Archive for July, 2013

I almost walked out

July 21, 2013

of tonight’s performance by the SSO of The Flying Dutchman.

I’m glad I didn’t, but somewhere in the second scene the combination of the video art and noise coming from (I think) the bank of lights above the stage maddened me.

It was mostly the noise. It wasn’t quite like being under a tin roof with rain, and it’s not as if the Concert Hall is ever devoid of white (or more like grey) noise, but this was intrusive. Quiet string tremulandos struggled to penetrate it, and woodwind details were clouded by it; theatrical moments of silence simply weren’t; and it had a pitch, or pitch-cluster.

The video art was a bit similar. You had to look up at the screen for the words, and then it drew you in. It was strangely but agonisingly compelling and boring at the same time, like the recent STC production of The Maids. The most effective part of it was the simplest: the changes of colour at pivotal moments. For much of the rest of the time its distraction detracted from any engagement with the actual live performance on stage.

It also meant that the orchestra was deprived of the benefit of the acoustic donuts, which were hoisted aloft way above the “topsail.”

I don’t walk out lightly: in fact I’ve only left the SSO at interval once (Nigel Kennedy, I couldn’t stand his mateyness and the fact that everyone else seemed to love it), the Rockdale Opera Company once (it was G&S; on another occasion I returned despite leaving the first half in fits of laughter: the soloists were worth it if the chorus and the be-euphoniumed orchestra would have tried the tolerance of a saint) and involuntarily in one performance of Cosi fan Tutte which had nothing to do with the performance and everything to do with prior fluid intakes (I returned after interval). I do not count Interview with a Vampire where I left the cinema and fainted on the stairs in the foyer (it was the blood).

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’ll back track.

I booked on a (relative) bargain offer about 10 days earlier. It is evident from the plethora of special offers I have seen that the SSO was having some difficulty shifting the stock. Probably the premium “gala” pricing for Saturday was a contributing factor, but it is also true that the Symphony’s audience is not an operatic one. (There have also been offers around for Monday.) Over the years as an SSO subscriber I have had neighbours who have stayed away when vocal programs have been scheduled and I know there are some who simply do not like the classically produced voice. It’s the wobble and the fat-lady-singing stuff they react against. (They are the people Lyndon Terracini thinks he is reaching out to. That’s as pathetic as Julia Gillard in 2010 saying the Government had lost its way. These are people you will never reach unless you put on musicals/send asylum seekers to PNG – but let that pass.) And it’s not as if Opera Australia finds Wagner (other than the Ring) an easy sell.

Long queues at the box office to collect tickets were further signs of a last minute push to put bums on seats, and there were still empty seats.

This performance was billed as a forerunner of what Robertson plans to bring us in the future (actually he’s already had a go at this sort of thing in the past). The video art was projected on two stylized sail-like screens above the stage, which also took the surtitles. The solo singers were on raised platforms in the middle of the stage rather than plonked in front of the orchestra as usually occurs. I’m not convinced about this: fronter is closer and hence louder and also enables a more lively engagement with the audience. Only Ain Anger, as Daland, really seemed relaxed in this space and able to engage with the audience, though John Tessier as the steersman managed it in the last act, when he was also able to interact with the men’s chorus. Orla Boylan as Senta, though not always making a particularly beautiful sound, did make a connection, mostly by virtue of singing pretty much without (evident to me) reference to the score (she has done the part in English at the ENO), but I felt the wrench of a concert performance when, at the moment of betrothal, she did not even give her hand to the Dutchman as the text demanded. For me, Eric Owens as the Dutchman, though obviously a high calibre singer, was a bit disappointing in this middle section.

I’m happy to say that after last week’s slightly awkward showing, John Daszak shone as Erik. I think he was simply miscast in the Verdi Requiem. His poignant final number with Senta was one of the highlights of the night. Wagner was such a shit: giving good tunes to actual or quasi cuckolds was, in a way, part of it.

The Philharmonia Chorus was stiffened on the male side by some of the Philharmonia’s higher grade singers from the smaller choir. In comparison, the ladies didn’t quite sound operatic enough.

