Archive for October, 2019

Room at the Inn

October 25, 2019


Last night to the first night of Opera Australia’s production of Il Viaggio a Reims.

This is a party-piece put together by Rossini for the celebrations associated with the coronation of Charles X in 1825. It was very much an occasional work and not revived in Rossini’s lifetime. It was probably probably never intended to have a lasting existence because of its extravagant requirements for an enormous cast of stars. Rossini did recycle quite a lot of the music in his opera Le Comte Ory. Il Viaggio was reconstituted/reconstructed in the 1970s from various fugitive sources and first performed in 1984. I suspect the modern recording industry has something to do with its revival.

The opera’s plot is the flimsiest of pretexts: a disparate group of travellers from all over Europe bound for the coronation at Reims is stuck at an inn. They have a bit of drama between each other and once it becomes clear that they are never going to make it to Reims in time because no stage horses are to be had they put on a kind of concert before their planned return to Paris for the remainder of the celebrations. This concert forms the bulk of the the last act, where various characters sing numbers representative of their respective nations.

From this comes the one extract which often features in operatic trivia quizzes. The English milord, Lord Sidney, declares that he is no musician and only knows one song, which he then proceeds to sing, namely “God Save the King.” (This is a variant of the other joke about non-musical Britons, who know only two tunes – one being GSTK and the other not.)

Is it just because of its early imprinting on me that this seemed particularly stirring, or does the cultural prestige of the English at the time also have something to do with it? Obviously, that is not a question I am able to answer.

Inspired by the painting above, this production discarded even that flimsy pretext for a flimsier one involving an art gallery. For me this didn’t really work because it was hard to work out who was who – if anyone was really anyone. It didn’t help that sometimes the surtitles were faithful to the libretto and other times they were tailored to the amended scenario.

This didn’t matter to the first-night crowd who shrieked with laughter at everything. I didn’t personally find it so funny, but the singing was great as was much of the orchestral music. Things were best when the scenario reverted more closely to the original scenario with the concert in the final act. This merged with the art gallery theme by a tableau vivant based on the painting which was what the production had been aiming at all along.

As a bit of an in-joke, on a par with Kanen Breen wearing a dress, Teddy Tahu-Rhodes took off his shirt again. This cannot go on forever.

Cunning old Rossini really has something up his sleeve with the final aria of the (originally) poetess to harp accompaniment after so much more busy musical material for most of the opera. (Her first appearance – in fact a non-appearance as she sang offstage, also accompanied by harp, was rather robbed of such impact because of the adjusted scenario.) For us now there is also a kind of dramatic irony given the pious hopes expressed of Charles X’s reign – which in fact turned out to be such a fizzer.

I just made it by the skin of my teeth having only noticed at about 6.10pm that the performance started at 7 pm rather than the customary 7.30. Foolishly but in a panic I drove in and was only able to secure a spot at the deepest point of the SOH double helix carpark. In hindsight I could probably have made it in 10 minutes from Circular Quay if the train I could have caught ran on time. There was also a Schools Spectacular in the Concert Hall starting at the same time which, even worse, finished at the same time. It took more than 40 minutes to escape afterwards.

I’m going again on Saturday (which was in part the source of my confusion for the start time as Saturday is at the usual 7.30) and am looking forward to it.

The short run of only 5 performances is a great box-office success for Opera Australia as it appears to be close to booked-out.


Briefly noted

October 20, 2019

A quick round up of live performances on my recent European jaunt not so far noted on this blog:

  1. 15/09/2019 – Götterdämmerung Berlin Staatsoper

Barenboim conducting the last night of a ring cycle. It was only by chance that I discovered that tickets for single performances were being sold and I snapped one up. This was a revival of a production first mounted at La Scala.

There is something funny about arriving at a Ring Cycle part way through – it is like coming late to a party – I’m sure the impact was greater for those who’d been coming to the whole thing. Andreas Schager was the best Siegfried I have ever heard in the flesh.  He is a heldentenor who retains an Italianate quality.  There was only the slightest sign of tiring (where it always comes) in the narration immediately before Siegfried’s death.   From time to time I spotted my neighbour secretly recording some of the more famous passages on his mobile phone. Waltraud Meier was luxury casting as Second Norn and Waltraute.

