Putting the boot in

April 13, 2021

*Literally*, well, nowadays not, but just now the etymological penny finally dropped when I came across the word sabotage.

Catching up

April 13, 2021

On Sunday we had M, N and P, for lunch. N and P are my former colleagues from many years ago. M, N’s partner, is also a lawyer.

Preparations for this begin a few days beforehand, but never soon enough for D. He is always anxious about the state of the house, what I plan to provide to eat and how far those plans have advanced.

I cook a stuffed pumpkin, the only recipe I have ever mastered from Julia Childs volume 1, picked up for that purpose in 1983. It is a simple but spectacular dish. There is some other food but this is the centrepiece. It is a success: people help themselves to more.

After the remains of the pumpkin have been cleared away, conversation turns to dealing with parents’ deceased estates. M says that the best thing is to do everything you can while the parent is still alive or, even if too late for that, before any institutions in question know otherwise. If property is otherwise jointly owned with the other parent, you may be able to avoid having to apply for probate at all.

P mentions that super, if distributed after someone’s death, is taxed at 15%. To avoid this you need to take it out when you are alive.

The conversation, I hasten to add, is not confined to such technical topics.

Once I have completed the big washing up and put everything away, the house is lovely. “We must do this more often!” I comment brightly to D. D makes some sarcastic rejoinder about my great job doing the vacuuming.

The next day, although I never really got drunk, I have a terrible hangover. I haven’t been drinking so much lately and my body seems to have lost the knack of dealing with a sustained input of alcohol.

One topic we had not touched on was P’s health. N is closer to P than I am and I ask N about this in a post-party email exchange. N tells me that recent blood tests have revealed that last year’s chemotherapy may not have eradicated all of P’s cancerous cells. P is meeting P’s doctors this Friday to see if they recommend further treatment, most likely radiation therapy.

Opera Australia winter 2021

April 2, 2021

Opera Australia has announced its winter season. It will all be over within 8 weeks (22 June to 13 August). There are 4 productions.

The 2018 video-screens production of Aida is brought back and runs throughout the season for 15 performances.

Three other operas are given shortish runs one after the other. These are: Attila (in a way just completing the aborted run from last year – 6 performances); Otello (Kupfer production originally mounted in 2003, 5 performances) and Tales of Hoffmann (new production, 6 performances).

That’s a lot of Verdi, and even more if you take into account Ernani and Traviata already this year. On the other hand, two are rarities and there is a special reason to complete the run of Attila. By my reckoning, this is a third return for this Otello (after 2003, 2008 and 2014), which probably makes it right on time.

The announcement was by broadcast email sent at about 10 am on Wednesday. For some reason I first saw this at about 4pm. By 6.30 I had made my bookings. Even by then pickings were becoming slim and I could see that there are others who target the same sorts of seats I was after. I also tipped off two friends, one of whom, not being on email, could not have known. By Thursday lunch they had also made their own careful choices. You have to move quickly if you want the cheaper seats that suit you.

D and I will be going to Attila (which he missed in 2020) and Hoffmann, and I’m taking an extra point seat for Hoffmann. Neither of us was greatly tempted so soon by the digital Aida . At first I also chose seats for Otello for us both, but recoiled from the total cost. We’ve both seen this production more than once already. Perhaps I could have slipped in a point seat for myself (D won’t sit in these) but in the end frugality prevailed.

So much for my vaunted resolve to withdraw my custom from OA on account of its savage treatment of its orchestral musicians. It turns out cutting off your nose to spite your face can be quite hard to do. I find I need a little cheering up under current conditions, a bit of opera does the trick, and OA has the market (and the big government subsidy) cornered for the time being. But give it time. I can feel the bond loosening.

SSO Mozart Schumann (& Skipworth)

March 23, 2021

Last Saturday to the Town Hall for the second of my SSO concerts of the year.

It was the day of the deluge billed as the “rain bomb” which slowly passed over Sydney on its way south. Wet weather is always a problem for Sydney Trains. In the face of train replacement buses, a long-way-round City Circle regime and further trackwork scheduled for about the time I would be heading home, I drove to Sydenham to take the T4 line.