The last act was the best; more was happening and the music was mostly loud, which meant that the noise and video both receded as irritants. That’s why I’m glad I didn’t walk out.

If the SSO really wanted to do a rarely-performed Wagner, they might have done Rienzi. Then again, tickets for that would probably have been really hard to flog.

The piece was done without interval. That creates its own kind of endurance hysteria, but I don’t think that was all that accounted for a pretty rousing reception at the end. By then, I had cheered up too. People stood. I don’t think they were all relatives of the choir.

Verdi Requiem

July 16, 2013

Last Saturday to hear the SSO’s performance, conducted by its chief conductor designate, David Robertson, and with the Sydney Philharmonia Choir and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Chorus. The last presumably accounted for my sighting of Jun Yi Ma, the TSO’s concertmaster, in the foyer beforehand.

In its day the Requiem was criticised by some as being too operatic but if anything I would have preferred a more operatic performance than I felt we got. That’s partly a matter of the type of chorus (Gelmetti’s importation of the Rome Opera chorus is a pretty hard thing to live up to) and partly a matter of vocal style in the soloists. Of the four soloists, the mezzo, Olesya Petrova, was the stand-out singer, followed by the bass Ain Anger; Erin Wall (who was a late substitute) and John Daszak, the tenor, were less convincing. Erin warmed up later on but what I particularly missed was the moments where the line descends to the chest voice and then settles in one of those Verdian cadential tags. I like a theatricality which didn’t quite come.

The other aspect of Verdi’s operatic art is his capacity to set a text. The requiem displays this and in spades. If I wasn’t as moved by it as I have been on former occasions, maybe its because I’ve become, over time, more disconnected from that text.

Everybody else there seemed to think the performance was pretty good. I enjoyed it, even if I am cavilling here. For the time being you can watch it on demand here.

After the performance there was to be a chat in the Northern foyer between Mr Robertson and Rory (“prefect”) Jeffes, the orchestra’s managing director, about Robertson’s plans for the orchestra’s future. Experience has taught me that such events are rarely really illuminating and are often even irritating – especially if questions are taken. I didn’t wait to find out if they were. (An account by one who did is here.)


July 12, 2013

John Bolton Wood in Tosca


Last night with D to “Tosca.”

The production, directed by John Bell with sets by Michael Scott-Mitchell and costumes by Teresa Negroponte, is set in 1943-44 Rome, after the Germans took over.  This is intended to make more immediate to us the political and social situation in a way which might have been analogous to the position of the papal states in the original (when the liberal enemy was Napoleon).  Scarpia is an Italian fascist; he is assisted by Germans – cue a few swastikas.

The first act set is a very handsomely done Sant’Andrea della Valle ( a wider view here). Apparently it is the size of this set and the need for four trips with the stage machinery at 7 minutes each to remove it which leads to the 35-minute first interval.  That’s John Bolton-Wood as the sacristan with the choir-boys here re-imagined as junior fascisti (love the long grey woollen shorts!).

Scarpia’s rooms are fascist-monumental.  When Tosca sings “Vissi d’arte” it is a soliloquy to us rather than to Scarpia, who walks out to a balcony at the rear.

The third act refigures the shepherd boy as one of a number of Jews awaiting (or so I thought: I have since read they are avoiding) transportation.  This begs the question of the cow-bells (which seemed quieter than usual, perhaps for that reason) but that is par for the course when things are up- or re-dated.  The setting is no longer the top of the Castel Sant’Angelo, but instead some kind of prison courtyard.  That’s fair enough on the redating premise but inevitably is less picturesque than the original.  Teasingly, there is still an elevated walkway at the rear.  It is caged in by barbed wire. How is Tosca going to do her jump? I guess that’s the point: she has nowhere to go – she will even be deprived of the leap.  When the moment comes, as if impelled by a race-memory of all Toscas, she runs up the stairs, but is machine-gunned on the barbed wire.

Christian Badea conducted.  Orchestrally things were pretty good save that the big french horn moment at the beginning of act III seemed a bit timid and the divisi celli were disappointingly scrappy.  The violas have a lot of ominous figures which came out well.

Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee was Caravadossi and (I suppose I should add: Greek soprano) Alexia Voulgaridou was Tosca.  They were good on the strong bits but from where I sat less affecting in the moments I expected to be more melting – maybe I was too close for these. Lee certainly has a fine ringing slightly baritonal voice. His Vittoria! was great.  The roles are due to be taken over later in the run by Cheryl Barker and Diego Torres. That is a pretty good and to my mind potentially a better “second cast” expressively though probably not so big-voiced.  Unfortunately an impending trip out of the country precludes my seeing them.

John Wegner as Scarpia was suffering from  “difficulties.”  He acted his way through these like a trouper.  I can’t say (as Peter McCallum did in his review) that this was just a matter of a cold (McCallum: “winter gremlin”).  If it wasn’t, that must be a matter of concern for Wegner and also for the company, given his impending appearance as Alberich at the end of the year.  So I guess we would all prefer that it was.

Middle aged

July 8, 2013

Our weekend was quiet.

On Friday, I was exhausted.  I could barely manage to cycle home, though I managed a stop at a liquor shop on the way.  I sautéed some onions in anticipation of a beef stew to be made on the weekend.  I must have eaten something; I certainly drank something (Sauvignon-Blanc, as is all the rage these days) as I propped my feet up in front of the television.  It was my eyelids which really needed propping up; I was in bed by 8pm.  My last conscious act was to telephone D from my bed with my mobile to ask him to turn the hotplate beneath the onions off.  It was ridiculous, but I have a capped plan.

I meant just to have a nap, but if there was an alarm, I slept through it.  I woke at about 1 am and after paying tribute to the Sauvignon-blanc went back to sleep.  Perhaps I woke a few times in the late early morning but I was up by 6am.  For me, on a Saturday morning, that is pretty unheard of.

I did the laundry (coloureds; woollens); I sautéed more onions; diced celery; washed up and had a bath.  By about 10 am I was at the supermarket – things are still quiet on a Saturday at that hour. At the greengrocers I bought vegies and banana bread. Back home, D emerged by about noon and we had coffee and banana bread together.  We decided to get to Newtown to replenish our coffee supplies at Campos Coffee (if you buy 4 bags they give you a nice little woven nylon-ish carry bag – we find them useful though perhaps by now we have all that we need.)

I contemplated a film at the Spanish film festival but then noticed a missed call from a friend St and a message inviting us to dinner with St and Kx at their relatively recently moved-to house in Rockdale.  They are gym-goers and dine and retire early (the invitation was for 6) so this pretty much accounted for the day in prospect.

After a dash to Newtown (D checked out Vinnies but is disappointed at how expensive it is getting) we were back in time for me to have a short swim at Ashfield pool which is a short walk from our place.  You can get a lane to yourself and it can also be sunny if you choose your time carefully so as not to clash with the shadow cast by the setting sun and the roof to the spectators’ risers.  Two of the lanes (by then not in the sun) were taken up with the Korean children’s swim school which has now taken up residence.  The children’s energy was awe-inspiring and the young male coach, I thought, rather handsome.

By about 5.30  we were on the road to Rockdale, with a stop off at the liquor shop again to buy a bottle as our contribution.

Dinner was splendid even and belied its billing by our hosts as low key: a clear chicken and corn and vegetable soup and rice-paper spring rolls with pork; chicken or duck with rice and a side of green beans; a dessert involving puff pastry, lemon curd, meringue and passionfruit.  The only other guest was staying with them, so it was up to us to make the move to leave when they started to show signs of sleepiness at about half past nine.

During the dinner, D had affected plans to go out to Oxford Street, but by the time we were home it was a quiet after-night in front of the telly (an average-ish Midsomer murder; Chopin saved my life ) and the benefit of my previous early night was all-but undone – it was 1 am before I went to bed.

