Archive for October, 2009

Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Shanghai

October 31, 2009


I am just back from a little under two weeks in and around Shanghai.

The Great Firewall of China precluded (at least for a casual user such as I who has not mastered the art of internet proxies) any posts while I was there.

With a little difficulty (a craven and admittedly very last-minute request for assistance from the SSO having been met with the proud but not-quite-on-point response that the concert was sold out, as to which more later) I managed to get to hear the SSO’s Shanghai concert.

The program (which had already been given in Beijing and was to be repeated elsewhere) was:

Rachmaninov – Vocalise
Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No 1
Prokofiev – Symphony No 5.

Soloist was Behzod Abduraimov and Vladimir Ashkenazy conducted.

D (with whom and his mother I was staying in Shanghai) thought little of my desire to go to this concert, particularly as it necessitated a trip across town earlier in the day to the venue to buy a ticket in person. Why, having coming half way across the world, would I want to squander a day seeing something I could see at home?

The true answer is probably sentiment, coupled with a pathetically tragic element of I-can-blog-this. Aside from that, for the purposes of argument, the reasons and the content of this post can be divided into musical and extra-musical.

Taking the extra-musical first, there is this question of a “sold-out” concert. This may be true from the point of view of the official box office (there were perhaps 7 or 8 tickets for sale when I fronted at about 3 pm) but there is in fact an extensive secondary market, which is to say: touts. I spotted (and you can, too, in the picture below) a posse seemingly permanently encamped with booklets of tickets for numerous events in the afternoon. In the evening, between the metro exit a few hundred metres away and the concert hall, I estimate there were maybe 40 or 50. As a foreigner you are at a bit of a disadvantage in this market, being both presumptively rich and unlikely to walk away and also being unfamiliar with the vendors and with the indicia of an authentic tickets: forgery remaining a kind of sovereign risk. Having secured a ticket (at the top price of 680 rmb – more fool me), I didn’t put it the test, but in the past I have found it possible (preferably as undisclosed principal with a Chinese front man) to get tickets at 40 to 60% discount. I suspect that ticket prices are in truth a bit like airlines’ full fares – few really pay them unless it really is a hot ticket. This must also mean that the intermediaries in this market (ie, the touts) must get their tickets at an even bigger discount for the exercise to be worth their while.

Some things are universal: the cheaper seats (apart from a few opposite the piano and to the side) were pretty well fully occupied. The top-price bloc was much emptier, and given that this included VIPs (including the SSO team: I sat just behind the assistant conductor, Nicholas Carter and [graceless grudge alert] I’d say the official party could well have spared me a seat in their rows) the actual sales of this bloc cannot have exceeded 30%.


The Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre (pictured above), where the concert was held, is in Pudong (literally: on the eastern side (dong) of the Haungpu river), and after the Shanghai Grand Theatre at People’s Square is the city’s No 2 venue (In Beijing the SSO played at the Forbidden City Concert Hall, which is possibly No 2 aeq with the Beijing Concert Hall or maybe No 3). The nominal ticket prices were the venue’s standard prices, and included a 50 rmb price for students. By way of comparison, the top nominal price for the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra, playing the next two nights at the SGT with Ricardo Chailly, was 1880 rmb.

There was an x-ray-style baggage search at the entrance. These are now becoming ubiquitous in China. D was stopped on our way into the box office in the afternoon and quizzed about a container of hair-gel he had just bought, which seems a little over the top, whatever the perils of peroxide bombs may be in aircraft.

A recorded announcement (in English and Chinese) broadcast at intervals in the foyer gave instructions on concert etiquette. It included:

  • please remain seated during the performance;
  • please remain silent during the performance;
  • please do not applaud between movements;
  • do not let children run around auditorioum lest they fall and hurt themselves; and
  • smoking and chewing gum are strictly prohibited.

The last seems rather tough on anyone with a Nicorette habit, but such people are probably rare in Shanghai.

Adherence to the first four precepts was pretty good: no children ran around and there will always be some applause after the first movement of the Tchaikovsky. I didn’t spot anyone smoking in the auditorium.