I was towards the back of the stalls (Parkett) in the middle. In the horseshoe theatre there was an odd effect when singers at the back corner of the stage singing in towards the middle bounced off the walls so that a couple of times I was startled by their seemingly singing to me from a spot in the wall a little in front of me to my right.

  1. 16/09/2019 – Die Blechtrommel – Berliner Ensemble

This was a one-man show, performed by Nico Holonics, who first performed it in Frankfurt a few years ago and who has followed the BE director Oliver Rees from Frankfurt to Berlin. It is basically a play of the film (Volker Schlondorf: The Tin Drum) insofar as it selects the same highlights. There were surtitles. My friend Lars didn’t think much of it from a literary point of view. I would have rather seen an actual “ensemble” piece, but it was nevertheless a tour de force and a delight to see the BE’s surprisingly ornate theatre.

  1. 20/09/2019 – Organ recital – Altenburg Schlosskirche

(Someone else’s picture here.)

This was given by the organist of the Dresden Frauenkirche as part of a tour westwards along the A4. Altenburg was his first stop and he was finishing up the next day at Weimar and Eisenach. The organ is a Silbermann organ once played by JSB, though between his time and ours the organ was modified according to romantic tastes before being taken back to something more like its original.

Altenburg is one of those places (there are many in Germany) which used to be more important than it now is. The castle is perched up above the town in a “13 Clocks” kind of way.

4.    25/09/2019 – Art happening – Munich Musikhochschule


A small group of us tailed along behind a trumpeter and a trombonist who played a complicated musical code designed to indicate the dimensions of underground tunnels surrounding the Musikhochschule and the Art Library – dating from when they were the Nazi Party headquarters in Munich.

5.    04/10/2019 – Grand Union Orchestra at Bethnal Green


A Jazz/world-music gig in an East London church with a cut-down version of this group. What I really liked is that they didn’t have a drum kit, and so although there was an electric keyboard and bass guitar, no-one else had to be amplified and the music was therefore not too loud.

6.   05/10/2019 – Werther – ROH Covent Garden

I took D, my sister and her other half to this. Although my sister is a musician and has lived in London for about 35 years this was the first time she had been to Covent Garden. An elegant traditional production. Juan-Diego Florez in the title role was terrific – even if his voice is a bit light for the role.

When I arrived I broke up a conversation between two older men to my right and a handsome chap to my left. At the end the older chaps seemed eager to renew the acquaintance with the man to my left.

In between, when I commented on the Catholic gloss which Massenet and his librettists insert on the suicide aspect, my right-hand neighbour, from Palm Springs, informed me that he was an ex-priest who had now totally turned away from religion.

The Covent Garden audience was conspicuously full of travellers from elsewhere. One man had a Peruvian flag draped over his shoulders and afterwards I saw him waiting at the stage door – doubtless hoping to see Juan-Diego.

7.     07/10/2019 Aggripina     ROH

Directed by Barry Kosky who these days is very much in demand.

Extinction protests were causing chaos in west London. My (North-American-accented) neighbour told me she had had to get her chauffeur to drop her off to take the tube from Park Lane.

Had I not paid an extraordinary amount for my ticket, I would probably have skipped this performance on account of my severe cold. I received a (justified) glare from said neighbour at the end of the first half when a terrible rumble erupted in my throat (my mouth, at least, was still shut) in Iiestyn Davies’ beautiful (but quiet) closing number. I would have had my scarf to mute this  but it had slipped down the back of my seat when I stood to let in a latecomer.

Joyce di Donato was a sassy Aggripina. In the pit was the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

I had most anticipated Götterdämmerung but it turned out for me that the highlight of all of these was Werther. It is such a beautiful work and the fourth performance of it I have been to this year. I regret that it is likely to be at least a decade before I will have a chance (if I am spared so long)to see it again in Sydney.

Comme d’habitude

October 19, 2019

I have been back now for just over a week, nursing and trying to shake off a virulent cold.  Maybe today (just or almost) I am free of it.

I’m home alone: D is in China with his family.

Things seem very quiet after 4 weeks of travelling together and staying mostly with friends.  What paradise, after the perennial laundry anxiety/obsession of travel, to be back with my own washing machine and Sydney’s wonderful clothes-drying weather.  What a treat to be in my own bed!