Entitled “Mozart and Schumann” and conducted by WASO principal conductor, Asher Fisch, the program was:

LACHLAN SKIPWORTH Fanfara
MOZART Abduction from the Seraglio Overture
MOZART Clarinet Concerto (soloist: Franco Celuto, longtime associate principal clarinet in the SSO)
SCHUMANN Symphony No.2

The first performance of this program on Wednesday was broadcast live on ABC “Classic” FM. I missed it then but have since caught up with most of it online.

It is clear from the SSO’s publicity that they saw the Mozart part of the program as the chief drawcard. Beneath the headline “Musical genius” their opening gambit was:

Happiness is listening to Mozart – especially ‘The Abduction from the Seraglio’. While his opera is known for its high energy and light-hearted mood, his Clarinet Concerto reveals a gentler side.

Below the fold this continued:

Laid back and lyrical, the Clarinet Concerto is one of Mozart’s most beloved pieces – and expertly showcased by our own Associate Principal Clarinet Francesco Celata.

The blurb for Schumann struck a different tone:

For more music ahead of its time, it’s onto Schumann. Despite his generally fragile health, his Second Symphony remains defiantly optimistic – a triumph of spirit reflected in the finale itself.

I’m not sure where they got the “more” bit from so far as it relates to Mozart, but let that pass. The implications are pretty clear: Mozart is a known quantity. Enjoy! [sic]. Schumann requires more explanation. “Despite,” “fragile health” “defiantly.” Danger, Will Anderson! Will the promise of a triumph of the spirit be enough to tempt an SSO audience?

Possibly not. Numbers in the hall seemed down on last time and the pattern of empty seats did not suggest that the rain was to blame.

The Skipworth Fanfara is the product of an initiative by the SSO. 50 Australian composer have been commissioned to write fanfare-like works to be performed over the next few years. There’s rather a lot of this sort of thing going on at present and you can see why: a short work can be squeezed in at the beginning of a program where only latecomers will refuse it. This gives exposure and hopefully dispenses patronage to living composers without frightening the horses.

Listening to Skipworth’s piece I found myself imagining the opening sequence of a film to which it might be the sound-track: Mum rounding up the kids for the morning school run, seeing off Dad, waving at the merry milk-cart driver (my vision had become a bit retro) or other neighbourly passers-by as they all set out. The family car veered off the road somewhere near Hobbiton (someone else has mentioned Howard Shore) and towards the end things took an intriguing turn (possibly a ferry trip) ending up somewhere like the Orkneys. There the real action could begin.

It was agreeable and well played and I did like the final twist but I hope the remaining 47 or so composers won’t cleave too closely to this fanfare idea. How many cheerful curtain-raisers do we need?

I enjoyed the Mozart of course. The overture was well played if slightly “fat” Mozart (as opposed to lean and HIP). Celata was best in the slow movement of the concerto, where you could have heard a pin drop. For my taste the outer movements were a bit under-characterized and the whole thing too, well, mellifluous. Maybe that’s a bit harsh because mellifluity [unlikely to be a real word] was probably what he was aiming at.

The interval feature in the broadcast (from about 1:01:10) [Afternote 13/3: rebroadcast on 10/3 and now online in a trimmed version so different timings, about 15 minutes shorter] includes an illuminating interview between Fisch and Margaret Throsby about Schumann and why his symphonies are seen as “problematic.” In such conversations it is always the practical observations which I find most interesting. Fisch raised the ambivalent attitude of orchestras whenever he proposes a Schumann symphony and offered his own explanation of the reasons for this: chiefly that Schumann’s string writing is ungratifying hard work for the players (especially the violins). Fisch said the busy string work needs to be approached as a shimmering (Fisch’s word, possibly not quite the word a native English speaker would choose for the idea I think he was epressing) texture against which the long lyrical line can stand out. For Fisch this is also the “solution” to the so-called Schumann orchestration “problem.” Prompted by Throsby he made a few observations about the romantic response to the shadow cast by Beethoven, though this was not unique to Schumann.