D claims that, in Shanghai, there are two groups of people who are commonly held to be “difficult.” The first, unsurprisingly, is teenagers. The second is women of a certain age, say late 50s to early 60s – the lost youth of the cultural revolution. These are thought to be tough customers. Two such women not far from me upheld the Chinese tradition of in-concert commentary, ostensibly rendered inoccuous by masking with a hand held obliquely in front of their mouths.

Rule of law is laxer in China than Australia: seat hopping occurred even before the first half.

The ushers are definitely there to supervise the audience, and a few are specially assigned to stand facing it with a stern demeanour. Just before the concert began, they marched down the aisles bearing illuminated signs reinforcing the simultaneous recorded announcement forbidding photography. This was then flashed up on the tickertape-style illuminated signs at either side of the stage throughout the concert (visible in the picture).

At interval, Behzod Abduraimov came to sit next to Nicholas Carter. This prompted a little rush of autograph-solicitation and then the inevitable next step as one young woman left her seat and attempted to get a picture of herself with him with her mobile phone. At this point the orchestra’s managing director, Rory Jeffes, rose from the seat he had taken up for the second half and proclaimed rather lordlily [probably not a word; maybe “lordlily”? I suppose I should say “in a rather lordly fashion” but probably from a Shanghai perspective more reminiscent of the legendary but never-forgotten “No dogs and Chinese” sign] “No Pictures!” I bet Rory was a prefect at school.

As Shanghai-born SSO violinist Shuti Huang (promoted to acting principal for the tour) has already remarked on the SSO’s pseudo-blog of the tour, immediately the applause finished our egress was accompanied by loud recorded music of a vaguely crossover-popular Chinese style.

As to the live music, I didn’t think so much of the first half. The Vocalise is a confection. There were two conspicuous french horn fluffs or split notes in the Tchaikovsky, including, embarrassingly, on the very first note. Ashkenazy has been quoted as saying that Abduraimov, aged 19, and this year’s winner of the London International Piano Competition, has a great future, and this seems accurate enough. Perhaps this is sufficient justification for his choice of Chopin’s Etude Op 10 No 1 as an encore, which would otherwise be semiotically inappropriate and indeed a little vulgar. That’s probably snobby of me, because the audience lapped this stuff up.

The main point of interest was to hear the orchestra in a drier and hence clearer acoustic than its home venue. This wasn’t always flattering to the violins, because though it gave them a better chance to hear each other for the purposes of unanimity, it also revealed more clearly when they fell short, particularly in the Tchaikovsky. The woodwind were also much more clearly audible: heard away from home, Diana Doherty comes through as their star.

In the second half, it was clear that the hard yards [yuk: sporting cliche] had been put in, including by the violins, and the orchestra delivered a truly crackling perfomance of the Prokofiev. I’m looking forward to hearing that again in Sydney, albeit in the SOH concert hall echo chamber.

For an encore, Mr Ashkenazy asked the audience to guess the composer: it was Elgar’s Chanson de Matin. I understand this from VA’s point of view, and it was truly charming, but could we not have had something either Australian or Chinese? I know the latter would have required something else once the orchestra left China, and nothing characteristic by, say, Julian Yu, would be likely to be palatable, but I don’t think you can overestimate the value on tour of buttering up an audience by serving them a bit of their own fare by way of gracious, even if kitschy, tribute.

Cribbed from Crabbe

October 16, 2009

nla peter grimesTonight to the first night of Peter Grimes.

When the curtain rose, the assembled people of the borough faced us in contemporary-with-the-opera’s-composition garb for the inquest prelude in what seemed a loving tribute to OA’s rehearsal space, Marrickville Town Hall, masquerading as something more like the Aldeburgh/the Borough parish hall. Actually, Marrickville Town Hall is finer than that: it was more like Rockdale Town Hall, home of the Rockdale Opera Company. It was a spectacular (if spectacularly drab) set, but I knew that was the only one we were going to get.

As a result, there was a lot of necessary suspension of disbelief, as the hall had to stand for strand and pub. Oh, Mr Armfield, I thought to myself: do we have to have these actors’-exercise sorts of things? Maybe I’ve just not got over when NA wrote me out of a Sydney Uni production of Bartholomew Fair (he was tutoring in English and doing an MA in (I think) Ben Jonson at the time, though fame took him away, I think, before he ever finished it), because I didn’t come to enough rehearsals – which was, in turn, in part because I couldn’t see the point of all those exercises.

