Die tote Stadt – 2

On Saturday with D to see this. It is an opera written in 1920 or thereabouts by Erich Korngold, who subsequently had to leave Europe for the usual reasons at that time and ended up (as we all know) in Hollywood.

We sat in row E. I mention this not only in homage to David Gyngell’s reviews in the former publication Opera Opera but because of the experiment of piping the orchestra (and also the chorus) in electronically through speakers.

Row E was too close for this. The orchestra sounded like film music – not because (as OA have emphasised as a marketing hook) Korngold was subsequently a film composer, but because the music came through speakers placed in the front of the orchestra pit (the stage also came forward a bit over the usual pit). Sometimes this was effective, mostly for lighter woodwind scoring, but orchestral choirs in the alto register in particular came across with a really “canned” sound; I also thought the violins were miked too close so that the sound never really gelled. Sometimes the sound seemed compressed; other times there was a boominess of the bass which reminded me of when you have the “loudness” button turned on. There was not the space and air around the sound – including the brass choirs (though trumpet solos, for example, were fine) that a live orchestra has.

Further back, I would have probably been grateful for the increased volume in comparison to the inadequate sound that escapes from the pit unless (as I do, normally) you sit right up close and maybe the unreality of the sound would not have been so noticeable.

Another feature of the “sound production” was that offstage chorus was piped in with “surround sound.” Along the way, the temptation was yielded to to beef up the volume to improbable levels, particularly with an offstage children’s chorus for the “Corpus Christi” scene in the final act.

People often like to say that film is like opera (the successor of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk etc etc). I don’t think this comparison works in both directions: opera is not like film. In the Corpus Christi scene it may just have been that we were too close (and you can be too close to the screen at the movies too) because there was something weird about a stage full of silent supernumeraries whilst the protagonist alone was singing. The much-vaunted filmic effects (various projections) didn’t amount to all that much.

The killings, when they came (there were two) were pretty risible. I think the problem was that, despite surrealist touches, so much was presented in a superficially naturalistic way that when it didn’t measure up to that standard there was an incongruity.

The part of Paul, the grieving widower, was taken by Stefan Vinke. He has an international reputation in this role, which made some of the vocal strain that he showed all the more surprising. It must have been something to do with his approach (which has been described as “strident” in relation to this role) and the vocal writing. It was most notable in the first act (which goes almost straight into a pretty high gear) and in some return of the same musical material in the last act. It certainly wasn’t that Vinke lacked stamina, because he most definitely had that, or strength. And the part is extraordinarily demanding. I can’t think of any singer on OA’s local roster who could have handled it. As for Vinke’s acting, D thought that he was not helped at all by his costume; I thought the direction was the problem. It seems Paul is meant to be gloomy and morose and morbid and buttoned-up and religious, but there needs to be a more striking way of presenting that than just having him do almost nothing on the stage.

Cheryl Barker as Marie/Marietta had more to do and didn’t suffer from these acting limitations, aside from looking a little matronly when she and Vink tripped over (as in tripping hither/thither, not fall-and-trip) the staired bridge over the Bruges canal. Jose Carbo was a treat.

The Act II dancing made the stage look even more pitifully small than usual.

The opera is a bit slow to get going (which is what makes the high-octane music in the first act a bit odd) but by the end I did feel despite some creakiness along the way that I’d travelled an emotional journey and in the closing moments I could cast aside my reservations about Vinke’s earlier awkwardnesses. I’d count it an adventurous choice by OA rather than a triumph.

I’d be keener to see the opera again if either I were feeling richer or there were a big enough orchestra pit and stage to do it justice. Melbourne, maybe?

Alternately, while we’re in this operatic neck of the woods, what about Krenek’s Johnny Spielt Auf?

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