In my own attempts to become a pianist, Schumann was my gateway when I was about 15 to musical Romanticism, even though some of his referents (Jean-Paul, E T A Hoffman) were mere names to me. I remember being stunned some years later when a teacher colleague (not a music teacher) commented to me that Schumann was a minor or even second-rate composer. I doubt any pianist could ever think that. (Fisch is a pianist and in his own way adverted to this point in the interview.) In his NY Times review of Judith Cherniak’s 2018 biography of Schumann Jeremy Denk spells out very well some of the important aspects of Schumann’s musical and pianistic style. That’s just scratching the surface. In music-historical terms Schumann’s influence on the later 19th century was so pervasive that it has come to be taken for granted and often seems now to be forgotten. Yet a quick browse around the internets reveals that many hold Schumann in a relatively low esteem.

Maybe you are either a Schumann fan or you are very much not. I am, despite his scandalous antisemitic dog-whistling treatment of Meyerbeer in his 1837 twinned review of Mendelssohn’s St Paul and Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (post still to come on this) which prefigured Wagner’s more blatant attacks on Meyerbeer. It was virtually a foregone conclusion that the Schumann would be the highlight of the concert for me. I thought it a fine performance with many felicities. I hope to listen a few more times to the recording.

By the time the concert was over, the rain had abated. I was able to catch the last train before replacement buses set in for the night even on the T4 line.

Not long after I got back to Sydenham and probably at about the time I was driving down Unwin’s Bridge Road towards Tempe, Taryn Fiebig died in Elizabeth Bay. But I did not learn of this very sad news until the next day.

International Women’s Day at the Opera

March 20, 2021

I went to Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

I almost didn’t make it because despite my careful checking of the Sydney Transport trip planner, the trains on the Bankstown line were in total disarray. The woman at the station told me that this had been going on for an hour and that the “app” had not been updated. In this brave new age of smartphones and social media it seems you can’t trust the “app” ever and need to precautionarily scour Twitter for any information as to how trains are running – not that there was all that much even there. Fortunately I was able to drive into town. A plus of the present covid world was that there was plenty of street parking available.

The opera begins with a spoken prologue. Peter McCallum in his review in the Nine/former Fairfax press paraphrases/interprets this reasonably accurately as follows:

The spoken prologue by librettist Bela Balazs that precedes Bartok’s one-act opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, invites the audience to interpret the tale as much as an inner drama as an outer one. The castle is the one we build in the mind, its darkness self-imposed, its seven locked doors, repressed secrets, and the interaction of its two protagonists, Bluebeard and Judith, an unresolvable struggle between the animus and the anima, the masculine and the feminine sides of our own psyche.

After the prologue, Judith, Bluebeard’s fourth wife (the choice of name must be a nod to Judith and Holofernes) arrives at Bluebeard’s castle. She has heard all the rumours, but she has still left her fiancé and her family because she loves Bluebeard. The castle is a dark and foreboding place, the very walls seem to weep – with sighs and whispers and (as it transpires) blood. Judith wants to let the light in. Maybe she wants to find out the truth, though what she says to Bluebeard is:

I have come here, for I love you.
I am here and only for you.
Let me see your castle, Bluebeard,
Let each door be open for me.”

Bluebeard keeps asking Judith “are you sure?” and reminds her that she doesn’t know what lies behind the doors, but she persists. At Judith’s insistence he gives her the keys to a series of locked doors which she opens. First, the torture chamber, then the armoury, the treasury (filled with gold). Of course! Every castle should have one of each of these, and it seems almost incidental that they are covered in blood and speak of cruelty. The blood is signified by a sinister minor-second discord which has been in the music from the start.

The fourth door reveals a garden of beautiful flowers. These too are covered in blood. Judith asks: “Who has given blood to feed them?” (Opera Australia surtitles say: “Who waters them?”) In the libretto, Bluebeard turns that question aside (“do not ask me”) and urges her to open the fifth door.

The fifth door reveals (we have to take it on trust in this production for which the Limelight critic estimated a production budget other than for the lighting of “about $500”) “a high balcony and a far landscape.” Libretto stage directions are that “Light pours in in a brilliant flood.”

Musically, the opera is a great arc, beginning and ending low and quiet. This is the musical climax. Having started in something like F# (mixed major-minor) the tonality bursts into a modalish C major with massive orchestral chords. Above them, Judith cries “Ah!” on a high C.

In the libretto, this is where Bluebeard wants the door-opening to stop. You could see it as being the point where he feels he makes the most favourable outward impression. He declares:

Here the lands of my dominion,
In this land I am the master.
Is it not a mighty kingdom?