Enough of ancient grudges.

The production does manage a coup-de-theatre which I won’t spoil by revealing here.

But much is gained. Expectations have been high, and they have been met. Stuart Skelton is terrific as Grimes (more Vickers than Pears, though there is one colaratura spot in the writing which is ineluctably Pearsian), and Susan Gritton, apart from some oddly slow to speak higher soft notes, impressive as Ellen. I wished there could have been more for Peter Coleman-Wright to sing. The period setting adopted enabled Elizabeth Campbell to play Mrs Smedley as a kind of crazed Miss-Marple-wannabe, though this was more comic than threatening. The lesser parts were all strongly cast and well-delivered – the men get a better go than the women in this. I did think there was the occasional ensemble scrappiness. Mark Wigglesworth was not much inclined to let the heart-stopping moments linger.

The thing is: Grimes really is a great work, and not just in the euphemistic sense. It has wonderful moments for the orchestra, and when the chorus of borough inhabitants’ ire is raised, it has some of the loudest and most thrilling noises in the repertoire. Perhaps there are just a few twee bits: “Joe has gone fishing” makes me think of “Old Abram Brown,” and Britten managed the idea better in Billy Budd. Which is to say that a lot of the credit must go to the work. I also remember that the last production (pictured above) made a similarly strong impression on me.

The libretto is based on a poem by George Crabbe, and includes, as a non-speaking part, “Dr Crabbe.” This is the one aspect of this production that I do have misgivings about, as “Dr Crabbe” – the author within the action – assumes the role of stage manager and even eventually cradles the crazed Grimes in his madness. (The original poem is rather less sympathetic to Grimes.) I didn’t warm to this. It was fiddly and distracting, both as a source of business during the interludes for the scene changes which weren’t needed and as an authorial commentary on Grimes’s fog-harried (we had to imagine the fog, of course) confusion.

There is a lot of drinking of cups of tea in the parish hall. As a matter of design, I thought the choice of teacup was totally wrong. It should have been Beryl, as found in every English parish hall from the period and featured in Foyle’s War:

woods green beryl

In a re-run of the last first night I attended, I really am off to Shanghai tomorrow. I have made sure that I will be back just in time for the last night of the run. That’s because I expected it to be good, and, despite the little gripes above, it really is very, very good. I cried twice.

Avenue Q & The Founding of a Republic

October 10, 2009

On Friday night to see Avenue Q at the Theatre Royal.

It’s taken a while for this show to reach Australia. Had D (who is still away) been in town we would almost certainly have gone to see this earlier, as we’ve enjoyed some of the better-known songs on you-tube and the premiss (muppets and sesame street for young adults) is beguiling. The “Q” is a take on the alphabetical avenues of Manhattan, though the plot does have a gay angle which was thought sufficient to warrant an ACON preview gala and ACON volunteers collecting at the end (a la Priscilla).The twin announcements of the end of the Sydney run (18 October) and $50 tickets ($49.90) for all seats finally forced my hand.

I hope this discounting doesn’t mean the promoters are losing money on it. Tickets were only being sold for the stalls.

But that is too gloomy to contemplate.

The show doesn’t really pretend to be profound, but it is funny and smart and at this price I’d say pretty well irresistible if you can get to it before it closes. It is memorable without needing to be a “blockbuster.”

It is certainly better value for money than the Chinese anniversary-of-1949 spectacular, The Founding of a Republic. (建国大业). That’s the People’s Republic, of course.

This was showing in Sydney on one screen only, at Hoyts Broadway, surely by some special arrangement with the Chinese consulate (when do you see Hoyts doing single-screen releases?). Amidst numerous shots of Chairman Mao looking helmsmanish, piggy-backing children through fields of flowers, etc, the chief interest in the film for me and I suspect quite a lot of the audience, judging from their responses, turned out to be spotting the familiar faces of actors and even film directors popping up, often in quite tiny roles.

The ticket to this cost me an astounding $17 on the Monday public holiday. I don’t know if this included a holiday surcharge. Otherwise it seems that this is about what a film costs these days if you are silly enough to front a mainstream cinema unarmed with the relevant discount voucher or membership card.

