Our brush with history

June 24, 2022

It was just before 7pm last night.  “I’m going to the library,” I said to D.  “Are you coming?”

For some reason D likes to come on these little excursions with me. 

I had two reserved books to pick up at Marrickville Library.  The library shuts at 7.30pm, so this was a trip in the car. We got there at about 7.15pm. Time enough, if not much to spare.

Usually at such an hour you can park with ease right in front on Marrickville Road.  This time, there were no spots to be had.  There was curb space a bit further down just in front of the fire station and Marrickville Town Hall and I pulled in there.  D hopped into the driver’s seat and I headed back on foot to the library.

I noticed a few people talking to each other outside the Town Hall.

I borrowed my books.  This didn’t take long.  By the time I came out of the library D had found a spot in the carpark for St Brigid’s Church across the road from the library.  The church and school were all shut up and quiet.

“There must be something on at Marrickville Town Hall,” I said to D.  D was doubtful but it seemed that now we were out and about on foot he was keen to make something more of our being there.  We decided to go and see.

The street was very quiet.  There was no longer anybody standing around at the front of the hall. As we got closer we could see the lights were on and we could see a bit of action in the kitchens.  “Maybe it’s a private function” said D.

The doors were open and we went in through the empty vestibule.

I opened the double doors to the hall itself.  It was a magical moment – a bit like a surprise birthday party, a Thomas the Rhymer or Venusberg moment, or (odd literary memory to surface and I haven’t checked if it is accurate) the assembly of rebel animals in Prince Caspian.  The hall was full of people. At the far end on the stage facing us was Anthony Albanese giving a speech!

It turns out this was a civic reception put on by Inner West Council for AA as the new prime minister.  I guess you had to know about it.  We just got lucky.

There was food.  For free!  I made a beeline for that while the speech continued.

At the end of his speech, Mr Albanese did his selfie thing.  We are in this picture – D thinks we are the two figures just in front of the rear door. I think we might be closer to the food.

I found the bar.  The drinks were free as well.  Mr Albanese came down to the floor of the hall and circulated, at first followed by a bunch of media.   After they left you could still spot AA by the clump of people waiting to speak to him. 

Not that there was much of an opportunity to speak.  There was a band and it started playing.  I had been minded to get close enough to put in a word for Julian Assange but I soon gave up on that. 

Politicians no longer have to improvise anything much by way of small talk when they “press the flesh.”  A joint selfie does the trick.  The AA caravan meandered round the room in a kind of slow Brownian motion of mobile-phone photo opportunities.

Last year we were walking near Marrickville Golf Club on a Sunday afternoon when we spotted AA.  He was alone, on his mobile phone (of course), accompanied by his (now but not at that stage so famous) dog.  My usual rule with famous people encountered on the street is to give them a break.  D did not share my reserve and went up and offered generic words of support.  D was pleased to commemorate that with a couple phone pix, one of which he posted to Facebook.  The picture was almost deleted when Labor voted for Morrison’s religious discrimination bill in the Reps and against the Green amendments (at D’s insistence we joined a small crowd of very unhappy transgender people shouting rude slogans that Saturday outside AA’s electoral office) but it survived when, as things turned out, AA was saved by the bell and the “Christian” Lobby’s dummy-spit.

D got into the spirit of things and sought out AA.  He was a bit miffed when AA insisted on taking the requisite selfie (on D’s phone) himself.  It came out a bit blurry.

If that’s the biggest disappointment we face with the new government we’ll be doing well.

A second Daniel!

June 14, 2022

I have managed to attend a few live performances hitherto unnoticed here.

1. Australia Ensemble 9 April

With P to this.  The program, strung together rather tenuously from composers with various anniversaries in 2022 (entitled “An Anniversary Bouquet,” was:

DEBUSSY | Première rhapsodie

STRAVINSKY | Three Pieces for solo clarinet

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS | Quintet in D

FRANCK | Piano Quintet in F minor Op.14

In a nod to covid, there was no interval.

I’ve left it a bit long to compile a detailed account so these are fugitive recollections.

The Debussy is for clarinet and piano.  What I particularly remember is the delicious pedal-washed carpet that Ian Munro laid down beneath the clarinet once the opening section got going, and the similarity of the ending to the Debussy violin sonata.

