Korngold’s Die tote Stadt is an extraordinary opera, an often underrated masterpiece of the 20th century. On the face of it, it has a simple plot – the protagonist Paul, unable to overcome the death of his wife, falls in love with another woman, Marietta, similar to his dead wife in many ways. Overcome with feelings of guilt and betrayal, he eventual kills Marietta, only to wake up and discover it was all a dream. This is, however, a simple plot with deep contemporary resonances.

Cheryl Barker as Marie or Mariette with perfoming artists of Opera Australia © Lisa Tomasetti
Cheryl Barker as Marie or Mariette with perfoming artists of Opera Australia
© Lisa Tomasetti

The work was performed in more than 80 different opera houses in 1920, at a time when depression was gripping post-war Europe and people were clinging to the hope of a better future. Just like Paul in Korngold’s opera, they struggled with feelings of guilt and betrayal, and somehow needed an impetus to leave the past behind, to rekindle their confidence in a bright future, to wipe the slate clean and live a renewed existence. The overwhelming positivity at the conclusion of Korngold’s epic drama is incredibly moving, as Paul final accepts that the only way to live is to leave the past behind and to carve out some kind of revived existence with renewed hope. This surely must have had powerful resonances with the audiences of the 1920s.

Staging such an opera in Sydney Opera House creates problems. Requiring an orchestra of over forty string players, multiple wind and brass parts, two harps, piano, organ and a vast array of percussion, Die tote Stadt is impossible to stage here in the conventional way, as the orchestra simply would not fit in the pit. Therefore, in a new innovation, the pit was empty except for a conductor to cue the singers, and the orchestra was placed in a neighboring studio, their sound relayed into the Opera Theatre via speakers. Any reservations I previously had about such a scheme were quickly put to rest as the sound was vibrant and immediate. Indeed, it was extremely difficult to tell that the orchestral sound was not being produced live in the theatre.

Opera Australia’s stage production was both very practical and effective. Acts I and III are both set in Paul’s house. For this, the stage was turned into a large living room, with a portrait of Paul’s dead wife hanging in the centre on the back wall, while a small case containing a braid of her hair was placed on a table in the centre of the room. This braid of hair takes on extra significance in the final act, when Marietta uses it to taunt Paul over his guilt and feelings of betrayal towards his dead wife. After this, shortly before waking from his dream, Paul snatches it from Marietta and uses it to strangle her, before his spine-chilling declamation that she is now just like his dead wife.

The set for Act II showed a cobbled street with the entrance to a church on one side of the stage and the entrance to Marietta’s house on the other, with an arched bridge stretching towards the back of the stage, providing the set with a bit of depth and perspective. The dancing in this act was visually impressive as the characters acted out a scene from Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable. The religious procession in the final act was also very effective and was complete with a canopy for the bishop and an altar boy swinging a thurible of incense, which filled the auditorium with a wonderful aroma.

The role of Paul must be one of the most demanding in the whole operatic repertoire. It was written for a so-called heldentenor and requires the singer to sing consistently high in his range as well as lyrically. I felt that the stamina required for this role sometimes stretched Stefan Vinke, and some passages sounded rather strained. However, there were some beautiful moments – especially towards the end of Act III, even though Vinke must have been vocally exhausted by this point. He nonetheless managed to pull out all the stops and sing a beautiful rendition of the reprise of Marietta’s song from Act I. Cheryl Barker suited the role of Marietta perfectly. Her voice had a warm and rich tone which was used to great effect in Act III, where she taunts Paul and his guilt. She produced a sound imbued with an almost cold-hearted nature, which was coupled with some powerful acting as she exploited Paul’s weakness. Michael Honeyman was impressive too, playing the part of Paul's friend, Frank. However, the musical highlight for me was “Pierrot’s Tanzlied”, sung in Act II by Fritz, played by José Carbó. This is beautiful music, and was here sung by one of Opera Australia’s brightest stars. Carbó sang with great emotional intensity, producing his characteristically silky tone. Even though this is his only solo aria in the entire opera, Carbó deservedly received a hugely enthusiastic response from the audience at the curtain call.

It was great to see Opera Australia producing such repertoire in Sydney Opera House. In the past, the size of the stage and pit has limited the productions they have been able to stage, but with Die tote Stadt it seems that they may have paved the way for larger-scale productions in the future.

***11