Archive for February, 2014

Refused classification: Children’s Island

February 28, 2014

This film has been refused classification by the Classification Review Board on the application (bizarrely) of the Australian Federal Police as a “person aggrieved” by a previous decision (also on the AFP’s application) to classify the film R18.

It’s not so bizarre really. My guess is that the police have found it in the possession of somebody whom they want to prosecute for other offences. The film, made almost 35 years ago in Sweden, is incredibly obscure. It features a rather nice looking boy (hey- he’s in a film!) aged about 11, who instead of going off to summer camp where he has been sent by his (single) mother, sets off on his own adventures in the adult world. It’s summer so he has his shirt off quite a bit. You can well imagine that somebody who is keen on nice looking young boys might have obtained or kept a copy of the film for the sake of this attractive child.

If so, that is a good example of a thought crime: it’s an act that is bad because of the imputed motivation of the accused rather than in itself.

The review board identifies the bit which has caused it to refuse classification as being at 1.08 where, they say, there is a close up of the boy’s erect penis.

Now that the Review Board has made this decision, we have to take their word for it that the film is unclassifiably obscene. Quite honestly, I’m not sure about the position if you decide to watch it on the internet. It might depend on what kind of a person the police think you are.

Muddle instead of music (2)

February 24, 2014


That’s the second time I’ve used this title, and of course it is not mine.

Last night to the SOH to hear the SSO under David Robertson and a cast of guest singers do Strauss’s Elektra.

The picture above is the afternoon before the last time I went to see this, just under 6 weeks ago, in Leipzig’s gloriously Stalinist opera house.  An earlier report on the same production by Wanderer is here.

There Eva Johansson was Elektra.  And just to put everything in proportion, the night before the same orchestra under the same conductor performed Die Walküre and Ms Johansson was Brünnhilde in that.

In Leipzig I sat right up the front, on the woodwind side. The Gewandhaus fielded 94 players (the man putting out the music told me that). They must have cut down a little on strings (the wind and brass complement looked complete), and the last few trumpets were squeezed into the corridor outside the door of the pit on the side opposite to me

In Sydney, I sat in row V of the stalls on the violins’ side.  The SSO placed the orchestra – reportedly about 110 [I am now told 103] – out in front of the normal stage in the space usually taken up by the stalls to about row L or M.  The stage itself was given over to an elevated platform on which 8 or so dancers from the Sydney Dance Theatre did some “interpretative dance” and on which Elektra herself occasionally prowled around.  Only in the final moments of Elektra’s dance, presumably the inspiration for the idea, did the two become really integrated: before that, for me, the dance was a distraction which added little.

The concert hall’s acoustic rings were hoisted way out of, if not sight, then certainly any operative effect, which they could hardly have had once the orchestra was relocated in any event.

Elektra is an opera which poses a balance problem.  When the SSO and Australian Opera did it together in the Capitol in 2000, one thing Simone Young and others remarked was the serendipitous resolution in that venue of this problem – everybody could be heard. 

Bringing the orchestra forward but not really in a pit exacerbated that problem – a big orchestra is pretty loud.  Even so, loudness was not really the problem for me, but rather clarity.  Everything was enveloped in an echoic bloom.

Peter McCallum, writing in the SMH, has said that the singers were amplified.  I myself wondered that, especially because Christine Goerke had such an enormous voice and some consonants came over with a kind of super-resonance, but I couldn’t go so far as to say that was the case: the sound still came from where the singer was, which is an indication otherwise, and I know stages can have some echo on them anyway. Anyway, it was the orchestral sound which frustrated me.

What I missed was all sorts of detail which I knew, from my Leipzig experience, is there to be heard. Different colours of string sounds; wind writing which is more than the emergence of the odd highlight from a generalised pitch aureole. The only bit where the acoustic really worked was in the trombone portents on Orestes’ return. Clytemnestra’s song about wanting to be a mother lacked the (relatively) gentle lyricism which could contrast with Elektra’s more frenetic moments. The solo-string writing was scarcely audible or distinguishable. The sum of this was a restriction of the range of mood and [affect?]effect: there was just so much unrelenting and indiscriminate LOUD – and I know the work isn’t simply that.

By the time we got to the amplified off-stage voices, a mark had been well and truly overstepped.

One advantage of concert performances by the SSO is that the vocal casting can be luxurious by Sydney operatic standards. Goerke was phenomenal; Cheryl Barker as Chrysothemis had to force her tone a little in her lower register but had exemplary diction; Lisa Gasteen as Clytemnestra was much better than reports had led me to believe; I’m sorry to say that Peter Coleman-Wright seemed miscast as Orestes, though he could have been better in more favourable balance conditions. Pascal Herington had a good if brief moment as a servant.

Indeed this was not a simple concert performance. Apart from the dance, the singers all acted their roles sans score. That’s a plus, but it’s still a long way short of a fully produced opera.