Sunday up at about 9.30 – I can rarely keep my body clock to any early adjustment.  More cooking ensued: it is the time of year for winter stews so vegetables of one sort or another need to be readied for that.  The whites were washed.  After D arose, we headed to Dulwich Hill with a craving for The Valley Lebanese Bakery’s cheese olive and tomato pizza.  Sadly, it was the day the proprietor’s parents hold the fort and the oven was already off.  You have to respect a business that is confident of its success in this way.

D had dipped into Vinnies – he says the Dulwich Hill branch remains relatively true to the original spirit.

Emboldened by a few big cheques in the previous week, I bought some fancy bread and cheeses at The Larder, which was running a promotion with an appropriate regional cheese for each day of the Tour de France.   Our choice, Livarot, was for Tuesday, when the race goes to Normandy.  The other was a Gruyere which doesn’t make the grade for the Tour:  the courtly proprietor told us that the race does go very close to Switzerland the week after next.

We then pootled down to Addison Road markets still in search of food.  Who would have thought I would turn into a market-goer?  D and I both find these markets very congenial – they feel quintessentially “inner west.” It’s hard to nail down, but children, dogs, bicycles and piercings all play a part.

We were back in Ashfield again just in time for me to steal another swim in the last lanes of the dying sun, punctuated by whistles from teenage girls’ water polo and a larger contingent than on Saturday of young Koreans.  Back home, while it was still light, I mowed the lawn.

I cooked (even more) to Rossini (Lady of the Lake – the first Walter Scott opera) from Covent Garden on ABC FM.  When the cooking did not require my immediate attention, I sat down to listen.

Dinner was the resulting chicken stew (with leek, mushroom, carrot, celery: it will resurface later this week as the quantity made was large) with a side of cauliflower ($2 each at present: it is the season) and some of the Livarot. Quinces, bought a while ago and probably past their best, were finally tackled (it’s a bit of a job to core and peel them) and furnished my dessert (D is not so keen on them).  It was again too late for D to bother going to Oxford Street.

That is the first weekend in about 6 weeks that I haven’t gone into work for some part of at least one day and mostly some part of two or (on the long weekend) three. That’s good for the cheque flow (which helps for the fancy cheeses of course) but it can wear you down.  It was good to take a break.


July 2, 2013

I have been immersed in a family feud for most of the past month.  Not my own family or feud, though it sometimes feels like it: one of the opposing parties managed to call me a shit when that party was actually in the witness box – sotto voce  so unfortunately not picked up in the transcript.

In between, I have managed to squeeze in:

Mahler Chamber Orchestra – 10 June

I picked up this ticket at the budget price of $35 on the Saturday for the Monday of the long weekend.  This was less than the previously advertised price and it was evident tickets had been slow to shift.  There were the tell-tale free-list signs of musicians from every ensemble in town as well as many youthful orchestral musicians and in the second half I improved my seat to sit next to a freelancer who told me that when in Europe he had played with the orchestra.  Even so, the back half of the circle was practically empty.

That’s a pity as the concert was excellent.  Christian Tetzlaff gave a brilliant performance of the Beethoven violin concerto, including a striking cadenza with timpani obbligato inspired (it seems) by Beethoven’s later arrangement of this concerto for piano and orchestra.  When the orchestra dug in their string sound was particularly gutsy.  The trumpeters played early-music trumpets. I’m glad I sat close for Brett Dean’s Testament, which featured some extremely quiet sounds (as you might expect in a piece whose program was Beethoven’s deafness).  The Schumann Rhenish Symphony lived up to expectations: my improved seat in the rear stalls gave better balance but at the price of the smallish orchestra becoming bathed in the hall’s acoustic.  Apart from the Beethoven, the highlight of the program was the encore – the slow movement of the New World Symphony, due to be played the next night in what overall (given Australia’s lack of allegiance to Schumann) was probably the more popular and I expect better-attended concert.

SSO – Dutoit – Stravinsky – Steinbacher – Mendelssohn – 15 June

This really was a packed concert – Rite of Spring and the violin concerto with The Song of the Nightingale thrown in.  Once again the SSO rose to Dutoit’s standards and to the extent that I wasn’t bowled over by Steinbacher it was probably only because of the impact Tetzlaf had made on me only days before.  I have nothing more detailed to say about this concert because the intervening feuding blur has blunted my recollection, so this is really just for the record.