The Stravinsky pieces were for solo (ie only) clarinet.  David Griffiths played them brilliantly.  I feel they are rather pieces for clarinet afficionados.  They didn’t for me expose any particular poetic quality or association of the clarinet in the way that (Debussy was probably still on my mind) Debussy’s Syrinx does for the unaccompanied flute.

Robert Johnson on horn joined David Griffiths and  piano trio for the Vaughan Williams.  It is an early work and predates RVW’s Tudor turn.  You could say it was Brahmsian, with a touch of Cecil Sharp.  P was unimpressed by it.  I enjoyed it more than she did, but I doubt that we would be hearing it if it were not by a composer better known for other works.  The combination of instruments is an awkward one.

The big ticket for the night was the Cesar Franck.  I feel I must have heard it before, if only because it was one of the set works for the Sydney International Piano Competition chamber music round.  It’s a potent brew, full of semitonal-slide chromatic harmony which tends to get labelled “Wagnerian.”  I really enjoyed it.

2 SSO 4 May 2022

I was lucky to get to this.  I had been thinking of swapping some other concert for which I have tickets to get to it, but had let it slide.  Then at 5.30 I got a call from Lx, Dulwich-Hill-gangster and my onetime High School English teacher.  His invited guest for the evening had bowed out as not yet recovered from covid.  Would I like to come?  He was planning to meet friends out the front of the Town Hall at about 7.30. The concert began at 8.00. Actually, I knew that.

Would I ever.  I even managed to squeeze in a short nap.  I caught up with Lx on the train on the way in.  

This will probably be the last Town Hall concert I attend for a while.  They have been fun in a retro way and it certainly is a bonus that the train takes you straight to the door.  It’s a pity that the great virus ended up pretty well wiping out our few years’ retro interlude away from the Concert Hall.

The program, conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, was:

JESSICA WELLS Uplift (Fifty Fanfares Commission)
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No.1 Simon Trpčeski
TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No.4

It looked as though the original allocation of seating was on a covid-safe basis.  For such an attractive program, attendance was still decidedly modest.

I enjoyed the Brahms.  Trpčeski took what I characterised to Lx (in an allusion he perhaps understandably missed to a 1977 school production of Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion which he directed and for which I provided the music for the scene where Androcles dances with the lion) as a “velvet paws” approach to the first movement.  I was glad to see that in the Tchaikovsky Harth-Bedoya observed the traditional approach of staying in tempo between the third (pizzicato) movement and the final movement.  It’s not always done and it really works.

For an encore after the concerto, Trpčeski was joined by Andrew Haveron Tobias Breider and Catherine Hewgill and they played the slow movement from Brahms’ piano quartet in C.  I’m all in favour of this kind of encore.  It’s a nice touch of collegiality between the visiting soloist and the local orchestral players.

The concert will be broadcast on ABC “Classic” FM on 18 June and I hope to listen to it again then or online afterwards.

Before the concert, Lx caught up with his friend, PP.  We scattered to our respective spots, and at interval Lx went to join PP and her friend in the foyer.  I sought relief from mask-wearing by heading outside to consume my frugally brought from home apple.  When we reconvened after interval, Lw told me PP had asked where I was.  Lx told her I was outside eating an apple.  PP asked “What is it with [Marcellous] and apples?”  This was a reference to an apple-rolling incident at Angel Place in 2018 for which I was responsible.  I had forgotten this.  I guess it’s a “you fuck one goat” kind of thing.

3. Australia Ensemble 21 May

With P to this.  Masks were still worn by all – not sure if that was by decree or simply a high rate of compliance.  Interval was restored though no refreshments were on sale.  Fortunately, I’d taken an apple.  They’re particularly good and cheap at this time of year.

The program was:

Ludwig BEETHOVEN | Trio Op.87 (1794) for flute, clarinet & bassoon
Peggy GLANVILLE-HICKS | Concertino da Camera (1946)
Stuart GREENBAUM | Easter Island (2008)
Johannes BRAHMS | Piano Quartet no.3 in C minor Op.60 (1875)

Lisa Osmialowski replaced the advertised Geoffrey Collins on flute (will he ever be back to complete his farewell?).  Andrew Barnes on bassoon made up the numbers in the Beethoven and the Glanville-Hicks.

The Brahms was the main fare for me, my appetite whetted by Trpčeski et al playing the slow movement at [2] above.  Even after such a short period I can’t say I felt equipped or even motivated to make evaluative judgment between the two renditions.  The circumstances were too different.

So it’s probably just as well I am not a critic.