In this production, it is at this moment that Bluebeard, having changed from his dinner jacket into underwear and a dressing gown, strikes Judith and sexually assaults her. Judith’s high C is not a cry of amazement but the shriek of a rape victim. She kicks him away.

Obviously, as re-imagined in this production, this is a deeply ironic moment: Bluebeard’s demonstration of his potency to Judith is his rape (or as good-as) of her.

In the libretto it is also a turning point. As Bluebeard repeats his question “Is this not a mighty kingdom?” Judith “is looking out stiffly and absent-mindedly” and answers (twice) “Yes, it is a mighty kingdom.” When Bluebeard goes on to declare “All of this is yours, my Judith” she replies “But the clouds cast bloody shadows.” When Bluebeard declares to Judith that she has delivered him from darkness, that her fair hand has done this and asks “Come now, let me hold you,” Judith responds “But two doors remain unopened.”

At about this point in this production, Judith draws a dagger – it looks a bit like a letter-opener/paper knife. She conceals it from Bluebeard as she dodges his continued advances. Eventually she (somewhat ineffectually) stabs Bluebeard in the shoulder. I didn’t notice where the letter opener came from. Did she have it all along? Could it be that (as in last year’s Munich production) she was a kind of Agent Starling all along? If so, (unlike in the Munich production) no foundation was really laid for this. It’s probably enough motivation that she’d heard the stories.

Back to the doors.

When the sixth is opened, Judith sees a mysterious lake of silent tranquil waters. Bluebeard tells her that these are tears. This is depicted by a wonderful orchestral sigh which is possibly (apart from the C major climax) the most memorable gesture in the score. (Molino, OA’s conductor, gave it a less measured interpretation than that I have linked to – almost a despairing shrug of grief – possibly an outcome of the cut-down wind forces, but I’m fine with that.)

Bluebeard insists that the last door will remain unopened. By this point the penny seems to have dropped for Judith (more obviously so in this production given the assault and the knife-drawing.) The blood and the weeping must be of his previous wives, who must lie behind the seventh door. Bluebeard gives her the key. Behind the door are the previous wives, still living. In this production, they are revealed hooded in a kind of S&M cabinet. Bluebeard is clearly planning to put Judith in there with them.

According to the libretto, Bluebeard shuts the seventh door on them all and remains alone and back in F#. With his final words “Now all shall be darkness” the music completes its arc to its starting point.

In this production, as Bluebeard prepares to bind Judith (the wound from the letter opener must have been just a flesh wound) the wives manage between them to strangle him with the cord he has chosen. They head off towards the light at the back of the stage leaving Bluebeard (vocal capacity apparently unimpaired) to utter what we take to be his dying words.

In his review in the Australian Book Review, Malcolm Gillies offers the mildest of remonstrances to all this (snippets only here):

Does this transformation from implicit to explicit, from mystery to thriller, have a price to pay? Well, yes, if you follow the precise yet subtle expression of the libretto, and the matching supple orchestral symphony, into which the two vocal parts fit like fingers in a glove….

The risk, evident on Monday night, is that this #MeToo thriller of 2021 removes the orchestra from its central musical role in progressing the drama. …

And the masked audience’s reception of this première? Applause all round, but we older men looked worried.

I’m not so inclined (I’m a few years younger than Gillies) to take my medicine with such a wan smile. This post has been delayed as I have tried to come to terms with it. I must be one of those fuddy-duddies. Maybe there is scope for a #metoo reframing but, to be honest, it was all terribly obvious.

Peter McCallum in the Nine/former Fairfax press eschewed the crucial plot-spoiler and jumped on a cheer-leading bandwagon (along with Limelight’s reviewer).

Such a psychological approach implies a range of possible meanings, few of them untroubling from the point of view of gender equality. This striking production by director Andy Morton and associate director Priscilla Jackman is having none of that. The rumours of Bluebeard’s cruelty to his former wives are given a #MeToo calling-out that will not be appeased with evasive symbolism

How exactly is the symbolism evasive? It’s symbolism. The whole thing is a myth and it is a given of the myth that Bluebeard is a monster. We all know that. Judith knows that. Obviously his monstrosity is not an isolated case since otherwise no myth.

I guess the putative evasion is that the myth is gendered and you shouldn’t be ducking that the monster is male.

