Orrore! Orrore!

July 31, 2016

Letter M


That’s what Paolo (Warwick Fyfe in Opera Australia’s production) says in Simon Boccanegra when he is forced to curse himself.

It’s also what I thought when I went tonight for the third time and saw a replacement cast sheet for not one artist (Natalie Aroyan) as expected but two.  The second slot was for Michael Honeyman, replacing George Petean in the title role.

I confess I had wondered, when I contemplated the three performances (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) in a row how Petean would manage.  It’s a big sing  – and there will have been a dress rehearsal not far behind that as well.

The lot of an understudy/cover can be a thankless one.  After the initial disappointment, Michael Honeyman grew on me.  He couldn’t match Petean’s gasp-inducing stage fall at the end, and he was better at the stentorian moments than the lyrical, but he deserved the warm reception he received at the end.

Amusingly, the poisoned glass was broken when Diego Torres sank an impassioned dagger into the table on which it awaited Boccanegra after being baited by Paolo (Fyfe) and fell to the floor. Mr Honeyman had to come in with a fresh glass. Properly, this should have called for a total rewrite of the ending of the opera.

In the pit, there was also a bit of covering going on: Katherine Lukey and Catalin Ungureanu stepped up to the front violin desks instead of Jun Yi Ma and Huy-Nguyen Bui.  (There had been a matinee performance of Così.)  I don’t know if it was a coincidence or a matter of third-time lucky/better, but the first violins definitely made a better fist of the moment extracted above than in the first two performances.

Even water from the spring is bitter to the one who rules

July 29, 2016





On Thursday to the second and my second performance of Opera Australia’s revival of its 2000 production of Simon Boccanegra.  Above is the state of the house just before (metaphorically speaking) curtain up.  An usher described it to me as “a light house.”

Second time was even better than the first.  Which is why the light house is such a shame.

Some of that was the performance (trivial example: the torches in the final scene worked properly; less trivial example, some dodgy entries were fixed up) but more of it was that I had disentangled the plot better.

This is notoriously complicated.

In the prologue, Paolo (Warwick Fyfe: I still miss fat Warwick a bit but as he doesn’t need to be funny it’s less of a loss in this role) schemes to make Boccanegra doge of Genoa. Boccanegra is not especially keen for this but is persuaded in the hope that the nobleman Fiesco, who has locked up in his palace his daughter, Maria(1), with whom Boccanegra has had a daughter, Maria(2), would not refuse Boccanegra as son-in-law once he became doge.

Unfortunately, Maria(1) has just died.  Fiesco refuses to be reconciled to Boccanegra unless Boccanegra returns to him Maria(2). Boccanegra cannot do that because the old woman to whose care he had entrusted Maria(2) has died and the child cannot be found.

Flash forward 25 or so years to Act I.  Boccanegra is still doge.  He visits Amelia, daughter of the noble house of Grimaldi.  All of the Grimaldis save Amelia have been exiled.  Boccanegra offers to pardon them: his intent is to persuade her to marry Paolo.

But Amelia is no Grimaldi.  The true Amelia died as an infant and Amelia was smuggled in as a foundling to prevent the family estates being forfeited by reason of the exile of the men of the family.  Amelia is Maria(2)!  She is not interested in marrying Paolo as she loves Diego Torres.

Boccanegra abruptly tells Paolo to forget his hopes of marrying her.  He doesn’t offer any explanation, though that he was willing to give Paolo his enemy’s daughter but not his own would presumably not make things any better.  Now Paolo, too, is his enemy.

In Act II, Boccanegra utters the words in the title to this post when, his throat burning, he takes a drink of water.  You can take it, and he means it, as a version of “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”

Dramatic irony: Paolo has poisoned the water.  From this Boccanegra will eventually die, which basically takes up Act III.

There are intrigues, plots, counterplots, insurrections.  As the booklet to the CD set I borrowed from the Con library puts it: Boccanegra is a good man who seeks peace among others who behave as though he were terrible and cruel.  In the same booklet, William Mann describes the opera as “Verdi on Politics and Parenthood.”

