Cheryl Barker and Stefan Vinke in Die Tote Stadt | Opera Theatre

Let’s face it, with a name like Die Tote Stadt, it doesn’t sound like a happy musical.

A man needs a wife. Well, that’s debatable. But Paul does. He just can’t get over the loss of his wife Marie. Until Mariette comes along that is. Mariette bares an eery likeness to Marie (hardly surprising in this case, with both roles fulfilled by Cheryl Barker). But is Mariette the secret, the key to unlocking Paul’s salvation?

That’s where the tension lies in this opera, by Erich Korngold, probably best-known as a Hollywood film composer, but who had another life before that. The Dead City is the masterwork many of us have never heard, or even heard of, which makes it all the more exciting to hear its soaring, wonderful score. Soaring, but not overly sentimental, even if the narrative is wedded to nostalgia. It’s dramatic, much of the time, and very challenging work for the principals, who often have to rise over the full force of the orchestra.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. And, sometimes, weaker, if one’s spirit ascends (if you should subscribe to such lofty philosophy) with the deceased, never to return to earth. As a widow, or widower, one is prone to forget one’s partner’s fondness for blowing bubbles in the bath; or eating mashed potato, mouth open. The lost one is glorified.

As a focal point for John Stoddart’s design, a portrait of Marie glows, angelically, from on high. She looks almost Madonna-like (the original one), milky-white and holding a lute, as angels are prone to do. Even the floor and walls of this veritable crypt are painted almost midnight blue, punctured by diffuse yellow stars; an aesthetic redolent of Vincent’s most famous painting. The stair which descends into the room is almost like  the crossing from the mundane to the sublime. The ceiling is high. This is a set that has been thought through. A small box, looking like a Madurodam cottage, becomes a tiny coffin when red roses are strewn around it. Stefan Vinke is Paul, a man who’s erected a shrine, emotionally and actually, to Marie, his late wife. He’s stuck. Bigtime. He is so sentimental as to hold a plait of her hair. It’s in that tiny coffin. Here’s a man that hasn’t come to terms with the seven stages of grief.

Not for the first time, Bruce Beresford directs. A definite first, though, as far as I know, is to take the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra out of the pit and lead them, by a trail of crotchets and quavers one presumes, down to The Studio, with their live performance ‘beamed up’ to the Opera Theatre, but before being mixed into cinematic surround sound. Mmm. Yes, sounds like a gimmick. And it is. At particular points, it was discernible and had some value, offering the kind of separation and perspective one might seek from a decent hi-fi, if it’s permissible and not too old school to refer to home sound systems as such. But the whole idea is a bit arseabout. I mean, as a hi-fi enthusiast, I was steeped in the notion that the whole point of reproduced sound is just that: to reproduce, as faithfully as possible, live sound. So to have live sound emulating something more contrived is a little out of kilter in principle.

Nonetheless, Tony David Cray has done a (dare I say) sound job in resisting multiphonic mania, instead calibrating the placement so that when it was in play it actually had some value. For example, hearing the choir, in the street in Bruges, approaching from the right-rear was, indeed, cinematic and really put us right there at home with Paul.

A three-act, three-hour opus, it’s based on Bruges-La-Morte, a novella by one Georges Rodenbach. (His was the first-ever work of fiction to be illustrated with photographs. Come to think of it, how many have there been since?) Who’s he, when he’s at home? Well, he’s probably best-known as a Belgian-born symbolist poet of the late 19th century. Certainly, the opera’s title would seem to reflect the symbolist’s obsession to transcend the mundane. The libretto, despite being credited to Paul Schott, was written by Erich and his father, Julius. Why the pseudonym? Good question!

There are highlights aplenty, visually and aurally, but the first or second scene of the third act was one in which all elements conspired to overwhelm our senses. Nigel Levings superbly-calibrated lighting made for noir shadows and transformed the mood of the set at numerous points. The soft, monochromatic images seen through the massive arch window in Paul’s home were the very quintessence of nostalgia; painterly and hazy with the fog of memory. Notions of the past were embodied in this one strand alone. Musically, there was thunder and, all things considered, the thrillometer needle pushed off the scale.

The last scene, as well, is, in all respects, sublime. Perhaps the most admirable nuance of the whole production is the chaise upon which Paul is seen to recline, here and there. It’s a constant clue that all of this tumult and psychological torture amounts to nothing but a pizza-before-bedtime dream. “The dead send dreams like that to haunt us.” Yikes!

Die Tote Stadt was an ambitious undertaking, to say the least, for a 23-year-old with but two one-acters up his sleeve to that point. But the fact was that these short works had been incredibly successful, so getting the grander work up was no trouble at all. In fact, theatres vied for it. The demand was so great that it premiered, just before the silly season in 1920, in both Hamburg and Cologne simultaneously. (The conductor in Cologne was Colonel Klink’s father Otto Klemperer.)

