Archive for the ‘opera’ Category

Nights at the opera

July 17, 2018

The Sydney winter season of Opera Australia is upon us, advertised this year as running from Jun 28 to September 1. After that, Evita.

I have been so far to Lucia and Rigoletto.

The big story about Lucia was the homecoming of Jessica Pratt in the title role. It wasn’t such a bad thing to have Michael Fabiano as Edgardo and Opera Australia took advantage of the presence of a strong Enrico, Giorgio Caoduro, to reinstate the “Wolf Creek” (Dulwich-Hill-gangster joke) scene. That wasn’t included on this production’s first outing in 2012.

In my recollection, Emma Matthews (the 2012 Lucia) was more affecting than JP, even while I’m sure Jessica was more vocally spectacular. It could be that in 2012 I had a better seat (my old music teacher, E, who had s better seat, thought JP was terrific): when you perch up on the side you are as good as in the wings and some ways and you (well, I) become a bit more conscious of the mechanics and the way in which any opera performance is an incredibly intricate and scripted colour-by-numbers operation. This tends to drag down the necessary suspension of disbelief.

By the end, however, possibly because he had the advantage of singing so much of the last act, it was Fabiano’s night.

Not that it is a competition. Really.

Reading over my 2012 post it seems that the chorus has had a little cutback from 24 to 18 each gender .

Perched up high and on the side the one thing I missed was the woodwind. With the newly configured pit the orchestra has reverted to its longtime configuration which has them at the back (only the percussion are further back), right under the lip of the stage. When the mad scene began, I wondered at how faint and distant the flute was – it was so distant I didn’t even think to listen more carefully to ascertain whethr (as in 2012) we were being treated to some simulacum of the glass harmonica.

I thought about this some more when I went to Rigoletto. Burying the woodwind so far back obliges singers to rely on the conductor almost entirely for their ensemble with any wind obbligati.

For example, whilst all ears were on the complicated cello part in Rigoletto’s Act II aria, you could hardly hear the cor anglais line and there was reason to doubt that either the c.a. player couldn’t hear Dalibor Jenis or vice versa. If it wasn’t this spot it was one like it:

Rig cello n ca

Something similar happened in the famous quartet, with Maddalena’s offbeat figure, (though not only there and not only her – I have heard tidier quartets):


By then I’d moved opportunistically down to an empty seat at the end of the front row, so the issue with the woodwind being so deeply buried was no longer one of their being obscured to me. But they still seemed further away than they were even when placed at the back in the past. I’d like to see and hear them brought back up to the front. And I think they’d be happier there too. I guess then the violas and celli will be stuck back into the depths but I think it would be worth it all the same.

Meanwhile, from my new vantage point I was blown away by leader (for the night) Huy-Nguyen Bui’s rendition of this lick in the subsequent storm scene trio:

rig scale

He dashed this off with such a dazzling sprezzatura (I’m dodging the right technical term as I have no idea if it was spiccato or sautillee or just plain staccato) that I thought (but surely imagined) that he was playing demisemiquavers on each note.

My friend Ub came to Rigoletto. I told her that there was a surprise in the last act. I meant the Fiat bambino that Rigoletto “drives” on to the stage. Unfortunately, at least with the first-night crowd, that has by now (the production first aired in 1991) lost any surprise value. I suppose that’s the thing about old productions becoming, as they say “tired” – it’s the audience which can tire rather than anything shabby on the stage.

I still like this production, and I remain a sucker for any vehicle on stage (the tram was a highlight of Golem). I still laughed at Gilda hurriedly putting out her cigarette when her father came home and fanning the smoke out the window, and the beauty of that (as well as her magazines) is that it is a foretaste of the trouble she is going to give her father.

Mind you, not all the business makes sense, at least to me. Rigoletto seems to lock Gilda in when he goes out. So why do the seducers (who come in an upstairs window with the ladder that Rigoletto is tricked into holding) then simply come down the stairs and open the door from within? If they had the key, why the ladder? And couldn’t Rigoletto smell the cigarette on Gilda’s breath? Maybe he didn’t want to notice it.