The music is a mix of seething political drama, dark plotting, revelations and reconciliations and frequent invocation of nature, especially the sea: Genoa was a maritime state and Boccanegra a sailor.  There are pregnant pauses (well measured by conductor Palumbo).  The opera is maybe a bit short of big or even catchy “tunes.”  But once I got a grasp of the drama I didn’t miss these and in context there are definitely a few ear-worms.  Improbable though some twists and turns are, the opera is dramatic and ultimately moving.

I even warmed to the single set, though I still find the dress-up box business just a bit tiresome.

It’s a big sing, especially for Simon, sung in this case by Romanian (or, more exotically, Transylvanian) George Petean . Intriguingly, Petean’s (by my reckoning more than 20 years older) half-brother, Alexandru Agache, has also been a prominent Simon Boccanegra.  Nor is this Petean’s first visit to Australia as he has come here before with Simone Young courtesy of his connexion as a singer at Hamburg.

Petean sang warmly and with great variety of tone and expression.  The tessitura is a highish baritone but he was entirely comfortable with it.  When the moment called for it, his voice cracked with tears. He also managed a very creditable stage fall on Simone’s death which drew an audible gasp from from the audience each time.  That’s probably easier to do while you are still in real life relatively youthful, as Petean is.  Maybe he’s still just a touch young for the part but we mightn’t get him here when he is older.

The scenes between Petean and Italian bass Giacomo Prestia as Fiesco were a highlight.

Now naturalised-Australian tenor Diego Torres has a somewhat penetrating sound but he also knows how to moderate it.

Natalie Aroyan as Amelia/Maria(2) wasn’t quite up to the level of those three.  If I were more knowledgeable I would probably be able to put my finger on specific points but it was more that I was left imagining a slightly greater range of characterisation than I felt she was able to give which could have led to a more thrilling performance at certain points. I felt in particular that Torres could have been better with a stronger foil.

However, the whole was still deeply satisfying and in the last act you could feel the audience spellbound. I am very much looking forward to Saturday and my third attendance.

That will probably be my last, though the run is of 9 performances in all.  I hope the houses improve: only the matinee appears from the Opera’s website to be really full.

Fortunately, Così and Carmen appear to be pretty well sold out for the balance of their runs.




Out of the dressing up box

July 27, 2016

On Tuesday to Opera Australia’s Simon Boccanegra.

This is a rarity for Sydney.  I last saw it as part of the Olympic Arts festival in 2000.

The conceit of the production is that a bunch of (presumably) Genoans have decided to rehearse this episode from their civic history.  In a space that looks vaguely like the underside of a circa 1900 (presumably meant actually to be circa 1881) equivalent to a container terminal (Genoa by the sea) they take some costumes (basically, surcoats of various colours and styles) out of a chest and get on with the show.

In a way that is legitimate because SB, especially as revised in 1881 with the Council scene, is Verdi’s own revisiting of Risorgimento dreams of Italy in the light of 20-odd years falling short of an earlier ideal.

At the same time it is a rather lame way of excusing a single set and a paucity of costumes.  Not that turn of the (C19-C20) century Italians would ever have commemorated their history without some gorgeous trecento costumes – as any record of early productions of Simon Boccanegra would immediately make clear.  Of course, since then the economic relativities of audience and seamstress incomes (other than in third world sweatshops) have changed.

Word in the foyer as I bought a set of the new-fangled chicken and walnut sandwiches was that last week Lyndon Terracini had sent home Barbara Frittoli, the originally advertised Amelia.  This enables him to make a star (possibly) of Natalie Aroyan, who now seems slated to perform the role for the whole run.  (Photos on OA’s facebook page, presumably from the final dress rehearsal, feature Natalie.)  Time will tell.

I should add that word elsewhere is that Frittoli had to withdraw for family reasons, though there was no note to that effect on the leaflet announcing her replacement.