A program note about Bluebeard’s Castle from the NY Philharmonic offers the view (not uniquely) that Bluebeard’s Castle and Bartok’s other stage works “document the composer’s exploration of an underlying theme: how human interactions play out in the darkest recesses of intimacy.” Whilst intimacy is the context here, I’d be inclined to cast the net wider than that: we all harbour dark secrets of some sort – if only because “dark secrets” is practically a pleonasm. Absent intimacy we can probably keep them locked up out of sight. But as you get close to someone the question will become “What’s behind the doors?” See also here. Do you really want to know? As the same NY Phil program note comments: “Bartok was a humanist but not an optimist.”

To repeat myself, that Bluebeard is a monster can only superficially be what the opera is about because we all knew that from the start: the opera must be saying something else.

All [re-]interpretations involve some violence to the original text and music. In this case, I don’t think the approach was worth it. On the opening of the fifth door with the blazing C-major Judith is at least momentarily taken in, as we too can be, by the vision (and music) splendid. It’s just for a moment despite what we already know, and misgivings soon return, but to turn the high-C into a rape-scream is jumping the gun.

After that there was a lot of dodging around the stage and paper-knife hiding and wielding – it was far from clear where the lake of tears fitted in, if anywhere. We were just filling in time until the great turning-the-tables liberation. OK, problem solved then. “See, I fixed it for you” (to coin a phrase).

There’s a lot more in the libretto which apparently didn’t require any attention or command any respect from the production team, including the synaesthesic-ish lighting colours for the various doors,

As to the music, I can’t say I’m in much of a position to judge the singers. They were fine and we’re told they are difficult roles.

The orchestra (quadruple woodwind trimmed down in a reorchestration; 9:7:5:5:4 strings, from memory) was too small, really. In the Opera Theatre (nowadays: “Joan Sutherland”) pit it would always be too small because this is very much a big-orchestra work. The massive orchestra represents the massive castle.

From my spot at the end of the front row there were some weird sonic effects which I put down to amplification – the oboes seemed to come from nowhere specifically at all and certainly not where the oboists were sitting. I was conscious of a few scrappy violin moments.

I’m ready to accept some of this exigency as a price of the work being staged at the SOH and for all I know Covid is a reason for some further reduction of orchestral forces – though that remains very definitely not my feeling about the orchestral bloodbath last year and its ongoing consequences. (I am not at all tempted by the now-announced Phantom of the Opera.) Maybe an eighth door could open onto the orchestra pit, or another big box on the stage stuffed with the ghosts of musicians-redundant.

The house was far from full, even allowing for the capacity constraints. It’s a rarity I would usually want to see again but ticket prices (I’d picked mine in a momentary slump) had rebounded above a level where I could justify returning for the final performance.

Still, despite all and especially despite that terrible re-contexted scream (vandalism really) and all that came with it, I enjoyed it.

They asked me!

March 6, 2021

And even more foolishly, I answered.

I received an invitation to answer an online survey from a gang called Vox Pop. This was a follow-up from one of those ABC voter compass things.

A lot of the questions were familiar – they’re the same ones you encounter in the voter compass.

But how to answer “how often do you cook for pleasure?”? In the end I plumped for “never.” Whilst I hope to enjoy eating what I cook and hope that others will, pleasure from the activity of cooking itself is not why I cook. To be honest, it can be a bit of a chore, though I try to stay cheerful about it.

How many formal religious services you attend? I said one a year, thinking of funerals. That was probably overstating it as most funerals I go to are secular.

At least I was able to give consistently negative answers to anything to do with sport.

One question which really bemused me was to the effect of “how often do you change your sheets?” Maybe it was “wash” rather than change, and maybe it was sheets and bedding. Either way, is this a question about bedding hygiene (how often is it done?) or about personal involvement in bed-making and laundry (how often do you do it?)? What if (asking for a friend) only one side of a double bed is slept on and the sheet rotated before it gets washed? Does this count as changing the sheet? And why is there no scope for a different frequency for washing/changing pillow-slips?

I doubt if this survey will lead to any great revelation about the correlation between bed-linen laundry habits/involvement, party-political allegiance and frequent attendance at formal religious services. I’m sure that godly conservatives wash their sheets more frequently than I – or that their wives, mothers or cleaners do.

And they’re welcome to that virtue.

