Turandot and other notes

Saturday before last with D to Turandot.

I read somewhere that it is the loudest opera in OA’s repertoire, which has OH&S ramifications. Other operas may have louder moments, but Turandot has sustained big orchestral and choral passages. That may be why if the first interval was 30 minutes rather than the customary 20.

My most youthful opera-going was largely dictated by the availability of student rush tickets, so that Puccini was generally off the menu. As a result, Graeme Murphy’s production is the only one I have seen live. So on the one hand I’m not in a position to judge it and on the other I’m aware that it would be easy to take it for granted. I think of it as tried and tested. Colour and movement are the watchwords and this probably matches the work well. I don’t think of it of as a particularly serious dramatic portrait of the characters involved.

I enjoyed it but I escaped being moved as I have been on other occasions. The key for this is the pathos of Liu’s plight. This was missing. Without that how is even Turandot’s implausible-upon-implausible change of heart explicable? But to get to an appreciation of that pathos you need to be seduced into the work’s heady mix of exoticism and romanticism. Everything seemed a bit brisk – a marshalling of massive forces and co-ordination of spectacle. In the end, on the night, that’s the conductor’s responsibility.

I read Andrew Byrne’s review. I know our tastes differ but I wouldn’t have expected his judgment to be so divergent. Byrne’s performance was conducted by Arvo Volmer; ours by Simon Hewett, in his one scheduled performance in the run. Without in any way meaning to be nasty to SH, I suspect that this may account for the difference.

At the first interval C, with D, hailed us. It’s funny how your picture of a person can be set at an early stage of their and your life. C reminded me that we last spoke when we shared a taxi from the airport in 1998 (it took us a while to work out the exact year – she at first thought it was more recent). This means that she and D have been together since at least then. In my memory I had her fixed as the woman who dumped the rather nerdy RR some time in about 1980. I finally realised I was conflating that dumping with the break up of a relationship with the less-nerdy-but-went-to-the-same-high-school-as-RR JJ at about that time and her subsequent marriage (ending in divorce) with RR’s (in between JJ and RR for nerdiness but by definition nerdier than RR because younger-) brother a little bit later. All ancient history.

C posed the question arising from the plot to that point: why do men go for such unsuitable women? I offered the counter-observation that many women also go for totally unsuitable men, overlooking much nicer men who would treat them far better. It’s an old story. Maybe it’s just a matter of a kind of market power in relationships: attractive alpha males (and likewise beautiful women) can treat their partner badly because they will easily find another. It’s not true that all do, but when you come to generalisations it is hard to escape the tendency that people do things because they can. That’s a truism I suppose: we also do things because we can’t help it.

Walking to the car afterwards, we waited at some pedestrian lights with the Prince of Persia, riding home on his bicycle. It’s not often that we get to talk with royalty. He was charming and gracious.

In other notes, the Saturday before, courtesy of a friend and former student, Dk, I went again to Magic Flute. I sat a little further back. It was the same as before. Dk loved it and especially the costumes and design. I kept my reservations to myself. It would have been ungrateful for me as a guest to have behaved otherwise.

A recent commenter took me to task for calling the Sydney Symphony “the SSO.” She was right – it dropped “orchestra” from its moniker a while ago. I explained this was part of a little personal joke, in distinction to “the other (which is the other depending on context and company) SSO,” the gay free paper “Sydney Star Observer.” Double fail because now the Sydney Star Observer is “Sydney” no more. Judging from its content, it now publishes in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. This means we get Melbourne and Brisbane advertorials, a Sydney classified section and (probably) some common and some different other display advertising. Local news coverage has decreased. The paper is the worse for it. My guess is that this is a defensive change in the context of the beleaguered plight of the print media.

On Saturday last I went to hear the SS[O]’s subscription series opener: Ashkenazy conducting Strauss Metamorphosen and Beethoven 9. I go to this series with 3 others from Dulwich Hill. One is my former year 9 English teacher, Lx. Another, Rb, was in school a few years behind me. The third (originally a friend of Lx and now also of Rb) I have known for almost as long. In a way I owe our continuing acquaintance to the SSO because in my twenties Lx and I caught up regularly at its Monday night series.

This year I am in a new seat as after almost ten years I finally tired of two people who sat just behind me and incessantly rustled the pages of their programs throughout the performance. I asked for a change of seat for this season and was given one, not quite within the parameters of my request.

My new neighbours’ behaviour is impeccable but now I seem to be in an acoustic dead spot. That shows (cf Victor’s cautionary tale from last year) that we should be careful what we ask for.

Before the concert, Dene Olding gave a little speech in honour of the orchestra’s 80th anniversary. He mentioned that about 400 people present had been subscribing for 20 years or more and 600 for 10 years or more. It wasn’t clear whether he included the 400 in the 600 – literally that is the conclusion I would draw from what he said but I suspect he meant otherwise. My new neighbour had already asked me if I was subscribing now, and in the light of that I mentioned to her that I was one of the 400. She said I didn’t seem old enough. If that is so it is not because I look youthful but because I started young. It is only recently that I have not been the youngest (in my opinion) person in my row. We could only spot one apparently/potentially younger person when we looked along my new row.