Fortunately for posterity, critic and “emerging writer and composer,” Stephen McCarthy, was there and published a review. My title to this post is in his honour.

He writes (judiciously)

The players worked well to create a genuine sense of ensemble in Beethoven’s Trio Op. 87 in the challenging acoustic of the John Clancy. Sizeable wooden panels which surround the stage and part of the auditorium create a peformance space which is resonant but lacking in warmth. This makes it challenging for the blending of bigger ensembles, let alone smaller ones.

I’ve always quite liked the John Clancy Auditorium acoustic for chamber music.  Mostly I sit close but I’ve sat further away if I’ve arrived late.  It seemed fine when, circa 1993, I sat in the middle for Olaf Baer singing there with Geoffrey Parsons (a memorable occasion – how did this concert come to be held there?).  I wonder if McCarthy may have been an undergraduate at UNSW and endured too many performances at the JCA by student massed forces.

As presbyopia kicks in I find I am a less religious reader of program notes, so I encountered the Greenbaum unguided by any programmatic prompts.  I had forgotten even the title.  In hindsight, I think I would have got more out of it if I had been paying more attention to the program.  Isn’t that what program music is about?  McCarthy takes a sterner, Hanslickian view:

While the music depicts this [the rise and fall of civilisations on the eponymous island] with some success, the piece when considered on its own, is not quite satisfying. The programmatic elements depicting the settling of Easter Island and its subsequent overpopulation, whilst a powerful message, should not distract from the importance of evaluating the music itself.

It has become quite the rage for concerts to be given titles.  These can be a hook for publicity and sometimes offer some kind of justification for the items assembled.  I don’t know that the justification necessarily involves a very high truth claim – how aesthetically significant could it be (as in April’s Australia Ensemble concert) that every composer had some kind of round-number anniversary with 2022?  McCarthy is more thorough than I am.  This is his final paragraph:

Leaving the auditorium, it struck me that the concert title “Cycles” was only tenuously linked with the programming. Some established, truly cyclical works, from composers at the peak of their powers, more broadly representative of what the ensemble’s website called “cycles of time and nature with the associated themes of regeneration and vitality” might have created a better thematic fit. The night was nonetheless a display of solid, skilful ensemble playing, of music which was interesting if not an unqualified success.

He’s a hard marker.

Anna Dowsley wears the pants

June 7, 2022

Last Tuesday, on an afternoon impulse (and on the strength of a matter settled Monday and payment anticipated) to the City Recital Hall for Pinchgut Opera’s production of Orcades Oronsay Orsova Oriana Orontea.

This was first performed in Innsbruck in 1656 and put on about 17 more times before the end of the century.  It is said this makes it a highly popular work for the era.  A main source for modern editions is a score that was owned by Samuel Pepys.  Two or three arias survive in the repertory.

Anna Dowsley (top left in a particularly unflattering shot) was Orontea, a queen of Egypt otherwise unknown to history or literature.  I’ve mostly seen Anna Dowsley in various trouser roles for Opera Australia (Cherubino, Siebel, etc).  That’s a bit of a pattern for early-career mezzos.  Though in a female role, she still wore a pants suit this time.  I know jokes are no good if you have to explain them, but the title of this post is a nod to Kanen Breen who has had a bit of a mirror career in the opposite direction [tautology alert!].

Whatever it popularity in its time, Orontea counts as a bit of an obscurity.  The house wasn’t particularly full.  I don’t think it was a piece that carried the same “buzz” as some other Pinchgut shows.

The production made inventive use of the Angel Place space.  I particularly liked the fake proscenium and curtains which yielded two striking reveals, including one with Anna Dowsley lounging on what, if the auditorium were in its native garb, would be a decidedly precarious spot on the railing of the gallery behind the stage (it could be an organ gallery if they had an organ). I guess there was a bench up against the railing for AD to recline on.

Towards the end of the first half, Andrew O’Connor, (pictured top centre above together with the big red bed, see further below; photo by Brett Boardman) in the ur-buffo role of Gelone, took an incredibly expert fall down some steps leading up to the proscenium.  Or was it?  At interval I noticed a bit of stage-carpentry being done to the steps in question.

The orchestra was a small one – percussion, a recorder (the sole wind instrument other than the organ), Erin Helyard conducting from the keyboard and smallish string and plucked string ensemble – 8 or 9 all up.