My next bike

February 25, 2021

Sadly, D’s new bike which arrived on Christmas Eve has been a bit of a disappointment.

The bike only cost less than $300 including freight from China and the bloody Gerry Harvey tax. Even at Chinese prices this obviously cannot have left much over for the bike itself.  Not only is it pretty heavy, but the components, though on paper high-grade (disc brakes, albeit not hydraulic, gears, and FOLDING) are the cheapest which could answer these descriptions.  The chain and gears leave much to be desired.  The wheels are smallish and this also means the pedal cranks are relatively short.  It is not really the right size for him.

These are the perils of buying online if you don’t know a lot about what you are buying.  I could have said “I told you so” but I needn’t because he did this all on his own without consulting me.

Add to this that D has yet to build up any cycling stamina, so that even the shortest ride exhausts him.  The most we’ve managed is about 1.5km or maybe 2km on the flat (though he notices the slightest slope) before he has retired exhausted and demanded a return to base.

There is a silver-lining.

On our last ride, D was labouring (possibly even pushing the bike) up a short slope when a young father with two infants – one on a carrier and the other towed behind – surmounted the incline with ease.  As he passed us, he beamed and declared: “Electric!”

D frequently returns to this moment – it’s become a bit of a humorous catchphrase for him – and wonders at it.  Did the man overhear some remark by us? I don’t think we said anything. It was enough that he sensed our feelings of relative inadequacy and envy and volunteered the explanation of his apparent greater prowess out of kindness.  Delight in his ease of propulsion probably also played a part.

I love cycling (though not so much in the rain) and it’s a great way to get exercise, but it takes a commute to get me cycling with any regularity. 

Since we moved to Canterbury in 2016, my cycle commuting has declined sharply.  An extra big hill at the start is a deterrent and the greater distance means that it is quicker to walk to the station and take the train.  I’ve had recourse to a part-commute (2) along the Cooks River and through Marrickville to take the train from Sydenham.  This is pleasant but not a time-saver so happens only intermittently. Other times I have hopped on the Light Rail at Dulwich Hill and cycled from Jubilee Park (at the foot of Glebe Point), which likewise saves 2 big hills. This does not save any time, but provides a bit of invigoration before going down the mine/up the big building in the sky. I do find it liberating at the end of a working day (now that I am going into the office) to hop on the bike and ride all the way home. It’s something to do with getting straight out of the city and not having to wait for the train.  

I’ve become a bit of a nanna rider. By that sexist and ageist term, I don’t just mean that I am slower, but also more sedate. I’m less keen than I once was to mix it with the traffic and increasingly prefer quieter routes. I appreciate the urban pastoral and also some of the newly funky byways of the inner city from which through traffic has been largely banished and am prepared to take a longer route for their sake.

My bike, purchased in 2008 (1, 2), is also showing signs of age. 

The writing is on the wall: my next bike, if I can accept the expense and extra anxiety of theft risk, will almost certainly be an electric one.

Return to life

February 14, 2021

Last night to the Sydney Town Hall to hear the Sydney Symphony Orchestra after an 11-month great pause.

The program was

Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto
Connor D’Netto  Uncertain Planning and
Dvorak Symphony No 9 (New World).

Simone Young conducted.

Chief Executive Emma Dunch took to the stage to tell us that the resumption of performances was a joyous occasion.  She also told us that the City of Sydney asked us to remain in our seats at interval unless requiring “the bathroom” and that, the bar being closed, free bottled water was available.  It was just a bit late to tell us both those things but I guess we will know for next time.

I hope next time more Covid-check-in Q-code stations are provided.  We had to queue in the rain for the few that were there. And any water should be in less crackly bottles. I picked one up at interval all the same: I’ll be able to get 10 cents for it eventually.

Conductor and players emerged onto the stage masked and then doffed their masks, putting them back on as they prepared to leave the stage.  String players (who usually share stands) were a bit more spaced out than usual and each had their own music stand.

Originally we were to have heard “Taiwanese Australian” Ray Chen.  Probably on account of that there was a greater than usual presence of Chinese-background people, including families with children. It could also have been a [“Chinese”] new year kind of thing. In recent years the SSO has done a bit of targeted marketing in that direction.