July 1, 2013

On Saturday with D to the first night of Verdi’s The Force of Destiny, which was also the opening night of Opera Australia’s Sydney winter season.

I can’t say I am really keen on first nights. It’s all that black-tie stuff and prominent persons (as likely as not on the free list) being seen. I’m never entirely convinced of the sincerity of the applause.

See here for a convenient list of previous productions.

It is 16 years since I last saw it. My copy of Kobbe’s opera guide bears Joan Carden’s autograph from an encounter with her in 1986 at the then Opera Brasserie on Bridge Street after a performance conducted by Stuart Challender. I remember that occasion well, even if my recollection of the performance may be mediocre at best. In between there was a revival in about 1992.

It is often said that the libretto is particularly clunky, and the opera might almost as readily be called the force of coincidence as of destiny. Even the first night crowd could scarce forbear to laugh at one particularly timely twist, when the surgeon declared that the penitent lover (tenor) (who had accidentally killed his lover’s father), wounded on the battlefield, would nevertheless live – just after the vengeful brother (baritone) had discovered the lover’s identity (having scrupled to read his letters) because of a locket of the sister (soprano, obviously) amongst his effects.

The production is cast at Opera Australia’s upper end – that is, three visitors, one returning Australian (Jonathan Summers – lugubrious as ever – it’s something about his mouth rather than just the baritonal mode), supported by some of their stronger local singers in the middling parts. It’s an Opera Conference production, made to be shared by different companies and therefore used in different venues. Perhaps not coincidentally, the set is more a matter of properties wheeled on to the stage – some quite large – rather than a built set.

I enjoyed it. I could go again, but one thing (apart from frugality) might stop me.

The director has decided to make “destiny” visual. Mostly this is done by the use of skull-masked chorus members who seem to embody evil spirits referred to by the ill-fated sister, Leonora (obviously a common Spanish name, at least in operas) relatively early in the piece. Rather heavy-handedly, they even sweep onto the stage before the vengeful brother in the final scene and the man of God crosses himself in apprehension as they pass.

That much I could handle, but then (well, not then – it started from the beginning of the Overture) the director decided to make Preziosilla, the gypsy fortune teller and singer of cheerfully militaristic numbers (which in any case are capable of being interpreted as a kind of dramatic irony) to be the [un]Deus-ex-machina of the piece who personifies destiny as a plot-propelling device. What this actually means is that almost every solitary aria is upstaged by her emoting in various ways in the background or miming puppet-masterish gestures, she has a wild laugh or two at the poor characters’ expense and then, quite incongruously, when it comes to her song to war (Rataplan!) she has a sudden uncharacteristic access of grief or compassion.

This was irritating.

Please, lose the ubiquitous Preziosilla, and sing “Rataplan!” deadpan! It can be much grimmer that way – as well as more faithful to its musical conception.

I expect it is too late to hope for changes on this run, but I wouldn’t be surprised if at least the first which I urge occurred before the next Opera Conference outing, unless counter-suggestibility applies. Don’t tell me people didn’t wonder about it even in the rehearsals – though you could say that at this point the right thing to do is to let the artist (in this case the director) put his concept before the public.

Mr Licata conducted. There were numerous orchestral felicities, including flute, oboe and clarinet solos (the violin solo was played by two) and a rare sighting of the cimbasso (Conversely, a rising arpeggio figure accompanying Leonora’s first aria went astray at the same point each time it recurred. I’m sure it’s tricky but I hope the player in question doesn’t think what he is doing at present is good enough.) There were some terrific costumes and though for me the candle-lit scene was disappointing (the current production of Il Trovatore does candles better in a similar context) there was a particularly arresting tableau at the end, which was both shocking and eloquent.

Despite the drawn-out and improbable plot, when the two men sang that sad little destiny tune to each other at the end which we had first heard in the overture the drama all came together. D told me he was moved to tears.