The music was very agreeable without to my ears being very striking. That could be a bit of an injustice to Cesti (the composer) if it takes for granted aspects of the style to which he contributed.  I did like how Cesti slipped into a kind of easy triple time whenever he had a good tune coming on. 

Towards the end of the first half I found myself dosing off a bit, in a not disagreeable way. 

After interval things livened up again, and then disaster struck: the surtitles stopped working.  This was a shame, as a whole series of erotic reconfigurations and revelations played out on an enormous Bob-Carol-Ted-and-Alice bed but we were little the wiser as to the detail before the expected final double nuptials where everyone’s (well, almost everyone’s) wishes came true in a delightful tableau.

So even in a very slight and in truth inconsequential plot, I want the text. If anything, a comic plot made up of many twists and turns makes that even more important. Prima la musica can only take you so far.  I contemplated giving Pinchgut a call to ask if I could come to the second half the next night for free.

No need, because next day an email arrived, apologising for the surtitle malfunction and offering two free tickets to Wednesday night, the final performance.  My friend Cx, who had been there on Tuesday and received his email before I received mine, got two and offered one to me.  I had not thought to ask for two (silly; why look a gift horse in the mouth?) but had already asked for one.  So it was that with Cx and D I went again on Wednesday.  I didn’t sense that many people took up the offer, which probably goes to show that most Pinchgut-goers are more busy and important than I am.  (If you have a last-minute free ticket, I’m your man.  I’ve just checked my mobile phone call log.  On 4 May I went to an SSO concert starting at 8pm after my friend and onetime teacher Lx called me at 5.29pm after his intended guest had to bow out on account of Covid.)

I enjoyed Wednesday night just as much as the first time round, and and of course even more once we got to the bit where the surtitles had conked out.  There was a gratifying chaconne which I had previously not detected.  And I’m now reasonably sure that Andrew O’Connor’s tumble on Tuesday was a mishap rather than a pratfall.  Either way he earns my respect because he recovered from it so well.  He is a trouper.

D was unimpressed by the final half hour or so spent on and about the big bed.  It did feel a bit as though the director had run out of ideas even though I can see why at the outset it would have seemed like a good idea.

I have referred on this blog before to a kind of tradition of people acclaiming Pinchgut productions as their best production yet.  That can hardly go on forever and to an extent I suspect it is a bit of a trick of perspective.  I am not a critic, but I doubt if people will say that about Orontea. On the other hand, if that had been on the cards, Pinchgut would hardly have been in a position to make the noble gesture from which D and I benefited, so who am I to complain?

Signs of the times

April 30, 2022

On the fridge door:

Inside the fridge:

They haven’t had a chance to change the spelling on the packaging yet.

Flickerings

March 29, 2022

Musical live performance flickers back to life for me. If I don’t record it here, maybe it never happened. Some perfunctory notes follow.

With my friend and onetime piano teacher, P, on 12/3 to UNSW to hear the Australia Ensemble. My impression was a reasonable attendance – slightly reduced from pre-Covid times. The program (without interval; no refreshments on sale) was:

Jennifer HIGDON | Dash (2001) (violin, clarinet, piano)
Carlos GUASTAVINO | Clarinet Sonata
(1970)
Graeme KOEHNE | Time is a river
(2010)
Wolfgang MOZART | String Quintet in
E flat K614 (1791).

Tobias Breider (viola) made up the numbers for the quintet.

The Higdon, taken at a cracking pace, lived up to its title.

Guastavino was a composer previously unknown to me. The clarinet is such an expressive instrument and the sonata was very agreeable, rather more conservative than you might expect for a work written in 1970 – P and I detected an echo of Rachmaninov’s second symphony (it’s the “never gonna fall in love again” tune).

I enjoyed the Koehne despite its touches of what I think of as Reichism – rather a lot of repetitive writing – for the violins in particular.

In the first movement of the Mozart, the repeat of the exposition was taken. I approve of this. One advantage of taking a repeat is that it gives you the opportunity to get right any tricky passages which might not quite have worked the first time. I won’t say who this applied to in this case, except to say that I’m absolutely fine with it. That’s live performance. It often happens because a risk is taken – generally for expressive reasons – and I appreciate that. Maybe a slightly safer approach was taken the second time round, but sometimes it’s just a matter of nerves settling in.

On 25/3 to the second of two concert performances of Maria Stuarda by Opera Australia. Maria Stuarda was premiered in 1835, the same year as La Juive. Its style is much more accessible. I wonder how much of that is a matter of familiarity on my part – with the style rather than the work. Lucia di Lammermoor also premiered in 1835 so I guess Donizetti was on a roll.

