Archive for July, 2019

Law skool memories

July 31, 2019

Every one knows about the snail in the ginger beer bottle (though it was never actually proved to have been there) and probably a few people who dropped out of law courses can remember the Carbolic Smoke Ball case, but there are plenty of other cases that stick in one’s memory.

One came to mind today with a news story from the ABC.  A former deputy mayor is facing charges that he murdered his brother in Victoria and his mother in NSW.

In the body of the story was the following:

Cross-border crime presents ‘complex legal issues’

Mr Brand was a police prosecutor for 12 years in NSW and said he had not dealt with a serious cross-border criminal case like this before.

Excuse me!  That’s not a cross-border crime!  That’s two crimes, one on each side of a border.

To be fair, Mr Brand didn’t say it was – only the author of the sub-headline.

A cross border crime is one posed by the question, asked rhetorically of us in Criminal Law:

A man  fires a shot across the Murray River  and kills someone.  In which state has the homicide occurred?  Victoria or NSW?

The answer is: where the person was hit by the bullet.  (There are some other technicalities such as the year-and-a-day rule.  I don’t think it matters where the victim actually died.)

The more amazing thing is that there was  actually a High Court case about this.  That case is Ward v R [1980] HCA 11; (1980) 142 CLR 308.

Edward Donald Ward shot and killed Alexander Joseph Reed beside the Murray River near Echuca. He fired from the top of the steep bank of the river down at Reed, who was fishing by the river’s edge, some thirty feet below.

Ward fired from the Southern bank. He was tried and found guilty of murder in the Victorian Supreme Court. The High Court upheld his appeal because the river bed was in NSW. The border had been fixed in 1855 as being at the southern side of the “whole of the watercourse.”  The whole of the watercourse did not just mean where the water was at a particular time or even where water normally flowed, but the watercourse as defined by the banks.  Reed was killed in NSW.

This wasn’t merely academic, because if the homicide occurred in NSW Ward had available to him a defence of “diminished responsibility” which if accepted would reduce the offence from murder to manslaughter.  This defence did not exist if the case was to be tried as a crime which took place in Victoria.

So, to the ABC news site I say: come back to me when you have a real cross-border (alleged) crime to report!

I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to track down Ward’s ultimate legal fate.  The best outcome for him would have been that a plea of guilty to manslaughter was accepted.

Diminished responsibility  was abolished in NSW in 1998 and replaced with substantial impairment

Mad scenes

July 30, 2019

I’ve already posted about my attendance at the concert performance of Peter Grimes last Thursday and Saturday.

It was a big week – other than for work.  On Wednesday I went to Whiteley and on Friday, as previously foreshadowed, I went with D to the last night of Anna Bolena.

I enjoyed Anna Bolena more the second time around.  In part this was because I was ready to go with the flow of the production and probably more importantly, with its conventions.  At the accusation scene at the end of Act I, is Anna in a tight spot?  Yes, of course she is, but that isn’t going to stop her turning round at the back of the stage and advancing with a reprise of her big tune.

I was able to shut out some of the more distracting projections and annoying business.  I still don’t think AB should raise her hand to King Henry, or nobly forgive Jane Seymour whilst basically squatting, legs wide apart, on a step. I didn’t let such coarsenesses worry me too much.

Going a second time around you know the tunes better and can enjoy them even more.

There was a full house and the work was warmly received.

Seeing Peter Grimes the night before and after means that I’d managed to see within a week the bookends of the operatic mad scene.  Sure, there are earlier mad characters, but Anna Bolena is basically the first of the core genre.  The flute, invoked by Britten in Peter Grimes, is the tell.

 

SSO does Grimes

July 28, 2019

 

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On Thursday and Saturday last week to the SSO’s concert performances of Peter Grimes.

That is the far-from-full house from my seat in box W on the Thursday.  The Saturday performance was not much better attended.

I almost didn’t go.  When I took out my subscription last year, the concerts were not part of any series I was going to and were priced at a premium.  I am resistant to that sort of thing.

And that’s a problem for the SSO when it mounts concert performances of operas, especially if it seeks to price them at a level which will allow the orchestra to recoup the costs of a quality cast.  Leaving aside my own price-sensitive resistance – and I went to and greatly enjoyed Opera Australia’s production in 2009 which featured, as did these performances, Stuart Skelton in the title role, it’s clear that many of the SSO’s regular subscribers are not keen on vocal works.