I first heard the Tchaikovsky concerto in 1974 or 1975 played by Cho-Liang Lin, then known to us as “Jimmy Lin.”  I’m pretty sure that was at the Town Hall, maybe even with the SSO as part of the old ABC Instrumental and Vocal competition, though it could have been with the Sydney Youth Orchestra.  Lin was off to the USA not long after and scarcely looked (or came) back.  Thirty years later Chen has followed a similar Taiwan-Australia-USA trajectory. Lin has been one of his teachers.  

It would have been nice to complete the circle, but Chen cancelled.  Word was that he was unwilling to endure the quarantine and other travel difficulties. You can’t blame him but it was a pity and probably a disappointment for the CNY set. It’s not as if quarantine requirements have become much more onerous since the SSO first announced the season. Then again, they haven’t reduced either, and there is the more virulent strain.

Instead we had German violinist, Daniel Röhn, sitting out the great shut-down in Oz with his Kiama-raised flautist wife.  His was a rather sober rendition.  He opened up for his Bach Partita No 3 prelude encore which I felt suited him better.

Many years ago I had to make an agonized exit from a central front seat less than ten minutes into Cosi fan tutte, missing the remainder of the first act, because I had overlooked the usual precautions. That’s the sort of thing you don’t forget. On the precautionary principle I exercised my “bathroom” privilege.  As was apparent last year, renovations to the Town Hall have depleted provision in this regard (in favour of a kitchen on the south side).  The situation is particularly hard for the Ladies.

After interval, Uncertain Planning was one of a series of commissions by the SSO.  According to his notes, D’Netto wrote this in the middle of last year, so we can take the title as programmatic.  Horns and trumpets interjected sinisterly from the north and south galleries.  For my money they could have been positioned so they projected a bit more directly into the hall, but maybe remoteness was the idea.  There was a big viola tune.  I hope to have an opportunity to hear this piece again if the concert is to be broadcast.  (Update: the ABC has scheduled a broadcast of Thursday night’s concert for Sunday 21 Feb at 1pm.)

From my very good seat in row V of the stalls, most of the kaleidoscopic cymbalstern-ish woodwind detail in the D’Netto was lost in the great echo. 

On the other hand, the Town Hall acoustic, sympathetic to especially the lower strings, suited the Dvorak.  The slow movement is my favourite – not so much because of the famous cor anglais tune as for almost all of the rest of it and especially the opening and close. I enjoyed the symphony a lot right up to the last movement which whilst still enjoyable (how could it not be?) seemed a bit business-like – something to do with how the transitions were negotiated and characterisation of episodes such as the swinging flute descant riff.

I suppose I shouldn’t cavill. Emma was right: it was great to be back.

Ernani III

February 11, 2021

Fortuitously,* I went to this again on Wednesday. That will be the last time. There remains only a matinee on Saturday anyway. D didn’t want to see it again so I took a friend.

It was even better than the second time – probably for the same reasons that the second time was better than the first. Once you are reconciled to the play-within-a-play approach, or at least expect it, its execution repays repeated viewing. On reflection any repeated attendance at an opera really involves stepping into such a p-w-a-p approach.

The museum you enter or need to imaginatively re-enter is the mind-set of the nineteenth-century public – ready to be carried away by the twists and turns of a Gothick melodrama (honour-bound Spain is like a later era’s Ruritania) which provides the opportunity for a range of stock situations: the lovesick bandit (nobleman who has gone wrong), entrapped and bewitched maiden, a castle about to be stormed, wedding festivities (x2), bandits, plotters, vendettors, amazement at the unexpected appearance of a monarch (x2) who turns magnanimous (WWCD? ie what would Charlemagne do?). I’ve never seen William Tell in the flesh but it it must be the most obvious forerunner (notably for the role of the chorus). Switzerland was also a bit of a locus dramatis (OK – I’m not a Latinist), after all, and the Rossinian crescendo an obvious influence.

As for the Verfremdung – all Verfremdung is a bit of a trick since in the end the idea (well, this is my take) is that, notwithstanding having been told up-front and many times that “this is only a play” (as if you could ever think otherwise in an opera where everyone sings everything), in the end you are sucked into it. The signification in this production is when Ernani kills himself: the “stagehands” doff their hats and look shocked. But it all goes back to the moment in Act II where Silva gives up Elvira rather than betray Ernani to Carlo because he Silva is honour-bound by the laws of hospitality – EVEN THOUGH ERNANI CAME IN DISGUISE! (Ridiculous, yes, but it’s the premiss of the play.) After that Silva is always going to extract revenge on Ernani (except for when he offers to let Ernani off if he will yield his place as designated assassin of Carlo to Silva).