A long and tortuous history

October 7, 2009

Last week, judgment was given in the latest instalment ([2009] NSWSC 1038) of Wentworth v Rogers. Judges often say it but in this case when Rothman J stated in his opening sentence that:

These proceedings have a long and tortuous history

it could almost count as judicial understatement. The proceedings commenced in 1982. They are well-known, arising from an incident in 1977 when Mr Rogers (as was subsequently found by a jury after a civil trial in 1994) assaulted Ms Wentworth, his then wife – though the amount of the jury verdict suggests that not all of Ms Wentworth’s claims about the incident were believed. (Click here for a bit of nostalgia about the level of court reporting once provided by the Daily Telegraph.)

His Honour dismissed Ms Wentworth’s various applications, which were said to be in aid of the enforcement of the judgment of $2,000 for the assault and costs of $184,000. Those amounts were never paid by Mr Rogers and, Mr Rogers having since gone bankrupt on his own application (naming Ms Wentworth and the present Mrs Rogers as his creditors), it is not possible to take further enforcement action in the Supreme Court in relation to them in the face of the over-riding (Commonwealth) provisions of the Bankruptcy Act. Accordingly, Ms Wentworth’s application was fundamentally misconceived.

Which makes it all the odder that his Honour ordered that Mr Rogers (who did not appear or take part in the present notices of motion) pay Ms Wentworth’s costs of the motion. No order for costs was made in the present Mrs Rogers’ favour against Ms Wentworth.

No particular reasons are offered for this. There are some rather weasel-worded observations about the “seeming injustice” of Ms Wentworth being unable to enforce the judgment and the “the ability of the fraudulent to hide behind the bankruptcy laws,” though in his next breath his Honour adds “I do not, by that comment, find or suggest that Mr Rogers has been fraudulent.” This does not strike me as in any way a satisfactory exercise of the court’s discretion in relation to costs.

The jury is still out

October 7, 2009

On Monday 15 September, Justice Anthony Whealy, who has been presiding at Parramatta over Sydney’s own lengthy terrorist trial, completed his summing up. The trial itself has been going on since early last year, though the jury was only empanelled in about November.

My own informant (obviously, from what follows, on the defence side) claims that his Honour was perceptibly deflated when the foreman announced that the jury proposed to deliberate Monday to Thursday for a full (court-length) day, and only until 1pm on Fridays. How could it take them so long? Wasn’t the right verdict obvious?

The jury is still out.

There are five defendants. There has been remarkably little reportage of this trial. Once the verdicts are in, we can expect the usual flood: Hold the front page! It would be best for the press if the verdict came out on a Friday: then we can all have a big Saturday splash.


Verdict came in on Friday 16 October. All guilty. I missed any press splash as I was on the plane to Shanghai by then.

Così 3

October 6, 2009

Tonight again courtesy of my friend who is in it to Opera Australia’s Così fan Tutte.

My seat was a little further back than the last time, and it seems the attendance is improving. Then again, it may just be the loyal Tuesday subscription audience, an audience that, my taxi-driving-opera-following friend Sk maintains, is particularly devoted to the form.

On the way into the Gents at interval I said “Hullo, Peter” to PS, a longterm Quadrantine (I try not to hold that against him) and my English I tutor [31 years ago], as he was on his way out. That’s my tutor for Literature – amazing! We had another tutor for “Language”, and that is another story, but I bet they don’t have 2 tutorials a week in English I these days. PS was a bit nonplussed – I have the same problem as a former teacher occasionally greeted by ex-students/pupils, though I am sure he has more. I didn’t like to tell him that I gave the last of his novels in my possession to 2MBSFM a couple of years ago, though authors surely have to grow accustomed to this.

After interval, tiring of the constricted sound from our miserable orchestra pit, I moved to the front row. I encountered a strangely uptight neighbour, who had stowed all her (numerous) possessions on and under the empty seat. When I expressed a desire to sit in it, she asked to see my ticket! (Ironical, given that my ticket was for a considerably more expensive seat, albeit discounted. I am astounded that I nevertheless showed it to her.) I assured her that I would be able to move if the rightful owner [actually: for lawyers, licensee: the distinction has some fascinating consequences] arrived. She made some remark about not disrupting the performance if that person arrived. I was (inwardly) confident nobody would, as proved to be the case. Things were a bit frosty between us after that. I wish I could have done more to annoy her, though probably I had done enough.