I relented just a week ago when it was convenient (because I was going away) to swap my ticket for the Saint-Saens organ symphony, Chabrier’s Espana and Susan Grahame singing Canteloube – a concert which I’m sure I would also have found enjoyable.  I still had to pay extra, which is a bit outrageous in hindsight given how few seats had really been sold.  Not, I might add, that the online booking site disclosed the full picture.  They certainly play their cards close to their chest!

On Tuesday, a friend alerted me to a bargain offering buried (with very little fanfare indeed) in an email from the orchestra that I had not bothered to read, and I picked up my box W seat for Thursday’s performance for $49.  I even (haste dictated it: my chosen seats were disappearing) swallowed the booking fee, which at $8.95 really sticks in my craw.

Given the state of the house on both nights, I don’t think the SSO was trying hard enough to shift the tickets.

Lyndon Terracini of Opera Australia will doubtless consider his antipathy to mounting Britten productions vindicated.  I won’t say he has been proved right – more that he will have had his prejudices confirmed.

I’m glad I went and it was worth going twice.

 

Whiteley

July 28, 2019

On Wednesday to Opera Australia’s Whiteley.

This was a new opera about the Australian artist, with music by Elena Kats-Chernin and libretto by Justin Fleming.

I’m not really a big fan of Elena Kats-Chernin’s cross-overish style, but obviously it has a following.  The music was effective and there was some striking orchestration. There were a few rather awful bits (cf the fight music in Lohengrin – plenty of composers can write banal music for a dramatic purpose) and quite a lot of what Harriett Alexander has called K-C’s chugging basslines where the basses render an orchestral translation of the bass guitar.  The opening of Act II channelled John Adams for a while.

When you have an opera about an artist, the visuals have to be a big thing.  Here they were mostly deployed on the new video screens.  The most exuberant bits involved Whiteley’s youthful trip to Europe (I loved the train) and his ecstatic encounters with canonical works of Western art – especially Giotto’s St Francis Feeding the Birds.  The depiction of Christie’s murder victims (not on the video screens) via Whiteleys works on this topic was haunting. Whiteley’s more “mature” art (did he ever “mature”?) in the second half was dealt with in a relatively more restrained way. Perhaps it was not to be tampered with.

The problem with a biographical opera is how to arrange the material into a dramatically satisfactory form.  Probably it cannot really be done without a greater sacrifice of truth than Justin Fleming managed in this case. He just had too many facts from Ashleigh Wilson’s authorized (by Wendy) biography to pack in.

Apart from the art, for which Fleming managed a fair conspectus, the other two themes jostled for attention.  These were, on the one hand, Whiteley’s various drug addictions, and on the other hand (the opera downplayed the intersection), Wendy, his love and muse.

Summarised like this, neither is really so extraordinary.  Artists have addictions and they have muses and often both.

Though it might be thought of as commonplace, I personally would have rather had more of the addiction thing and less of Wendy.  That probably wasn’t possible given Wendy’s role as the surviving custodian of brand Whiteley.  As it was, there was lots of Wendy but still she didn’t have all that much to do other than to be beeyoutiful (as Whiteley, Leigh Melrose, who was terrific,  made particular sport of the Australian oooo vowel) and endure BW’s waywardness.  Wendy’s own heroin phase passed with little mention.

By the end I was rather sick of the Whiteley family.

Whiteley’s post-Wendy partner (merely billed as “Janice”) got very short shrift. That’s what happens when you lose a court case and are now dead.

If the opera were to be revived/revised I would cut down the Fiji sequence.  Yes, I know it was meant to be a set-up to the Whiteleys’ (rather underwhelmingly realised) expulsion, but it just went on and it felt a bit too saccharine.

Apparently, K-C already did a major rewrite of the score because as it first came out it was too much like a musical.  The musical language she found was eclectic and hit a credible easy-listenish operatic spot.  It is not music that would drive the public that Lyndon Terracini craves away. The problem for me is that I am out of kilter with that public, which apparently (as Lyndon T will readily tell you) isn’t even interested in Benjamin Britten, let alone the post-expressionism of Brett Dean, whose Bliss was OA’s last mainstage new work.  K-C’s music may not frighten the horses as that did but I can’t really say it draws me in either.

The bums on seats thing is the curse of modern classical music and modern opera.