In this case there is also a journey from comedy (many instances – my favourite is Elvira skipping round the stage during the little instrumental passages when Carlo and Hernani are having it out for the first time in Act I) to tragedy.

At one interval I overheard someone saying “it’s rather rum-ti-tum” but I don’t mind that – and spacious compound time (ie, big melodies over a slow beat divided into three, with further articulation within the three) is the great musical innovation of the period. There are so many felicities in the score. I like most the little Verdian jabs. Maybe I’ll compile a little anthology of my favourite bits later. Liszt in his paraphrase – which has far too many notes for my executant ability – sticks to compound time stuff.

In my first post I was critical of Natalie Aroyan’s coloratura, and it remains the case that when she is in that territory (in Ernani involami [starts at 23.10 in this currently still online broadcast of the opening night] and the succeeding aria – the two really are the one piece) it feels like witnessing a semitrailer careening through a chicane. But that is only a part of the role, and she really throws herself into the big moments where, for most of the rest of the opera, Elvira tries one way or another to prevent the disasters that beset her. Misguidedly of course. When Elvira tries to dissuade Silva from insisting that Ernani kill himself in accordance with his oath by saying “I love him” you want to yell out “That’s not going to work!” It’s a sort of pantomime “he’s behind you!” moment.

As for Diego Torre’s tight spot in Act II – [starting from about 1.03.50 ditto] it was still there last night though more successfully negotiated. It’s to do with a passage that trickily combines an awkward spot in his register with a requirement for quiet singing, which is not his forte. Forte is his forte and it is great to have it.

Vladimir Stoyanov as Carlo and Vitalij Kowaljow as Silva (Don Ruy) are the buy-ins and are in a (n even) higher league as you would hope.

So yes, I am smitten.

*[disclosure] following a gracious gesture by Opera Australia.

Ernani II

February 10, 2021

To this for the (planned from the outset) second time on Monday night, with D.

I enjoyed it more than the first time, even though my neighbour was all too obviously the less-interested member of a couple who had been dragged along. Frequent program reading, fiddling with his mask, looking at his watch, ruminatively rolling his lolly-paper into a ball between his thumb and forefinger – all the classic signs were there, other than the mask stuff, which is a novel outlet. Judging from their ages (at least 70) this could well have been going on for years, unless it is a recent, onset, issue. Oh how satisfying it would have been to swat him with my program! D says I get too concerned about this sort of thing and I know he is right.

The obvious reason I enjoyed it more was because I had a better seat. This is always part of the plan. The other was because I knew what to expect, and so wasn’t disappointed or even put off by the jokey/ironic approach. In some ways I could appreciate it all the better. Some reviewers have commented that the irony is inconsistently maintained. With the benefit of a second time I could appreciate its nuances more. Possibly there had been a few adjustments to it.

I’m still not sure this meta stuff works so well for us here where few could enjoy the luxury of seeing something more than once, the piece is a rarity unlikely to have been seen before in other productions and the impression will have to be made by the one performance, and it has to carry a bigger burden simply because there is little else on. I overheard a fair bit of audience chatter going out about it being a rather silly work etc.

So one for the cognoscenti. The music and the spectacle are splendid.

For me, the music is the most important. I have a number of favourite musical moments buzzing around my head by now.

Whatever my earlier criticisms of them, the male chorus is back on form. At one point in Ernani’s Act II duet with Elvira I was worried that Diego Torre seemed to have got stuck in a bit of a tight corner but he successfully extricated himself. Those tenors really have to tough it out!

In “Lo vedremo, veglio audace” [first-night broadcast at 1:11:55] Vitalij Kowaljow as Don Ruy/Silva portrayed in a kind of snarly (or maybe I mean surly?) insolence in his answers to the king [de Silva responds at 1:12:53] which were a great bit of singing acting and not an approach I’d seen/heard in recorded renditions.

I tried out brave on the female chorus during the curtain calls but I don’t think anybody noticed.