I was a bit shocked at the state of the house, especially upstairs.  Maybe the days of the first-night crowd have come to an end. It is an obscure work.  My own feeling is that LT has given up on the cognoscenti and if they are still alive and out of the nursing home they are giving up on him, which is a self-fulfilling vicious circle.

I warmed to the work rather than the production.  For me, in the end, it’s the music that matters and there was much to appreciate once this gathered steam.

Because SB‘s a rarity I’m going again on Thursday and Saturday – saving the best seat for last (I hate an anti-climax). I’m looking forward to it.




SIPCA 2016 3 – the verdict

July 24, 2016

On Friday and Saturday with D to the C19 and C20 concerto finals of the Sydney International Piano Competition.

We were home for the announcement of the prizes.

No complaint about the winner: Andrey Gugnin looked a likely winner from the first round (according to others I respect).  I really liked his Kreutzer sonata with Tasmin Little and his Prokofiev, and his semi-final recital was also impressive.  And though we only saw his C18 concerto streamed, D and I both thought he was the best of that night.

The special prizes awarded by the jury, so far as I correlate them to players I heard live (or, if streamed, the comments of those who were there), also seemed well-judged.

The Sydney Symphony gave their own prize for best concerto to Gugnin.

With the introduction of internet voting and also earlier “paper” voting the people’s choice prize was always going to be a bit of a wild-card. You wonder how exactly the voting could be audited – in previous years a vote at the finals with a piece of paper from the program had at least a fairly straightforward means of verification of votes.  I was a bit surprised to see this prize go to Xie Ming, given that he hadn’t reached even the semi-finals, but he was definitely a likeable and popular competitor.  As Mr Flamboyant it was fitting that he received an award in commemoration of Dennis Hennig.

It was gratifying to see each that each of the three players whose failure to progress to the semi-finals I regretted were awarded special prizes, including the jury chipping in for a special prize for Martin Malmgren.

But I might as well cut to the chase.  Given that the jury thought Kong Jia Ning played the best semi-final recital (memorable Bach and then the Diabelli variations) and that he played the best eighteenth century concerto, it seems strange that at sixth place he came in last of all the finalists.  Was his Brahms concerto (by far the most difficult choice and yes, an ambitious choice for him) really that bad?

It didn’t seem so to me.  In The Australian Murray Black had a go at Kong for forcing his tone in the first two movements (“all iron fist and no velvet glove”).  This is not an area where you can educate your taste with recordings. In my experience of live performances (in recent years: Hammelin with the WASO in 2009, Bianconi with the SSO in 2012) there has always been some stringency of tone.

I know  (eg but not only him) I’m not the only one who thinks Kong could have been more highly placed.

All right, have it your way…

July 24, 2016


OK, there are better pictures, but I was quite pleased to find when I took a quick loop around the Opera House prior to Saturday’s 5pm session of the finals to the Sydney International Piano Competition that the other international visitors were in residence.

I was surprised to find their presence (albeit it was a fairly static display) so unremarked, though not entirely:





[Title reference]


July 23, 2016


Recently there has been so much po-faced recollection of battles fought in France a century ago and extraordinary expenditure on the retrieval and identification of the remains of men whom few alive can possibly have known .  By now there must even be relatively few people who will have known people who knew them and grieved for them. What is the purpose of this expenditure? Is it to offer encouragement to existing servicemen and their families that if they die their bodies will be retrieved?  If so, it seems to me, the expenditure is by way of encouraging further military adventures rather than commemorating the fallen.

Both my grandfathers were at Gallipoli and then in France.

My maternal grandfather, who joined as a saddler, afterwards became a big figure in his country town RSL branch.

According to my father, his father (who enlisted in Perth on his return from Cambridge for the long vacation) never spoke of the war to his family.

After Gallipoli, my great-grandparents and especially my great-grandmother pulled all sorts of strings (letters to Sir John Forrest, visits to the War Office in Whitehall) to get my grandfather out of the AIF so that he could take up a commission with the British Army in the Field Artillery.

Some years ago my father gave me this ashtray. I know it came from his father and it seems likely to be a bit of war memorabilia.