The uncomfortable truth is that, from an economical point of view, opera is probably a dead form.  That’s not to say it isn’t still alive in terms of performance and interpretation, but when it comes to writing new works, the numbers are all wrong.  My own view is that its death probably goes right back to WWI, which is as good a point as any to pinpoint the shakeup between the economic position of the audience and the performers.  New and popular operas continued to be written and mounted into the 20s (eg, Jonny spielt auf, and Puccini’s later works) but they were living on borrowed time.  Meanwhile, spectacle and music could by the 30s be found at the movies (mass produced) or in blockbuster musical theatre (more popular music and more cost-effective to mount, especially once amplification entered the picture).

Alternately, you could say rather than a “dead form” that opera is a “mature market.”  New entrants have to compete against an enormous back catalogue.  We tend to forget that the operas in the established repertoire which we see to day are but a tiny proportion of the many operas which emerged – especially say in the period 1820 to 1920 – and have since disappeared without much of a trace.

It’s a big ask to predict that any new work will ever join the “pantheon” of established works, or even to hope it will be staged more than once or twice.

Richard Anderson, as Whiteley’s friend, Joel Elenberg, was totally unrecognizable without his beard. I suppose it was covered with the chin equivalent of a bald wig. The alternative possibility, that all his beards have been fake, is just too mind-blowing to contemplate.

 

 

 

 

Don’t fence me in!

July 21, 2019

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This was the railing  on the bridge over the Cooks River at Canterbury, apparently known as Prout’s Bridge.

That link describes it as follows:

The railing is of steel pipe with plastic coated wire mesh infill, and two lamp standards have been retrofitted to the bridge.

That has been overtaken by events.

Another patch of the railing on the other side of the road featured in an earlier post when a motorist managed to drive through it into the river. Apparently he emerged unscathed, which is more than can be said for the fence and the car.

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car off canterbury bridge

The car was eventually fished out about 4 months later.

Another five months or so after that, the railing was fixed.

But no, it couldn’t be just fixed. Instead the railings on both sides had to be replaced by an acceptable standard of bridge-jumper-resistant barrier. (The water is about a meter deep plus or minus the tide; the bridge perhaps 3 meters above the water.)

This is what we got.

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The picture doesn’t really capture it other than by reference to the other pictures, but the upper rail on the new fence is at about (my) head height.

Gone is the cheerful view over the river, albeit one principally featuring plastic bags and drink containers drifting up and down with the tide. Gone is any proportionate link with the 1940s concrete balustrade at the end.

Sorted

July 19, 2019

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They were playing chess on a mobile phone.

Nights at the Opera [House]

July 14, 2019

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Last week (probably by now the week before last) to the Opera House three times.

On Tuesday, to the first night of Anna Bolena.  On Wednesday with D to Madama Butterfly (sorry, Madama B F Pinkerton!) and on Saturday to the SSO with violinist Vadim Gluzman and conductor Xian Zhang.

The operas both use the gigantic video screens which first featured in last year’s Aida.  Writing for Time Out, Ben Neutze has described these as  Opera Australia’s big gamble on the future of opera.  Neutze is a fan.  I am less of one.

Is that just reactionary conservatism on my part?  You could call me a Luddite, but the Luddites had good reasons for their attitude, even if we like to think of them as being a bit like Canute commanding the waves. For that matter the Canute story has probably lost its original nuance.

My main objection is a kind of gut reaction: the video screens turn the stage into a very cold space.  Everything ends up seeming a bit nocturnal.  In a way this worked quite well for Anna Bolena, because the story is set in a dark and claustrophobic world of plotting and AB’s terrible fate.

Musically, I found the first half of AB a bit of a squib, especially in the dramatic bits, which lacked punch.  When it came to the big ensemble set pieces, something wasn’t quite there.  Was it because Donizetti had not yet realised the effectiveness of compound time in such scenes? One reviewer suggested that conductor Palumbo’s tempi were too cautious.   Things picked up in the second half.

At the risk of sounding philistine, a fundamental issue for me was that Carmen Topciu, as Jane Seymour, had a stronger voice with more penetrating overtones than did Ermonela Jaho, who has a more “white” voice, as Anna Bolena.  I wonder if this was part of the problem with the big set pieces – though funnily enough it wasn’t a problem in their big duet.

Robert Johnson was, again, the SSO’s loss and the AOBO’s gain as principal horn.  A bit shamefully (if true) the banda (offstage orchestra) was recorded.  It is not easy to make more detailed comment about the orchestra as OA have ceased selling programs and the (expanded) complimentary leaflet does not list the orchestral players, which seems a bit disrespectful.

I’m going again to the final performance.