It took me a while to adjust to a concert performance – at first I found it a bit disappointing and you are made a bit more aware of the contrivance of some of the ensemble pieces. Maybe the vocal soloists could have taken up different music stands from time to time better to reflect the dramatic interaction between their characters. By the second half I had acclimatised to the whole concert performance approach and was able to enter into the necessary suspension of disbelief to invest myself in the story and even the characters, notwithstanding Schiller’s distortion of history.

Current conditions of attendance at the SOH are that you must wear a mask if over 12 and show a vaccination certificate (I guess subject to possible exemptions). My neighbour commented a little sarcastically that there seemed rather a lot of people under 12, though I didn’t spot that many – not, to be honest, that I was looking around that much. In the orchestra, only the wind/brass players did not wear masks, and there was even one horn player who played through a mask, something I’d not seen before.

Annoyingly the SOH continues to restrict the means of entry and egress. So much for Opera Australia’s publicity which trills:

The Sydney Opera House is not just the most famous building of the 20th century, but Sydney’s home of opera.

Climb the Monumental Steps as the sun sets.

If you’ve climbed the stairs, you will have to go back down them to the tunnel beneath them to go through the various security checks, including a kind of x-ray check and even bag-check if you are unlucky (though their zeal seems to have abated a bit in this regard). Whatever the reason for doing things this way when we are on the way in, I don’t see the justification for keeping the doors at foyer and box office levels shut at the end of a performance. Strolling out onto the podium and descending by the outdoor stairs is for me an inherent part of the architectural design and the experience you are meant to have of the building.

From the library 4

March 29, 2022

Dispiriting, even if not quite on a par with Alexandria or Louvain. Obviously not my own picture.

La Juive 3

March 17, 2022

On Tuesday night with D to see Opera Australia’s La Juive for the second time (D’s first).

The performance was significantly better attended than the first night.

I’d like to say that further acquaintance enhanced my appreciation. Maybe I am becoming too set in my ways because it mostly confirmed my dissatisfaction with aspects of the production which annoyed me first time round.

Don’t get me wrong. I still enjoyed it. Diego Torres was really terrific, especially in his famous big number, but also at other points. The passover scene at the beginning of Act II was moving. With hindsight La Juive anticipates Rigoletto: in both an outcast father in vain shields his daughter from an imposter seducer (not that such imposters are unknown in other operas). Out of love the daughter deprives the father of his revenge against the seducer. The domestic scenes in both operas have a similar dramatic function after opening crowd scenes in the public sphere.

Where the opera flagged for me was in the remainder of the second Act.

The keeping of the passover is interrupted by the arrival of Leopold’s wife, Eudoxie, who comes to commission from Eleazar a setting of a precious jewel which she intends to present to her husband Leopold, returning victorious from a victory against the Hussites.  This is where the dramatic irony etc starts to really ramp up a notch.  Whilst Eudoxie coloraturas around her delight in her husband’s impending return (and Eleazar, in a moment of pantomime Jewishness, anticipates with relish the money he will make swindling Christians), Leopold (as we already know “Samuel” to be) skulks around the scenery muttering if-she-knew-I-was-here, she-must-not-recognize-me, I-must-keep-hidden!  The usual stuff.  He’d be better off just shutting up but this would rob us of the ensemble. 

After that, the romance between Rachel and “Samuel” proceeds, with the serial disclosures to Rachel that he is a Christian, Eleazar discovering the elopement and denouncing it, only forgiving “Samuel” because he is a Jew, “Samuel” revealing that he is a Christian to Eleazar, and even worse, after Eleazar has reluctantly given his permission for Rachel to marry him, that he cannot (because he is already married – but it’s only in the next act that Rachel and Eleazar find out who he is and to whom).  End of Act with Leopold still professing remorse (of which he shows little sign otherwise).

I’d listened in a cursory way to the opera on youtube, and since Tuesday to a CD from the Con Library. Judging from that, all of this ought to be pretty dramatic, albeit in a fairly well-mannered 1835 French kind of way, but on stage on Tuesday it just wasn’t.  Some of this is because until things heat up, a lot of the act is in a nocturne-ish mood. It’s also true that at shock horror moments Halevy has a bit of a penchant for “oh-my-god!” jaw-dropping long pauses.  But these were not all required to be such pauses, and too often, it seemed to me, there was just  a lack of dramatic pace. The bloody staircase never helped.