This is the obverse:


Ironically, the war casualty in the family turned out to be my great-grandmother. Having spent most of the war in London – doubtless in part to be close when my grandfather was back from the front, she died in the 1918 influenza epidemic

Schumann Scherzo

July 21, 2016

schumann scherzo (2)

I’ve been at home with a shocking cold, so have had a chance to catch up with some of SIPCA that has now been posted to Youtube.  I hope legitimately, because otherwise it will presumably be taken down as the preliminary rounds were.

The two performances of the Schumann quintet were by Xie Ming and Kong Jia Ning.  Kong went through to the finals; Xie did not.

Xie’s performance begins at 1:15:30 in the link below.

My friend Lw thought Kong Jia Ning’s performance better, and in particular that it was better Schumann. I was a bit disappointed that Kong seemed so impassive – whether or not it actually makes any difference it is always nice to see some interaction between the players. Xie did more of that. Lw nicknamed Xie “Liberace.”

Liberace or not, Youtube revealed one little touch, at 1:30:19 and 1:30:42 which made me smile.

Although you can’t judge it very well from the recording, I think Kong’s balance was better.  Compare the beginning of the last movement, Xie at 1:34 Kong at 1:15:10 below, though I like the way both of them move briskly into it in their own ways.

SIPCA 2016 2

July 19, 2016


Last week I got to some but not all of the semi finals for the Sydney International Piano Competition. I saw 6 of the semi-finalists’ 65-minute recitals, on Wednesday and Thursday nights, and I saw 9 of their chamber music rounds, on all of Friday and Saturday night.

Because I only went to day one of the preliminary rounds, there were still 3 semifinalists whom I never heard in any round, including the much-fancied Oxana Shevkenko from Kazakhstan.

On Saturday night the finalists were announced.

Dealing first with those who were eliminated, in playing order:

Gyu Tae Ha – one of the younger competitors, not yet 20.  My friend P preferred his Mephisto Waltz to that of his compatriot in the same session.  I otherwise only heard him in the chamber-music round, where he played the Brahms violin sonata.  Maybe not yet, my friend Lw opined, a true Brahmsian.

Sergey Belyavskiy  – I heard him o  nly in the first round when he launched, impressively, into a “Rage over a lost Penny.”  He struck me as a bit of a barnstormer.  Correction: I also heard him play the Franck Sonata with the violin, which was less “barnstormish.”

Xie Ming – early on the commentators described him as “flamboyant” – which always makes my heart sink.  Not because of him but because of all of us.  At some point he declared an allegiance to Jean-Yves Thibaudet which is manifested by something red in his footwear.  I heard him in round 1 and in the semifinals.  I liked his novelty number in round 1 which required the use of the sostenuto pedal.  I thought his statement of the theme in the Beethoven “Rule Britannia” variations was too bombastic: has he not heard Wellington’s Victory?  Xie Ming has loads of personality and had quite a following but perhaps for the jury the ratio of personality to music was too high.

I never heard Alexei Melnikov or Poom Prommachart in the flesh.

Tony Lee, the sole Australian semi-finalist, was slated to play last. I heard both his semi-final rounds.  The solo round started very well as he strode out with an air of determination and sat down at the keyboard to launch into Schubert’s 3 Klavierstücke D.946.  The first two were the best.  After that, as he moved on to Chopin, I began to worry if he was playing too much “pretty” stuff.  Is that a wise tactic?  It was a relief that he played Prokofiev 7 rather than the over-exposed Prok 6, even if I disagreed with what he did in the slow[-ish] movement, where I would have preferred he changed the colours rather than dragged around the tempi quite so much.

In the chamber music round, Lee played the Brahms [violin] sonata.  This started well, especially the slow movement, but something went amiss, I think, in the last movement, and the big finish eluded him.  There  was an agonising slightly non-plussed pause before rather desultory applause from the audience.  I think Lee deserved better than that and I really felt for him.  Maybe everyone was just exhausted.

