Marvellous 墨尔本 (Mò ěr běn)

Last Wednesday, D and I drove down to Melbourne.

We didn’t actually leave until 2pm, and consequently spent the night at Albury. We reached Melbourne on Thursday afternoon after detouring via Yackandandah, Beechworth (highlight: the Kelly gang’s armour on display at the court house) and Wangaratta.

The motive for the trip was twofold. My friend, P, has married a German man and will be leaving Melbourne in 3 weeks for Munich. This was a last chance to see her and, incidentally, to stay at her conveniently situated Collingwood cottage. Secondly (if you are counting) I wanted to get to see Arabella again, and to sample the ambience of Melbourne’s Arts Centre State Theatre.

This is only the fourth time I have ever driven down to Melbourne, and now I am reminded why. The drive is not for the faint-hearted. I’m not sure the length of our visit really justified it.

I am shy to touch on Australia’s perennial chestnut [are chestnuts perennial?] but it is difficult to avoid some kind of comparison between Sydney and Melbourne. On so many counts, Melbourne and Sydney must be each other’s closest sibling city, but this only throws into relief the scope for variation. Why, for instance, do Melbourne’s pubs so often favour externally the tinted windows and that drab dark brown, which to me can only bode very ill indeed? I could go on, but it’s mostly all been said before.

On Friday we visited Ph, a friend of D’s from Shanghai who has moved with his boyfriend B from Newtown (where B half-owned a house with his brother) to St Kilda, where B has bought a quite swish unit at a price still unimaginable in Sydney. After lunch, Ph and D went window shopping in town, and they later joined up in the evening when Ph gave D a guided tour of 5 of the (he says – can this be right?) 11 gay bars in Collingwood.

P and I went to Arabella. A Melbournian sitting to my left offered me the oft-repeated (more oft, I suspect, in Melbourne than in Sydney) remark that Sydney and Melbourne have Australia’s best opera house, but that the outside is in Sydney and the inside is in Melbourne.

The State Theatre has rather too much red velvet for my taste, and the foyers are cramped and fearsomely subterranean (the whole theatre from the circle downwards is essentially underground, and the toilets must definitely struggle to flush uphill to the sewerage line), but the moment the orchestra started playing, there was no doubting the superiority of its open pit to Sydney’s semi-enclosed one. In Sydney, the players have to send themselves deaf to project the still inadequate sound which emerges into the auditorium. In Melbourne the sound is unimpeded. String sound is warmer, brass barks have an impact; there is detail and there is aural space around the details. The bigger stage and seating capacity are also obvious advantages, but the pit is the telling point of comparison. Remediation of the Sydney pit, if it can be afforded (and that is a big big if, since it will also presumably reduce the capacity of the theatre) should be every Sydney opera-goer’s prayer and wish.

On my right was an enthusiast from Hobart, who had come this weekend, as he and a number of others do each year, to catch all three of the season’s operas (My Fair Lady does not count) on the one weekend. Left and right neighbour developed the usual theme of “if only the Australian Opera would live up to its name and serve all of Australia” etc etc. To me this is missing the point. If the support was there in Melbourne, Opera Victoria would surely still be in business. I don’t make the same complaint about the Australian Ballet.

I enjoyed Arabella even more, if possible, the second time around. Though in some ways an unbelievable silly romance of finding a Mr Right who also, fortuitously, is Mr Rich, it manages to play against its own grain as a confection of an art-form in its decadent phase to be at the same time strangely worldly and grown-up. I cannot help reading Zdenko/Zdenka, the girl brought up as a boy (on economic grounds) who is in love with one of her sister’s suitors, as a coded gay character. That’s probably my own preoccupation, which also comes out in my response to the other Strauss’s Prince Orlovsky.

In Melbourne there were four performances. After the show P and I had supper with L, a very old acquaintance from my musical adolescence who is now in Orchestra Victoria. She told me that they had 12 rehearsals for the orchestra alone, and that in Sydney there were 14 (for 5 performances). It makes you realise (yet again) why the art form is so expensive, and also wonder if they couldn’t have managed to mount more performances. L said (I paraphrase here) that Lionel Friend, who conducted the Melbourne run, told the orchestra at the first rehearsal that he didn’t expect that they would be able to play all of it. This may partly have been because of the tempi he adopted – which he himself (or so L said) also said would not necessarily be the “natural” tempi – apparently he shaved 15 minutes off Hickox’s timings in Sydney. I did notice a tendency to approximation in the strings in the very brisk Vorspiel to the last act, which is pretty much a parody of that to Act III of Der Rosenkavalier.

On Saturday afternoon I returned for good measure to see A Masked Ball. This was mostly the same cast as before, save that Julian Gavin took the role of Gustavus III which in Sydney had been sung by Dennis O’Neill. I know I had some sport at the expense of Dennis as the short fat old ugly one in my account of that performance, but I hope I made it clear that little of that matters to me when Mr O’Neill sings. Mr Gavin is far from being a negligible singer, but he sings with a kind of head tone and with a reluctance to break the line or interrupt it (particularly with palatal consonants) which to me resulted in a loss of vehemence.

I went to the Verdi with my former colleague, F, now a partner in a big law firm. F told me that she is required to generate annual billings of at least $2 million. This must include supervisory billings as well as her own personal time. I don’t know how quickly they show you the door if you don’t make the grade. It’s a tough (if lucrative) world out there.

On Thursday night P, D and I went to the Shanghai Dumpling Restaurant, tucked away in one of those little Melbourne lanes. This is apparently a Melbourne institution (since about 1993 at least). We were probably the oldest there. On the way, I was intrigued to pass a shop offering flights in a Jumbo (and other) jet flight simulator, starting at $175 for 30 minutes. If you could take passengers and they could share the thrill and spill, it might be worth it. Their market seems to be the cashed-up young overseas students who inhabit that part of town.

On Saturday night, P, D and I dropped in at Readings Bookshop before seeing Auf der anderen Seite, from which D and I had been turned away at the Sydney German Film festival. It was a bit too dark and also political for D; I’m still trying to work it out; but it did make both of us cry.

On Sunday we drove straight back in one stint with only coffee stops. It took us just under 10 hours and 68 litres of petrol.

2 Responses to “Marvellous 墨尔本 (Mò ěr běn)”

  1. Victor Says:

    Flight simulators must be the latest fad. I noticed two of them on the Gold Coast when I visited two weekends ago.

  2. Club Troppo » Missing Link Daily Says:

    […] visits Melbourne for a couple of nights at the […]

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