The one thing the staircase was undoubtedly good for was in setting up a wall of sound from the chorus when their moments came.

Tastes have definitely changed since 1835. Halevy’s musical language can at times seem to be a bit of a musical backwater from today’s perspective (eg, the bass coloratura in the the duet between Cardinal Brioche and Eleazar just before the end – where did that come from?). A friend commented that there are bits of La Juive that other composers did better later (Rigoletto the obvious eg) and in that respect you could even see the opera as a victim of its own success. I expect that with its clunkiness La Juive is always going to be a tricky work to bring off for modern audiences.

I’m grateful that Opera Australia put it on. That was an achievement, even if, for me, it fell short of being a triumph.

Update: It is scheduled for broadcast on ABC (“Classic”) FM on Thursday 24/3 Sunday 24/4. [Typically, this information from Limelight Magazine; the ABC itself publishes nothing about upcoming programs; maybe you can find out if you can endure the endless cheery on-air promos.] I’ll add the link once it goes online, if I remember by then.

[Afternote 23/3: a sometime colleague who went taking a chance on an unfamiliar work sent me an email out of the blue:

I wonder whether you had the opportunity to see La Juive? I saw it last night – glorious singing and staging – very powerful and somewhat ‘shocking’ at times. I did love it.

So maybe my expectations were too rigid.]

La Juive 2

March 13, 2022

I might equally have titled this post “From the library 3.”

I recently added Canterbury-Bankstown library to my roster of local libraries. I found on Trove that they had a copy of A Taste for Honey, a Holmesian sequel by “Gerald Heard” – an unusual character who ended up in the Vedanta movement in California and a bit of a guru to, amongst others, Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood (though he had a more specific guru), not to mention (even more weirdly) the Luces.

The acquisition policies and holdings of local libraries are a mystery to me. They can often seem a total lottery. Is this because journalistic reviewing in newspapers has so drastically declined? Why for example, are there 9 copies of London Made Us in Victorian libraries but only 1 in all of NSW? Was there a review in The Age?

So it was a typical surprise (oxymoron alert?) to stumble across volume II of Prokofiev’s youthful diaries in the Campsie branch. Just how much of a surprise can be gauged by the fact that the library’s catalogue only lists 8 works by Prokofiev and the diary has the decidedly approximate catalogue number of 780 PRO – that is, 780 for “Music” and “Pro” for Prokofiev.

The diaries are great reading. Volume II covers the years 1915 to 1923. Prokofiev had enjoyed early success (even before the War he had been to London to see Diaghilev) and his life was an exciting one, made a bit more exciting in the Chinese sense of the term by “events”. There are fascinating accounts of his attempts to get home in St Petersburg (maybe already Petrograd) without undue risk of being shot during the 1917 revolution. He left Russia via Vladivostok in 1918 on what turned out to be the last train east before the Czech legion, travelling in the opposite direction, commandeered the line.

A bit like when you buy a model of car and all of a sudden become aware of other cars like yours on the road, my eye was caught by the following passage:

This comes from August 1917, when Prokofiev travelled to the spa resort of Kislovodsk, where his mother was staying at the time. I wondered what standard they could have managed there. From more recent times I found a 2021 Tosca and Pique Dame online and also an Il Pagliacci and The Tsar’s Bride. Kind of serviceable, even if the Te Deum in Tosca was a bit of a stretch. Best in Russian repertoire. But back to Prokofiev in 1917.

Prokofiev, then 26, had a bit of a thing for Koshetz, who was his contemporary and seems to have been at the end of a thing with the rather older Rhachmaninov. In 1921 she was the Princess in the premiere in Chicago of The Love for Three Oranges. By then their “thing” had subsided though they were still teasing each other.

The diaries are lively. It’s easy to burrow down into the details of a vanished age. I liked this snippet from 19 December 1922:

In case it isn’t obvious, the bit I like is: “Spain is a highly musical country and the peseta enjoys a favourable rate of exchange.”

I’ve reserved volume 1 of the diaries, which Canterbury Bankstown library also holds. [Edit: it doesn’t. The catalogue displays the cover for volume 1 (this is an automated thing) but when I tried to reserve this it turned out that the volume 2 I already have is the only volume in their collection.]