There is a point, probably when you have gone to a third performance, when you risk becoming a bore about the details of a production (as opposed to about the people you sat next to). Are they details which you simply missed before, or is a little coarse acting creeping in? I thought a little finger-wagging by Fiordiligi/Rachelle Durkin on the first occasion Henry Choo assayed her breasts (a reprise of the “yes/no” moment in La ci darem da mano) fell into the latter category. In other notes: RD handled the lower-register moments (which are the very difficult and exposed parts) better than before.

The principals were trying on their microphones for size and technical difficulties in anticipation of the broadcast on ABC2 next week.

I found myself moved to tears in Ferrando’s aria where, though he feels betrayed by Dorabella, he declares he still loves her. (At least, that’s the way it goes in the present translation.) I don’t really know why.

Let no such man be trusted

October 2, 2009

The man that hath no music in himself, that is.

Tonight to the SSO’s program, originally advertised as “London Calling” and featuring Vaughan Williams’ “A London Symphony” and Richard Hickox as conductor.

Hickox was replaced by Mark Wigglesworth (who is also stepping into Hickox’s shoes for Peter Grimes), and the London Symphony by a rejig of the program from:

The Wasps: Overture
Flos campi (Flower of the Field)
A London Symphony
(Symphony No.2, 1913 version)


BRITTEN Sinfonia da requiem
Flos campi (Flower of the Field)
The Lark Ascending
Serenade to Music
ELGAR In the South

The result was to relocate the heavy lifting of the RVW symphony to the Britten and the Elgar, and leave behind an altogether more pastoral and benign version of Vaughan Williams – perhaps a little too much of the very sweetest stuff.

I suppose the SSO took some special step to alert me as a ticket holder to the change of program, but if so I overlooked it: the first inkling I had was when ABC Classic FM’s anticipatory publicity for the live broadcast didn’t mention the [or, properly, “A”] London Symphony.

So it’s probably just as well that, having persuaded a musical but non concert-going colleague to take up my ticket in my absence on the strength of the London symphony, I took it back once I was back in town.

My neighbour was a young man who informed me that he’d just got into the Sydney Sinfonia for next year. His teacher was Ronald Prussing, so obviously he is a trombonist. I’m not sure if much of the RVW was really up his street for fairly obvious instrumental reasons.

Those obvious reasons, just in case they aren’t obvious, are the absence of any trombone parts: in my experience young orchestral musicians are pretty partisan about their own patch of the orchestra.

Fortunately, both the Elgar and the Britten offered compensations.

The Britten is his first really big work, commissioned, amazingly, for the purported 2,600th anniversary of the Japanese empire. You have to wonder how Britten ever came to accept the commission: Japan’s belligerence was already well known. My own guess is that, as a young artist on the make, he just couldn’t resist it. Then perhaps having had second thoughts he responded with what must be one of the most ungracious ever fulfilments of a commission: a work which, evoking Christian forms and dealing with death, cannot have failed to have and must surely have been intended to offend. Some (probably liberal, western-oriented) Japanese cultural official must surely have had cause to regret that he ever thought of young Benjamin. I wonder if he was there when the work was finally premiered (BB conducting) in Japan in 1956.

There is a kind of sport with early works of composers – identifying influences and precursors to what with hindsight can be thought of as their mature style. In this case, the first movement has a melodramatic massiveness which I don’t think BB ever after assayed. In the second movement I wondered whether BB had been listening to a bit of Shostakovich or whether they’d both been listening to Mahler: this movement contained the most hints of BB’s mature style. In the third movement – well, even a left-wing composer in Britain in the 30s could probably not escape the influence of Sibelius.

The first half closed with ‘Flos Campi.’ It is very lovely stuff with a viola solo (Roger Benedict) and with the choir, which sings wordlessly, providing a halo of built in reverberation. There was also a rather odd “red Indian” (but probably actually Appalachian in the Cecil Sharp sense) section.