This sounds boring of me, but for the SSO’s next big-orchestra opera performance (and we can assume more are planned: my nomination – Jonny spielt auf), I’d like to see the orchestra back on the stage with the acoustic rings performing their (albeit insufficient) role. I’m happy to do without the dancers, and I would put the singers on an extended stage in front of the orchestra.

To be fair most of the audience loved it. Maybe Leipzig spoiled me.

New SSO chief

February 17, 2014

On Saturday to the SSO for their first concert with David Robertson as chief conductor.

The program was:

Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
Adams: “Absolute Jest” (Australian String Quartet as soloists) and
Beethoven: Symphony No 7.

Robertson himself gave the pre-concert talk, some of which I attended, against my usual practice and only because trackwork actually got me there earlier than usual. He only scratched the surface of the Adams, which was the piece I most wanted to hear about – mainly resorting to a lengthy example. He had a bit of a wrestle getting his electronic device to play on cue but as he put it he “vamped till ready” quite adroitly. There was rather a good joke which likened composers and the influence/originality dyad to teenagers grudgingly acknowledging their parents’ shared DNA.

Writing of the Stravinsky in the SMH, Peter McCallum said “If this is the promise of things to come, we must hold them to it.” That’s a nice thought but maybe not entirely realistic, if only because we don’t normally have practically every conceivable principal player playing as we did on this occasion.

As for the Stravinsky, I liked the performance more than the piece, and of the piece I liked the middle movement the most. The Adams was interesting even if by the end he was just zipping along in a fast machine again. There was a lot going on the detail of which was hard to catch in the Concert Hall’s cavernous acoustic. The Beethoven was the best, with a full complement of string principals (Haveron with Olding in the first violins, and for this concert a new principal and associate principal cello) and slimmed down orchestral forces compactly brought together at the centre of the stage: trim, taut and terrific, to coin a phrase.

Before the concert, my subscription neighbour said that she wasn’t sure if she would be able to tell the difference between different conductors. At the end we agreed that they would never have played like that for Ashkenazy. That’s not to put VA down, but rhythm always seemed, if not his weak spot, then his soft one.

Of course, VA had other strong points. What will be interesting to see or more properly hear is the sound Robertson gets from the orchestra at times which maybe call for the warm and mellifluous sound which was a hallmark of the orchestra’s best playing under Ashkenazy.

Next week, Elektra. That’s probably not really a piece which will answer that question.

Back home

February 14, 2014

On Saturday with D to Opera Australia’s Carmen. I first saw this production with D in 2008 and again with my father in 2011 on an occasion which passed without direct mention on this blog.

I’m still digesting an orgy of opera-going in Germany in January as well as Parsifal at Covent Garden. A return to the dear old Opera House requires some adjustments of expectations. If I sat further away, the big issue would be the pit. I make up for that (at the price of an over-loud orchestra) by sitting right at the front, but that does nothing for the size of the stage, which seems particularly tiny in combination with the set for this production and the numerous crowd scenes.

In a modernising trend, the chorus of street urchins impersonating soldiers now include girls as well as boys. I’m not entirely convinced by this dramatically (would girls play at soldiers in this way?) but I suppose it is inevitable on an equity basis for the children, and probably also an irresistible temptation to an opera company in search of vocal reliability.

I expect it is the necessary revision of expectations which is to blame for a failure on my part to fall under the opera’s spell on this occasion. It all seemed put together rather by the numbers. That’s not to say that Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Carmen wasn’t good, if a little matronly up close next to Dmytro Popov, who sang well as Don Jose though his acting seemed to me a little wooden. Michael Honeyman made a good fist of Escamillo (I thought better than the reviewers allowed). Natalie Aroyan as Micaela had a surprisingly big vibrato for a young singer and character. Perhaps she was just trying a bit hard to make a big sound: in the second phrase of her Act III aria (“Je dis que rien ne m’epouvante”) she seemed to ride a crescendo to overshoot by almost a semitone by the time she got to “je meurs d’effroi!” This happened on the reprise as well so it was an ingrained thing.

On Wednesday I returned for Rossini’s “The Turk in Italy.” This was much sillier but also more fun. It doesn’t have Rossini’s most memorable tunes, though it does have some striking orchestration. The direction was brilliant and the comic business constantly inventive. Andrea Molino, who conducted this as he did Masked Ball last year without a score, is a real live wire.

The opera was a triumph for Emma Matthews (singing the sort of stuff she should always sing if being a big fish in our small Operatic pond did not dictate otherwise). The honours were otherwise fairly evenly distributed, even if I was a bit surprised that OA, assuming they still have a limited quota of foreigners, chose to import Luciano Botelho in the admittedly testing high-tenor role of Narciso.

I could have managed a return visit, but it was the last night. On the other hand, I don’t think I need to see that production of Carmen again.

An opinion (as to Carmen) which was shared by James Waites, even though he only managed to stay until interval.

It is everyone’s entitlement to leave before the end.

On the day I went to Turco, Waites swam out to sea for the last time.

That’s very sad, but I can’t help also thinking it was pretty brave of him.