PS 19 vii: At Aida last night the woodwind were back up the front.

Delightful Breasts

May 24, 2018

Today to a matinee [11.30!] performance at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music of Poulenc’s opera Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias).

The Tiresias of the title is Therese who, tiring of the role of submissive wife, loses her breasts and becomes a man, Tiresias. (That’s a nod to Greek mythology – the original T was a man who was punished for annoying Hera by spending 7 years as a woman.) She leads her fellow women on a sex strike and her husband takes on the woman’s role and bears more than 40,000 babies in one day. At the end Tir reverts to Ther and the couple reconcile and urge the people of France to regenerate/repopulate after the ravages of war. It is a surreal piece, based on a play by Apollinaire. There are a few sub-plots I have left out in this summary.

Stephen Mould conducted a student cast and orchestra. Kate Gaul directed.

I went out of curiosity because it was a rarity. I wasn’t sure what to expect at all though probably something a bit astringent. In fact the music was a confection reminiscent most of all of Offenbach (other French composers up to Ravel were also in there) – pastiche enhanced by Poulenc’s melodic flair. I can’t say I took the story too seriously: instead I relished the music, especially the lush orchestra – a particular luxury at the ticket price of $40.

Sure, it’s a student performance and some allowances had to be made for that – more for the vocalists than the orchestra. But the standard remained creditable and always enjoyable. In their different ways, I particularly admired Gavin Brown (a big sing as the husband and brilliant stage movement) and Haotian Qi (eloquent prologue).

Originally advertised as running for an hour and a half with an interval, the interval has been dropped (wisely) and it runs for just under an hour. There is one more performance, on Saturday afternoon.

It really was a delicious treat.

Don Quichotte 2, 3

March 25, 2018

This week, after a bit of a fizzer of a first night owing to the indisposition of F Furlanetto in the title role,  to Opera Australia’s production of Don Quichotte for the second and third times on Wednesday and with D  to the Saturday matinee.

The opera is a character study based on a play and if you’ve read the first 8 chapters of Part I of the novel you’ve probably read enough.

Between the first time and the second  I tracked down a  vocal score (I couldn’t find a full score) , a recording of a 1957 concert performance in Italian with Boris Christoff and a young Tereza Berganza (this was the only recording the Con library had) and some CDs of Massenet orchestral music which included the two interludes as well as the  excerpts from El Cid which are played in the OA production as an entracte betwen Acts I and II.

Being a star vehicle it was much improved once there was a star.  Furlanetto is a strong singer but the real thing is that, being perfectly in command of the part vocally, he has energy and skill to spare for the acting, in just so many little ways. For me this culminated in Act IV as he wobblingly descended on one knee to propose marriage to Dulcinea, followed by his devastated dejection after she laughingly rebuffs him.

After the first performance I was a bit down on this work and the decision to stage it when so many other works remain out of reach (think: almost the entire Russian repertoire, just for a start.). That’s the risk you take with a star vehicle if the star is indisposed. Now, if it weren’t for the inevitability of an anticlimax (because I cannot hope for a better seat than the one I had on Saturday) I would willingly go again.

I wonder if that doesn’t just go to show that familiarity is a big aspect of musical appeal – almost any music, given a threshold of some reasonable quality, improves on better acquaintance.

Whilst reviewers have betrayed some restiveness with the delay imposed by the scene change between Acts I and II, every time I heard the El Cid music I liked it more.

D rated the orchestral music more highly than the vocal. I particularly liked the variety of banda (off-stage instrumental music) effects.  There is a lovely cello solo in the second interlude and the night as a whole (or afternoon, on Saturday)  is a big one for the cor anglais – verging, I suppose, on a cliche for romantic sweetness but not suffering for that.