Of course, given the timing, not very long after the tumult of World War I, the rapport was immediate and profound. After all, Die Tote Stadt is all about loss, loss of a loved one, and there’d been a lot of that going around. But it was identified with well beyond German borders, touring internationally. Operatically-speaking, at least, it was one of the biggest hits of the ’20s. But, speaking of Klink, it was his fuhrer, a certain, unimpressive-looking, Brylcreemed, moustachioed mutterficker, who banned Korngold’s opera on the grounds he was Jewish.

The tragedy is, this has such a lasting effect, it’s only in recent years that it’s been plucked from obscurity. It’s French debut, for example, was in 2009. Now, glory be, it’s our turn. The Nazis were nothing, if not efficient.

Cheryl Barker and Jose Carbo in Die Tote Stadt | Opera Theatre

Beautiful baritone Jose Carbo, who plays Fritz, says he was uplifted as never before when he first heard, or sung, his aria. No wonder. It’s ravishing, but one can’t imagine any moreso than when sung by him. They were made for each other. Carbo knows, discovering this opera is like finding buried treasure. (And with only six performances to run, you’d better book, if you still can.)

It’s almost impossible to believe Korngold was only 23 when he wrote this work. He was either very wordily very young, very well-read, or both. His depth of empathy for the brokenhearted reflects a maturity his tender years betray. And to write an opera in which the hero, through immense suffering, torment and wrestling (not to mention a couple of strangulations), finally finds peace and equilibrium, but not through romantic or sexual love, was sophisticated, to say the least. Perhaps that’s where Julius’ influence was brought to bear. Paul’s story seems to be an emblematic way to propagate a philosophy emphasising the transcendent, as against the fleetingly corporeal.

Given the propensity towards promulgation of Catholic doctrine, it’s ironic the Third Reich should’ve banished it. Just goes to show what pedantic sticklers for ethnic cleansing they were. For a would-be aesthete, Hitler was prepared to throw an awful lot of art away. How eerily ironic that this opera should repeatedly proclaim, through the medium of Marietta, a dancer by profession, that ‘art is free’.

While I think of it, choreography, by Tim Gordon, was excellent and his charges have been very well-versed. Cheryl Barker danced almost as well as she sang.

I’ve mentioned Carbo and my admiration for his role. Deborah Humble’s mezzo performance was not so much humble, as humbling, as Brigitta, Paul’s unflinchingly loyal, if somewhat nosey, interfering and judgmental housekeeper. Like Julia she’s Welsh-born, but her vocal tone is much more attractive. Michael Honeyman’s baritone vies with Carbo’s for attention and appreciation; he’s Paul’s friend, Frank. There are some pretty heavy hitters on the relative periphery and all turn in what might be expect of them (a lot): David Corcoran is Gaston; Stephen Smith, Count Albert; Sharon Prero, Juliette; Dominica Matthews, Lucienne.

The stars, however, are Barker and Stefan Vinke. At the top of her range, where she spent much of the opera, Barker was enthralling, but sowed some surprising vulnerability, on the night, in the lower parts of her register. One suspects the cold and flu season may not have left her totally unscathed. I can think of precious few other explanations. Vinke, like Barker, has so much native power, he can almost literally rival the orchestra’s volume. Extraordinary. His tone varies. At times, it’s utterly glorious; as warm and enticing as a log cabin in a snowstorm. At others, quite sharp and rather colder. Typically, that serves a purpose, but the functionality doesn’t always equate, to my ears, to the utmost musicality. To put it another way, he seems to be working to develop his helden, which is currently still vying with the Italian dramatic tenor in him, for vocal supremacy. But he’s young. It’s only a matter of time before he’s consistently laying us in the aisles, begging for more.

It’s easy to see or, rather, hear, what Hollywood liked  about Korngold. His orchestration is the epitome of lush; luxuriant with strings. Put it this was: if you like Puccini or Strauss (Richard, that is) you’ll love Korngold. You’ll likely fall in love with Beresford all over again, too. He may be big-framed and balding, but he’s still got it. And is finding new ways to flaunt it. His hand is so fine (ably assisted by Cathy Dadd), even the bows look outstanding. The carefully art directed arrangement of personnel on stage is very pleasing. And to see the whole orchestra emerge from behind a backdrop to invade and overrun the stage was a brilliant touch. They deserve the up close and personal adulation. A big-up, also, for stage management. There’s a lot to move around in twenty minutes and it’s not often I stop to reflect on just how much gets done, so seamlessly (at least as it appears to us, which is all that really counts) while we’re sipping sparkling wine and chowing down on finger sandwiches.

Die Tote Stadt is alive and well. Long live Korngold!

The details: Die Tote Stadt has five more performances at the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House until July 18. Tickets on the company website.