La Juive

March 11, 2022

On Wednesday to the opening night of Opera Australia’s La Juive, which has finally come to berth after previously being scheduled and postponed in 2020 and 2021 (my mistake).

This is a co-production with Opéra National de Lyon.  When I first saw that I was a bit cynical.  “Co-production?”  More like an outside production bought off the shelf, surely.  But no. When I delved, I discovered that this was billed as a co-production with Opera Australia by the Lyon company way back in 2016 when it premiered.  This gives you an idea of the long lead-time for opera planning.  It still seems likely that OA jumped on board after the Lyon company had embarked on its own long-lead plans.  Some aspects of the updating of this production to a 1930s France seemed more tailored to the production’s Lyon 2016 origin than a revival in Oz.

Just briefly, to outline the “well made play” of Scribe’s libretto: The Jewess of the title, Rachel, turns out not to be a Jew at all, having been taken in as an infant by the Jew Eléazar when her mother was killed and she disappeared during an invasion of Rome.  This only comes to light at the very end of the opera after she has been put to death for a forbidden relationship with a Christian.  This is Eléazar’s revenge against her father, Cardinal de Brogni who in an earlier life as a magistrate before he took to the cloth in grief for his wife’s and daughter’s death and disappearance was responsible for putting Eléazar’s sons to death as heretics.

OA publicity billed this as an opportunity to experience French grand opera.  This was half-true.  A big part of the “Grand” experience offered by the original was the spectacle occasioned by the strategic timing of the historical-fictional at the 1414 Council of Constance.  At its premiere in Paris in 1835 the public was wowed by horses on stage and so it was said, actual (ie, metal, not merely paste) armour.  We had none of that.  The climactic arrival of the emperor was signified by a muscle-Mary carrying a cross – possibly the executioner from Turandot on his night off.  We still had a big chorus, but they were costumed relatively drably for circa 1930 rather than 1414, and far from milling round in any lively crowd-like way, generally lined up on a set of stairs which OA could probably have economised further on scene shifting by leaving on stage from Otello, which is running at the same time.

Loyal first-nighters were in attendance, but the house was patchy towards the back of the stalls and in the circle.  These are difficult times for the company.  Notoriously, they have also been difficult times for the orchestra.  According to OA’s website, the orchestra’s permanent establishment is down to 40 and doesn’t include any flautist.  Under the heading “Freelance auditions,” “Musicians seeking casual work with the Opera Australia Orchestra are invited to apply by filling out an online application form.” Casual brass players on this occasion included former SSO principals Robert Johnson (horn) and (even more a blast from the past) Daniel Mendelow (trumpet).

OA’s publicity also referred to elements of the opera which were later taken up by Wagner.  One of these is in Die Meistersinger where the overture (Vorspiel) segues to a church service where a chorale is being sung.  In La Juive the overture leads to an organ and an offstage hymn.  We missed out on that particular effect in La Juive because OA dispensed with an overture.

I’m still trying to work out why the set (almost certainly too big for this stage) was constantly moving.  The stairs seemed to create more difficulties than possibilities.  It is hard for cast members to look dignified or imposing when they are busy concentrating on not falling down or tripping over their costumes.  

Musical ensemble was scrappy, especially in the first half, and there were moments when I thought singers could have been given a bit more time. 

Things looked up in the second half.  The libretto’s “well-made play” screws itself up by an accumulation of coincidences and revelations to some memorable final scenes.  Possibly Diego Torre’s rendition of Eleazar’s big number, Rachel, Quand du Seigneur (allusive origin of a running joke in Proust about a sometime prostitute, Rachel) made it all worthwhile. 

Some randomish observations:

  1. “Samuel” (Prince Leopold in disguise as a Jewish painter of that name) sings a serenade outside Rachel’s house.  He posts charcoal and wash female nudes (all his own work) on the wall.  Yes, he is a rotter, but what is he hoping to achieve? 
  2. Leopold is played by Argentinian Francisco Brito, a Rossinian high-tenor specialist.  He was terrific with some thrilling high notes and a dashing presence, but there was something odd about his diction.  I yearned for more consonants.  Maybe it’s a Spanish-speaker singing French thing.  Not that I’m at all a Francophone myself.
  3. Towards the end of the opera, Eléazar is in prison reading what I suppose is meant to be a Jewish sacred book.  It seemed odd (as I glimpsed when it was knocked from his hands) that such a book should have colour illustrations.