Don Q is not a great opera and I don’t think it even pretends to be one. (OK that’s a funny kind of personification: the genre claim for it is “heroic comedy.”) It is a sentimental piece written with great art and skill.  Its shortcomings are more the libretto’s than the music’s.

I’m still trying to work out how the acoustic/electronic enhancement of the pit works.  On Wednesday the sound in row D of the stalls was not terribly satisfactory and the lights at the rear of the stalls (possibly those projecting text onto the curtain) unbelievably noisy to my ears.  I noticed on Saturday (when I sat just behind the conductor, the incredibly vigorous Guillaume Tourniare)  that the cello section are individually miked for sound.  Where’s all that being piped to?

As part of last year’s refurbishment of the theatre a new surtitle display has been installed.

Front row seats have long been sold on the basis that surtitles are not visible from them.  In a pinch surtitles could still be made out if you were sitting in the middle. That’s no longer the case, which is a very sad development for me.



Star vehicle

March 17, 2018

Last night to the first night of Opera Australia’s production of Massenet’s Don Quichotte.

It’s an obscurity, written as a star vehicle for the famous bass, Chaliapin, and premiered at Monaco in 1910.  So I suppose it was bankrolled by the upper-class version of pokies money.

Unfortunately, on the first night it was a star vehicle without a star.  International big-name bass, Ferrucio Furlanetto, for whom this production was first mounted in San Diego, was indisposed.  He was replaced by Shane Lowrencev.  No disrespect intended to Mr L and the show must go on and it’s good he was there to fill the gap but there were big shoes to fill.

There was an enormous swathe of seats in the front circle – somewhere between a quarter and a third – which were empty.  Did these represent  the free list or production sponsors tipped off and staying away?

My least favourite opera company director, L Terracini, faced the front-of-curtain mike to make the announcement and give us a little pep-talk.  He’d spoken to Mr Lowrencev who was very excited; he (LT) was excited (maybe I’m paraphrasing a bit freely here); there’s some wonderful music, particularly in the second half.

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of Acts I to III which made up the first half.

At interval the mood was subdued.  “Nothing much happens” I heard one opera-aged lady say to her o-a-l companion.  Actually, a bit happened in Act III but it was oddly underwhelming as for no very obvious reason the leader of the bandits is moved by DonQ’s – well, what exactly – Christlike ridiculousness? (there is an organ banda part and fairly obvious crucifixion visual imagery although also some faintly Wagnerian-grailish stuff)  – to return Dulcinea’s necklace to him.  The chorus of bandits was far too small to be at all scary.  I’d be prepared to wager that they were really all noblemen who have gone wrong, except that they also seemed to have wandered out of Carmen.

Act IV was the first act which elicited genuinely warm applause. Massenet is a skilful theatrical writer and Act V also tugged heartstrings, if rather mildly.  I for one felt obliged to will an emotional response into being.

Because this is a rarity, I was already  going again, which is just as well.


Nose 2, 3

March 1, 2018

I have been to see Opera Australia’s production of The Nose again twice.

Each time I have enjoyed it more.  This is because I could appreciate its details better rather than because I found it more likeable or engaging.

My feeling is that Shostakovich put more variety of mood into the music than Kosky allowed for.

There is something a bit exhausting about watching 2-hours of grotesquery with the comedy knob dialled up to  11: isn’t this FUNNY!

In particular, I tire of these jokes about making a JOKE at the OPERA, such as “Oh for fuck’s sake, I came here to see La Traviata, not this rubbish” and “This is the Sydney Opera House, not the Rooty Hill RSL” – both of these from planted pseudo-audience members in the loges (side boxes), or (from Kanen Breen on stage before a bit of on-stage rumpy-pumpy) “You won’t see this in Evita!”  Maybe I’m in the minority here.  Most of the audience were ready to laugh at these,  and a simple “fuck” in the libretto drew a laugh on (I presume) the same basis.