In the second half, in the additional sweetener section, we got rather more of the same. Michael Dauth lent his own style (more reserved than, say, Dene Olding’s) to the Lark Ascending and also had a prominent solo in the Serenade to Music. This is a setting of the final quasi-nocturne in Merchant of Venice when the characters discuss music in a kind of lyrical postlude. The relevant text from which the heading to this post is derived is:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted.

Actually, I was a bit worried about my neighbour on this score, as for a musician he spent an inordinate amount of time reading his program – I am afraid that rather a lot of the music (albeit, much of it short on trombone moments) must have passed him by. He told me that free tickets to SSO concerts were a benefit conferred on him by the Sinfonia membership: maybe (now I’m sounding about doctors serenading the virtues of copayments and the vice of bulk billing under Medicare) there should be some, nominal charge. Then again, it’s true that many young musicians are keener on playing than on listening and there’s nothing really new about that.

There is a luxury version of the Serenade with about a dozen [16, in fact] soloists. The SSO took the more prudent approach (given that Cantillation was already on tap for Flos Campi) of doing the version with choir and a quartet of vocal soloists. It is only stating the obvious to say that they took a budget approach to the choice of soloists, who didn’t even merit a picture or biography in the program booklet. The men were fine but maybe a bit more money could have been spent on the ladies.

There is a section where the music takes a darker turn when the words explain how it is that the music of the spheres cannot be heard by mortal souls “whilst this muddy vesture of decay/ Doth grossly close it in.” At this point the hall where I was sitting was invaded by a sinister buzzing sound which can only have emanated from the amplification system (or from my own tinnitus: though for me this usually takes a high-pitched whistle rather than a buzz). Fortunately, this proved to be transient.

The Elgar was a bigger work than I anticipated, and made for a dashing finale. The opening was reminiscent of the prelude to Act III of Lohengrin. It is easy to see why Strauss thought highly of Elgar and in this work Elgar was at his most Straussian [well maybe not most Straussian: I have since heard the broadcast of Sir Andrew Davis conducting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Elgar’s “tone poem,” Falstaff, though that is perhaps early Strauss, whereas this goes further forward], including a closing section reminiscent of the finale to Rosenkavalier but without such taxing high string divisi writing (very wise: I doubt if London strings could match Dresden’s, Munich’s or Vienna’s at this time).

Despite my own (rather bemusing) oddly puritanical guilt at such almost entirely unalloyed pleasure, it was a most engrossing and captivating concert. Any minor regrets about the program changes pale in comparison to the wrench that Richard Hickox is not here (conducting whatever) and with us still as originally planned.

Così 2

October 2, 2009

Concerned at news of half-full houses for Così, I gratefully accepted an offer from someone involved in the production of a company rush ticket to see it again.

At company rush prices, and given my accidental enforced holiday at home as a result of abandoning other plans in order to make my trip West, I could easily go to every remaining performance, subject to clashes.

Perhaps I will. The main thing which may deter me is the length of the piece. That seems ridiculous – surely in opera as in life, if two hours are good, then four hours (OK: 3) are better. And I have no problem or even fears of length with, say, Der Rosenkavalier, Marriage of Figaro (give me even those “extra” arias!) or Wagner. I don’t even have a memory of the same feeling about Cosi when I last saw it.

My copy of the 1969 edition of Kobbe’s Opera Guide was a present to my grandmother from a man whose late in life proposal of marriage she rejected, adhering instead to widowhood, and itself presented to him “with respect and affection from his many friends in St Albans Military Band, Cardiff” probably shortly before his embarcation to return to Australia, judging from the further inscription “Cabin 87, Promenade Deck.” There are numerous enthusiastic annotations, favouring composers who favour the brass section, and therefore Wagner most of all. The entry for Così fan Tutte is unannotated. In it, “H” [Lord Harewood] writes:

The opera ‘plays’ slower than either Figaro or Don Giovanni, and it is by no means short, but the stage action is as full of life as the music, and the opera is the ideal piece for a musically sophisticated audience.

Earlier in the same (lengthy) paragraph he writes of the opera as:

The truth is inescapable: in Così fan Tutte Mozart surpassed even himself in the richness and variety of his invention, in the impeccable skill with which the slenderest drama is adorned with music, in the creation of beauty. The idea is as light as a feather, and yet the music which clothes it suggests not only the comedy which is on the surface and which remains the most important part of the opera, but also the heartbreak which is behind the joke hat goes too far and occasionally takes a serious turn.

