role that seemed too big for him, possibly coupled with illness or something similar. I mean, he sang most of the notes, but a lot sounded very ugly, not the beautiful voice that you will need to make people want to care about you. To be honest, his voice did settle in the second act, sounding less strangled and more confident, but I was still hearing hoarseness, making me wonder if he was tired or ill, or else having some other problem that should be investigated. I mean, I am not saying he sounds like Kim Carnes or anything, but there is to my ear, something worrying in his sound, that suggests vocal health issues. It also does not help that his is a muscular style of voice, with harsh metal sounds, not the beautiful big lyric-esque sounds that we dream of hearing in this sort of music.
As to his Marie/Marietta, well Cheryl Barker surprised me. To be honest, I have never really understood her appeal. The only times I have heard her live I felt she sounded too small for the roles she was singing. But as Marietta, she certainly had voice to spare. Her bright tones suited this role amazingly. She certainly sang Vinke off the stage! She is also a good enough dancer to get away with portraying a dancer on stage. Im not saying that she danced lots, or anything difficult, but she did enough to make it believable, which is all we could hope for. Frankly, I think we would have been better served if Marietta was the focus of the opera not Paul with this cast.
As Paul's housekeeper, Deborah Humble was a standout. She took the small role of the housekeeper and made it special. Hers is definitely a voice I will be looking for in the future.
As for Marietta's theatrical colleagues, I only need to say that silver people rule. Jose Carbo proved a great Peirrot, singing his aria with clarity and beauty of tone, even if a little bit too Italianate in sound. His fellow silver people either sang or danced beautifully, giving that sense of an performing troupe a bit out of touch with reality quite brilliantly. Their scene in act 2 had a life all of its own, a total contrast to the depression of Paul through out the rest. As it should.
As Frank, Paul's friend, Michael Honeyman did his best to make a blank canvas into a real person, but the role is one of those roles whose main purpose is to be part of a conversation, not to take on a life of their own.
This production was mostly very traditional. The staging was designed paying attention to the script, and nothing was too jarring. Of course, there was also little that was memorable, besides the costumes of the silver people and Marietta. Even Frank was dressed in a fairly somber fashion. There was extensive use of projections throughout the opera, some of which worked, some which didn't. I really did not like the roses on the scrim, or the light at the end. Surely there is some better way of indicating his decision than the cliche of walking towards the light?
But of course, no production of this opera can really escape that this is an opera whose first act is always going to be difficult. You have to be made to care about Paul from the start, or it just feels like so much wankery. Wankery set to beautiful music sure, but still wankery. At the first interval, one of my two opera going companions left because he could not see the point, the other was tempted to as well, but was glad to have stayed by the end of the second act. And, to be honest, I could see their point. I knew that there was much still to admire in Korngold's score, so there was no way I would leave before the end. And I was glad I did. I left, feeling both blessed out by the music, yet frustrated by the performance of Paul and our lack of concern at his plight. Yes, it is a hard role, but there are many others who can do it justice. In my dreams I hope for Andrew Richards or Stuart Skelton, but, I expect that I will not see this production mounted again in Sydney. Then again, I never expected to see it in Australia at all, so...