The use of the video screens in Madam Butterfly was more restrained than the exuberant effort for Anna Bolena.  Graeme Murphy is the director and we had some projected dancers.  I’m averse to this as it always seems insulting to the (relatively) fat singers – rather like the use of implausible models on publicity shots, or the stylized couple in the SSO’s Tristan & Isolde a few years ago.  Once again, things seemed predominantly nocturnal.  There is of course a bridal night and then a long night of waiting in MB, but the day-time bits didn’t seem particularly sunny by comparison.

Nevertheless, the  mis-en-scene when MB sang “One fine day” was very striking indeed.  D, who is more of a traditionalist than I, was unmoved by it.  A friend visiting from Portugal was very impressed by the whole thing, but then, as he admitted, he is an engineer and loves the new.

Karah Son was terrific as Madam B. Opera Australia is scheduling MB almost like a musical, with alternating casts for the big parts (as well as some cast changes throughout the run).

Xian Zhang  is described as Chinese-American and her presence (as well probably as the Beethoven 5th symphony in the second half) seems to have attracted a larger than usual Chinese presence to the SSO.  This might have been an after-ripple from Lang Lang’s appearance the week before (which I missed – not because I dislike his playing, but because I resist on principle the SSO’s imposition of premium prices as being contrary to the historical compact with subscribers.

Gluzman played Prokofiev 2; the Sarabande from the Bach Partita in D minor for an encore.  I know string players love these sarabandes but I’ve never really quite got them or for that any of the slow unaccompanied string suite movements – the miracle of realising the harmony on an essentially melodic instrument seems a bit like a heroic but misplaced effort when if you wanted harmony you could have played a keyboard instrument instead.

I enjoyed Beethoven 5.  First movement was as expected; as expected (for me) the slow movement the best with the celli in fine form.  A reviewer complained of ensemble issues in the final movement – I wonder if this was because the trumpets (who feature, Fidelio-finale-ishly) were pushed out to the back corner with the trombones taking the trumpets’ usual spot.  I continue to be impressed by Joshua Batty, the relatively recently appointed principal flute.

Two other observations.

I have not noticed this before, but the conductor’s podium in the opera theatre was mounted on springs.  Palumbo conducted mostly from a high stool but would occasionally spring to his feet, at which point the springs would take the force of his jump.  I suppose this is to mute the noise of such conductorly leaps, but I wonder that it might not be a bit disconcerting – a bit like riding an enormous skate board – or do I mean shuffle board?

My other observation is the increasing zeal with which the opera house management, presumably in the name of security, excludes the public from the outdoor areas at the podium level.

When you leave, staff are stationed at the doors to prevent you leaving at that level.  This makes the egress slower and more crowded as we must all trudge down in close confinement to the box office level  where once so “kettled” the majority of the public elect to take the next set of internal steps down to the unwelcoming ground level space where, before the carpark was built,, unpleasant cattle-truck memories must have been triggered for some as audience members were bussed to the Domain carpark.

Before the concert and at interval, Concert-Hall-goers who wish to go outside are confined to a pocket-handkerchief sized space on the harbour bridge side (apparently to preserve the amenity of the Bennelong Restaurant).  The area between the two shells is dead ground; a slightly larger  space is permitted to Opera-Theatre-goers on the eastern side. On both east and west signs the northern corner is particularly fiercely fenced off. Stern black-clad bearded characters (it is an irony that, as traffic controllers are generally Irish women, Australian security guards in the post 9/11 golden age for their industry are predominantly Muslims) mount guard – against what?  That a few bearded scientists might scale the shells and paint “No War!”?

As I left on Saturday, the  empty front steps from the podium level were festooned with those temporary metal fencelets of which the SOH seems so enamoured, maintaining a perimeter around the two shells and the steps to them.  It was unsightly.  A sign directed patrons of the restaurant  to enter from below via the foyer level.

The podium and the steps are part of the original concept of the SOH.  Even if restrictions on means of entrance are justified on security grounds, it is unclear why we shouldn’t be allowed to leave more freely.  The current limitations are unnecessarily contrary to the SOH’s design  concept.

“I’ll write a letter!” is my stock declaration in such situations.  D only laughs. Sometimes he will beat me to it: “Write a letter!” – Needless to say, few such letters get sent.

I know it would be a waste of time writing to the SOH itself. If I were to write, it would be to the UNESCO world heritage listmeisters.  Just as Dresden lost its listing when it persisted in building a bridge, so should the SOH .