The paragraph as a whole extols the virtues of da Ponte’s book, particularly as effecting a symmetrical construction which “provide[s] Mozart with oppportunities for some incomparable music.” Harewood considers nineteenth century criticisms of the libretto as odd, and endorses Professor Dent’s view that the libretto “cannot be judged in a summary [in particular, I take it, a plot summary] but must be seen in all its details.”

This is probably the conventional judgment, and it has at least something behind it: that is the sense in which, as I started quoting Harewood, it is an opera for a “musically sophisticated” audience. A feature of the work is the way in which a very wide range of moods and situations (comedy, of course also the mock drama of the announcement by don Alfonso that the men are to go to war – over in a flash, jealous masculine rage; wronged womanly rage, absolute despair, military music, folksy-dancy music, evening-outdoors wind band music, schmoozy seduction and betrayal (by a man) of a woman in love) flash before you kaleidoscopically.

Well, sometimes they don’t flash but linger rather a long time at a certain poignant point. The moments where the opera seemed long were those points which felt to be lingering a bit too long – that’s circular, of course, but for me those points were most of all in Fiodiligi’s big arias. I’m not sure that RD is the ideal vocal type for this part, but then again I’m not sure that anyone is. The problem is the extremes of low and high registers – it’s hard to find anyone who can deliver both – as well as the length of arias which don’t really materially advance the in any event conspicuously contrived plot.

In this production, the singers also have to meet some quite demanding physical requirements, including topless (for the men) and in bathing costumes and later quasi-negligees (for the women). As Andrew Byrne points out (he is not keen on this) this necessarily restricts the field from which revivals can be cast.

That’s a tricky issue (let’s be honest: we are talking about fat and old singers who will be disadvantaged by this: even the tall/short pairing could be rejigged to work the other way) especially because it brings us right to the perennial issue of opera, as expressed in Capriccio, a work which I think has the same intention towards sophisticated listeners that Così has.

After all, Così was brought to the public by the same team who had already brought them Figaro and Don G. Both of those operas concentrated on men behaving badly, with exhibitions along the way of most of the range of moods I have mentioned above as being on display in Così.

Così is a sequel and a comic but in the end wry answer: You think men are like that? [And this premise is uncontested.] Women [contrary to the almost all wronged women of the previous two operas] are no better or different.

The plot is a confection of opportunities for Mozart to dip in and out of the styles by way of reprise with which his audience was already familiar.

Thinking through all of this has actually made me feel a little more forgiving of OA’s publicity department. Visually, it is clear that they have chosen to emphasise the youth and hence (to non-regular opera goers) dramatic credibility of the cast. Jim Sharman is involved: they want to reach people who might otherwise be going to the theatre.

By now, one sure fire way to bridge the divide would be to offer tickets at reduced prices which are more commensurate with theatre tickets.

Leaving that aside, I think an approach to a younger, “theatrical” audience may be too broad to be effective. But what, more specific than that, should be said?

My own attempt is clearly too lawyerly but just meant to show how hard a more specific pitch might be to formulate.

Hey! [I cringe but I’m leaving that there as the obviously fake mock-[over]familiarity of the middle aged addressing the youth.] You saw or have heard of Figaro and Don Giovanni? [Pitched too high?] They were Mozart and da Ponte’s late eighteenth century dramas about men and their sexual restlessness and aggression. Figaro is a comedy where the lustful siegneur is outwitted by his wife and his servants; Don Giovanni is a tragedy but in musically in the style of a comedy, which ends with Don Giovanni going to hell, but not before wreaking a fair bit of havoc. In Così fan tutte the same pair teamed up to write a show about the faithlessness of women. It’s kind of Sondheim territory for its time. The plot is contrived but contrived in the end to tell a wry moral. In it, Mozart packs a sample book of practically every trick he had in his book as a composer of dramatic music. This production by veteran director Jim Sharman, takes a fresh look at how the opera is, as its secondary title declares ” A school for lovers.” It’s in English. It’s technologically inventive. A young energetic and physically credible cast throw themselves into it and the audience has responded with laughter and applause.

Mind you, that’s not so different from what their own more detailed PR blurb says already.