As I am, other than to mention that the picture above is a tribute to Tasmin Little’s and Andrey Gugnin‘s performance of the Kreutzer sonata.  They may have been winging it for co-ordination (they only had one and a half hours to rehearse about 40 minutes of music) but both of them were sizzling pretty hot.  Tasmin could have done worse than to sweep up young Andrey from the keyboard at the end.

PS: It looks as though SIPCA itself has now put the semi-finals and finals up on Youtube. You can see the exhilaration at the end of the Kreutzer at about 2:47:47 here.







Pas devant les enfants

July 18, 2016

At the dentist today for what I gleaned, from the technician’s chatter, they refer to as RCT.

“Will we have some LA?” she asked the dentist.

The dental dam was not yet in place.

“You’d better give me some LA,” I interjected, “before I have to come up with the LSD.”


SIPCA 2016 1

July 15, 2016

This is a belated post.

Last Thursday I went to most of the first day of this year’s Sydney International Piano Competition. Having been delayed by torrential downpours, already too late for the first competitor, I also missed the second.  There was only one computer at the box office, manned by box-office personnel from the Opera House (to which the competition has outsourced its ticketing for this competition).

How it was that I hadn’t booked tickets earlier is another story. Suffice to say that an unwieldy computer booking system, SOH box office staff who weren’t entirely familiar with what they were selling and the notably more expensive tickets for this year each played a part.

Still, that left 6 more players at 20 minutes each in the first session, and another 8 in the evening.

That is almost too much piano music for me to sit and watch in one go (or, I suppose, two goes), though once you get into the rhythm of it, it has a certain Zen.

I now regret that I missed the gala concert the night before as this would have been a great opportunity to hear the active pianists amongst the jurors.

The competition is being live-streamed with visual as well as the audio which, as in previous years, is produced by ABC “Classic” FM.  Someone has now put up the streaming of the gala concert and the first two rounds of the competition on Youtube.  [See afterword below: it was evidently unauthorised and has now all been taken down.]  It’s not really a substitute for being there because recordings do not give a true record of how the instrument sounds in the hall.  This also varies according to where you are seated but the main thing which the recording doesn’t capture is that the hall is quite resonant.  Sound is clearest up the back upstairs where the jury sits.  My feeling is that it took a while for some competitors to make the necessary adjustments to speed and pedalling, though the recordings may not show that.

I had to miss day 2 and all of the second round, held from Saturday to Monday, though I caught some of the broadcast.

When the semi-finalists are announced there is always some disappointment – this year sharpened by the omission of an intermediary “Quarterfinals” round.  The main disappointment is, as ever, the omission of some interesting pianists as the verdict of the jury converges on potential “hero” concert pianists.

With one exception, all the semi-finalists are either from successor states to the former Soviet Union or of (in Australian terms) “Asian” background.  Only one woman made the cut.

The three pianists I heard in the flesh whom I was sorry to see eliminated were Daniel Lebhhardt, Alyosha Jurinic and Martin Malmgren.

It seems the competitors were asked to give a little statement about what they feel about the competition. The compilers of the printed program then extracted a sentence or two which is reproduced as part of the blurb about each.  Some of these are cringe-makingly politic (wonderful to play before such a distinguished jury; competition very prestigious etc).

Malmgren’s was:

I consider this event to be just as much a festival as a competition, celebrating diversity in repertoire and performing styles.  For the unprejudiced listener, there will be much to be discovered.

Unfortunately, we won’t be hearing some of Malmgren’s more interesting choices for following rounds, including the Medtner concerto, but we did hear his choice of Australian work for the first two rounds, Brett Dean’s Equality.  It starts at about 16:30  hereWords are by Michael Leunig, by the way.

Afterword:  Friday:  the Youtube links in this post are now all defunct.  Presumably they were all unauthorised rips from the livestreaming.  The dead hand of intellectual property has struck again.  I think it would have been worth leaving them up for at least the duration of the competition but obviously somebody has thought otherwise.  Perhaps the jurors took exception to the gala concert being put up – unlike the competitors, I doubt if they had signed all their rights away to the competition.


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