The Strauss, which I think of as being in the same autumnal/late mode as the introduction to Capriccio, is the piece which I will keep as my particular memory of this concert and especially the Enigma-made-plain emergence of the funeral march theme from Beethoven 3 in the final bars. Beethoven 9 had pulled in the crowd, which gave it an enthusiastic reception. It is true that this tends to happen whenever a choir participates, and I did hear a comment about the presence of relatives from someone nearby. I thought the choir, which sang from memory, particularly good, as was Michael Nagy, the imported baritone. In the tenor-Turkish variation (my favourite bit) things looked for a moment as though they might break down. The tenor (young, local), preoccupied with his big moment, got about one-and-a-half beats ahead of everybody else. He recovered. In our post-concert discussion we of the Dulwich Hill mob thought he looked a bit sheepish after he sat down and was a bit subdued when he joined in again at the end. Lx forgivingly commented that he wasn’t sure if he’d ever seen a performance (as opposed to heard a recording) where the tenor didn’t get unstuck in some way in this passage. That’s the joy of live performance.

And what’s the point of not being moved to joy by Beethoven 9?

On Sunday, D and I went to The Temperamentals, the (these days) annual Mardi-Gras-season gay-themed play at Newtown’s New Theatre. The play deals with a[n][[wanker!]] historical subject – the late-40s early-50s history of the Mattachine Society, an early gay-rights organisation founded in California at that time. It is salutary to remember a time when gay men were likely to be married from necessity, withheld their names and true identities from each other and only felt safe to organize (once they got so far) under Communist-party conditions of secrecy and anonymity. The majority of the cast did a good job which was at the upper range of New Theatre acting standards but at the end I felt that a documentary-style play was neither the best way to be reminded of these things or, for that matter, particularly satisfactory as drama.

8 Responses to “Turandot and other notes”

  1. Yvonne Frindle (@frindley) Says:

    In defence of your customary usage: at the Sydney Symphony we do continue to use “SSO” as the preferred initials when a short form is needed. Primarily this is in informal contexts, including social media where brevity and a relaxed tone trumps all; the name of the recently launched youth tickets program also plays on the traditional initials: SSONIC. The alternative, “SS”, is unpalatable to many, and in any case it’s the “SO” in combination at the end of such a set of initials which signals that the outfit in question is a symphony orchestra. (Would “MS” have made you think of the Melbourne Symphony a decade ago?) So if you need or want to use initials when referring to the orchestra, I’d say go right ahead and use “SSO”.

    Over in Perth, the WASO did something similar for the few years when it called itself the “West Australian Symphony”. Perhaps because it comes close to being an acronym and is convenient to say, “WASO” was very much entrenched in the community. Rather than deny the fact, we went with the flow and used both “West Australian Symphony” and “WASO”. (At one point, a small number of us wanted to call the contemporary music ensemble from the orchestra “WASO Exotiques”. Alas, the idea didn’t take off.)

  2. Yvonne Frindle (@frindley) Says:

    It’s also worth noting that the catalogue numbers on the Sydney Symphony’s “Live” recording label are all “SSO XXXXXX”

  3. wanderer Says:

    Victor’s cautionary tale is brilliant! We are having a similar debate in our little street atm and being on the negative (the only one possibly) it will be incorporated into my ammunition. Thank you both.

    Where’s this dead spot?

    • marcellous Says:

      It is a classic, isn’t it?

      Middle of the second last row in the stalls: I’m no acoustician but my cod-theory is that the symmetry overwhelms the clarity. It’s quite odd. Closeness to the back wall may be a factor. Of course I could be imagining it all and it might just be that things sound different from before. That things don’t sound good in the Concert Hall is no news at all.

      PS: appreciated your more detailed critique of this program but word verification continues to prevent me from commenting over there.

  4. Victor Says:

    I’m fascinated that your subscription arrangements have you sitting amongst the same people and in the same seats across the series.

    I have not experienced that situation with my subscriptions to the STC or Belvoir Street.

    This is my first year back with Opera Australia and I noticed that I have virtually the same seat number but a different row for each performance. (I’m seeing the opera on my own so I assume they focus on the dedicated ‘single’ seats in their allocation.)

  5. marcellous Says:


    If you subscribe to one of the set series, you get a particular seat for that series with an entitlement to renew that seat. You can also exchange your tickets for individual performances.

    That is the case with the opera and the SSO, but both also offer different “subscriptions” like yours where the subscription element is the upfront commitment to a certain number of concerts. I think these also generally come with exchange rights thrown in as an inducement to that commitment so far in advance.

    The year before last, at renewal time, the set series disappeared from the opera brochure – that is, they continued to take renewals from existing subscribers but did not solicit them from new subscribers. I think that last year, for this year, the set series re-emerged in the brochure.

  6. Strange Meeting « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] Stumbling on melons « Turandot and other notes […]

  7. ken n Says:

    What I appreciate about your observations M is that you say whether you liked a performance – how it affected you. Many or most critics pretend a kind of objectivity and think it irrelevant that that liked or disliked it.
    I believe Yvonne and I have agreed to ignore the orchestra’s name change. SS should be retired from the list of available initials, anyway.
    Perhaps SSo is OK though I stick with SSO.
    Bloody trendy marketing people….

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