Not such paradise, as I went at about 6.30pm  to catch the train at Sydenham for an SSO concert, to see 8 uniformed policemen, one detective cheerfully trying on his glove, and a police sniffer dog.  I hope I cast a sufficiently withering glance at them, though I guess they are impervious to the surely quite widespread hatred their activities inspire.

Or am I wrong?  Do Australians like being subjected to random drug checks and running the gauntlet of their scrutiny at railway stations and other public places?  Are there really smug Australians who enjoy seeing hapless young people and demi-mondaines humiliated in public?

Sylvan nocturnal bike rides (in a Park; on an away-from-roads bike path) always invoke for me a kind of standing fantasy of riding to some French-resistance plane drop.  Police with dogs at public places likewise evoke Occupation and Third Reich associations.

I cast about in vain for some further remark I might make, but my train was coming.  I didn’t even pause for long enough to take a picture of the unsavoury sight.  It’s easier to keep your head down.  That’s how these things work.




October 1, 2019


Last night (or afternoon really, it was a Sunday at 4.30 pm) to the Rome Opera for the above work.

As the action began, Don G and Donna Anna were post-coitally clothing themselves.  There was no suggestion that Donna A was anything but a willing participant in what had just transpired.

Things started to go badly when the Commendatore entered, a pyjama-ed figure with a walker.  He was duly dispatched with a broken-off bough from the tree (see picture below).  And then Don Ottavio entered, walking with a crutch.

OMG, I thought.  What chance does Donna A stand against the Don – her father with a walker and her boyfriend on crutches?  Are the virtuous always so impotent?

It turns out I was allowing too much to art and had not paid sufficient attention to the announcement made just before the overture. Juan Francisco Gatell, the singer playing Don Ottavio, had suffered an injury but would still be performing.  Indeed, I encountered him at the front of the theatre after the show wielding not one but two (elbow or Canadian) crutches.

But in a way my misconception was apt, because this was a production for the Trump (or possibly Berlusconi, Boris J or any number of others) age.

At the denouement  the grave lay open and God’s hand from the Sistine Chapel (we were in Rome after all, though it still smacked of Monty-Python animations) descended as a reproof ready to press Don G into it.  Don G laughingly broke the hand off at the forefinger and walked away.  When the others emerged for their final moralising Don G returned to the stage and perched in the tree.

(These are the bows.)


There were some other good touches.  When Elvira, Anna and Ottavio donned masks, they did so by exchanging bits of each other’s costume.  No-one could have been deceived, even less given that Don O (shirtless, wearing Donna Elvira’s nun’s costume) still sported a crutch and a cast on his shin.

A bit more mysteriously to me, Don G and Leporello wore undifferentiable shiny grey suits – so what was the point of their exchanging them (which they dutifully did)?  Are all men really the same?

The first act ended with a kind of drunken orgy which elicited boos and whistles from the audience.  My neightbours (from San Francisco but they also go to the Met) did not return which was good for me as in the first half I was a bit hedged in by a pillar.

I don’t think I have heard La ci darem da mano done slower.  There were also some sedately paced sections in the last act as the (relatively) small ensemble wandered over the vast stage.  I wondered whether Mozart should really be done in such a large house.

But back to those boos and whistles – and there were a few more of both at the end.

Surely Graham Vick (the director) is not the first to realise that sociopaths often get away with it?

Back again also to Juan Francisco Gatell, who was really terrific in a role which in its big moments can be incredibly taxing and which often in my experience ends up coming across as a bit of a wimp.  JFG was up to the taxing bits and made credible assertions of his intention to bring Don G to justice.  It was not his fault that the director had other plans.

All quiet on the Inner Western front

October 1, 2019

We have been in Germany.

D has been making great progress with the language.

Back in Australia, our favourite bird is the tawny frogmouth.  D, as a Shanghainese, finds “frogmouth” a bit hard to say.  In our own little idiolect it has been rendered as “Volkmar,” the name of one of our hosts in Thuringia.  We told him and he was amused to find his name so repurposed in a far-off land.

Further south, in Munich, an old friend from Sydney was the right person to receive D’s latest breakthrough:

Danke schön, Bitte schön….

….Petersham Lewisham!