    Afternote: It could have been inspired (as pointed out by Thomasina in her comment below) by something like this:
  1. [should be 4: the Afternote picture has thrown the numbering out] I was impressed by the progress made by Esther Song (Eudoxie, wife of Leopold), last seen by me in student productions of Don Giovanni and The Breasts of Tiresias at the Con as recently as 2018.

Since I started writing this post, a few reviews have appeared online.

At Artshub, Gina Fairley, their national visual arts editor, obviously feels that more cheerful and accessible works are called for in the present times.  She concludes:

While La Juive might have been Halévy’s most successful opera, it is not Opera Australia’s. While the poor timing could not be avoided or predicted, this is not an easy opera regardless and demands a lot of its audiences. 

There are very few entry points for audiences new to the opera medium. And while I want to credit the presentation of different operas in the repertoire, this choice seems to underline a polarising effect of the elite and the popular. I think it does more in dividing opera audiences, than growing them.

What an odd conclusion.  Was she really the right reviewer?  Whilst I found the first half a bit underwhelming, and admitting that it is probably a work for connoisseurs, I don’t think it was particularly demanding, and despite the foreboding as to length that a 7pm start entails, the time for me rushed by – especially the second half.

At Limelight Jansson J. Antmann starts:

“Last night’s long-awaited return to the Australian stage of Fromental Halévy’s opera La Juive couldn’t have been grander.”

Well, actually, it could have been grander, as Antmann surely knows, given that he refers to an exhibition of the original costumes set designs at the National Gallery in Canberra in 1991. Still, I admire his long perspective re the “long awaited return”. As far as I can see (at least from Ausstage) the last performances of La Juive in Australia were in Melbourne and Adelaide in 1874.

Antmann goes into a lot of detail about the production which suggests that he had access to a lot more background briefing than I had.

There is another review to which I shall not refer further because the reviewer explains something which should come (at least the first time) as a surprise. (And no, I don’t mean that Rachel is Cardinal Brioche’s daughter. You are obviously meant to know this because it is dramatically-ironically inherent in the pathos of a scene between them.) The reviewer should have known better.

I’m going again in a bit under a week.  With any luck things will have settled down musically by then and I will be able to make better sense of the production.  I hope to get closer to Antmann’s view than Fairley’s.

From the library 2

March 8, 2022

As I have mentioned before, more than once, for a modest fee I am able to borrow items from the Sydney University library. At least I was. In March 2020 the university restricted access because of, you know, Covid, and didn’t seem in much of a hurry to restore it. Out of the blue last Friday they sent me an email that access restrictions had been lifted since last Monday. I headed in to the Conservatorium the next Monday afternoon.

I hoped to find an edition of Bach’s Goldberg Variations with fingering other than the Henle edition I already have at home. I’m not happy with what it suggests for bars 13 to 15 of variation 26 and while I’m about it there are a few other spots where I’d like to check out any alternative proposals. I drew a blank on that, but I did pick up a piano score for Halevy’s La Juive, about to be put on by Opera Australia, as well as an arrangement of the score for piano.

Some time in the late 90s or maybe as late as the early noughties, the library stopped stamping due dates. Hard to tell when the rather insensitively placed borrowing card pocket went in other than that it was 1991 at the latest.

This blue stamp gives some provenance:

On the opposite page, someone has written in a partial cast list:

The score is in German. For just one number, a scene and duet between Eudora and Recha [Rachel] (No 16, at the beginning of Act IV), the French text has been painstakingly written in:

This is the part of the score that has seen the most use, indicated by some tape repairs to keep pages in and the state of the edges.

It would be nice to think that Elise Wiedermann made it to New York in 1920 to see her pupil Evelyn Scotney sing Eudora with Caruso as Eleazar in the last role he ever learnt. Maybe not, as Elise died in Melbourne in 1922. By what twists and turns did the score end up at the Con?

It is so long since I have been to the Uni library that I rocked up with a borrower’s card which I must have “lost” and replaced. I asked the librarian to write down the current card number because I thought that might be useful if I need to renew anything online. It turns out that for online transactions the university has entrusted everything to bloody Microsoft and one’s physical card and its number are irrelevant, but I didn’t know that then. The librarian kindly wrote out what I thought of as my borrower’s number on a scrap of paper which she had to hand.

It was only later that I twigged what the scrap was:

It must be at least 20 years since the Con library converted its card catalogue, probably more like thirty. Are they working through it for bits of scrap paper, card by card?