Then again, Rooty Hill RSL has more in common with the SOH than you might at first think.

D, who came with me the third time, commented that he thought the audience’s laughter threshold was rather low.  He is a sensitive soul and was disappointed that Kovalev’s noseless plight should arouse so much mockery and so little (arguably, from the production’s standpoint, practically no) sympathy.

For  me the funniest line in the opera was the barber’s, at the beginning: “This morning I shall not drink [scornful incredulity from his wife] …….coffee.”

My friend, UB, who also came on the third night I was there, found the whole thing a bit repetitive (by which she largely meant the same joke/mode of humour constantly maintained) and could have done without the love-interest subplot.  The latter is probably a critique of the work rather than the production.  As for the phallic proboscis (which I assured her comes from a tradition of interpretation of the significance of the nose), wasn’t it (she asked) a bit obvious?

Well, this was a Kosky production.

My first-night niggles about the acoustic enhancement did not recur.  Could I have been imagining them?  However, I did think Mr Molino was amplified too much for his one-liner forbidding the barber to throw the nose into the pit.

For anyone who has missed the publicity, the nose, separated from Kovalev, acquires a life of its own.  In this production, it is impersonated by a boy inside a large nose.  You see his legs (in the flesh) but not the rest of him.  In its apotheosis, the nose is hoisted on a large hook which descends on a pulley from above the stage, the legs, now clad in long black trousers, kicking in the helpless way you would expect if someone was hoist aloft.  I was shocked and apprehensive.  What if he falls? How can that be OK for OH&S?

I need not have worried.  It was all a trick.  On the second night, the kicking action failed to activate and the legs simply dangled.  On the third night I could then see clearly that the knee joints weren’t real knees.  The long pants simply concealed the mechanism.  No boy had been hoist on a hook.  Riddle inside a mystery (to coin a phrase from Winston Churchill via Pountney’s translation) solved.

At the curtain calls, the nose was lifted up to reveal the boy in question, now wearing the long black pants – the illusion retrospectively maintained.

Isn’t theatre fun?




Running knows

February 21, 2018

That’s a pun from PDQ Bach’s Iphigenia in Brooklyn.  There were plenty more like that, in spirit at least, in this evening’s performance by Opera Australia of Shostakovich’s The Nose.

Lots of colour and movement, but what does it all mean?

I liked the prefiguration of the comedic cops of Lady Macbeth of Mtensk and the pastiche of a church scene.  It was hard to judge some of the rest from my right front point eyrie, especially in light of the electronic acoustic enhancement which bathed much ever so gently in a reverberant glow. The orchestration is probably too grotesque  to provide an opportunity to  judge the enhancement but as a pianist I found the piano sound disconcerting..

If this wasn’t by Shostakovich and recently done by Barrie K, I’m not sure we would be seeing it.  It is early Dmitri. For once Mr Molino did not conduct from memory.

Still it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and I will be going again at a left point before sitting downstairs in the middle.  The spectacle is  exuberant and diverting.  There is an enormous cast. The much-touted tap-dancing noses scene is far from being the highlight of the show.

Kanen Breen wears a dress – not again!

December 9, 2017

Last Thursday (well, maybe the Thursday before last by now)  to Angel Place for Pinchgut’s production of Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea.

I’d read the publicity/pre show journalism.  This was to be a “contemporary” production.  Call me cynical, but in my experience that mostly means a saving on costumes. “I got into baroque opera through updated productions when I was a teenager so I am really excited with this approach,” said artistic/musical director Erin Helyard.  The Australian Opera’s production of Handel’s Julius Caesar still casts a long shadow – not that they skimped on the costumes there.

At the start a transvestite prostitute cops a beating.- Not clear why – I suppose it was to set up the vicious dog-eat-dog world of Neronian Rome over which Virtu, Fortuna and Amor preside.

It was only later, when the transvestite, now a nurse (in the Romeo & Juliet sense of an older domestic and confidante of a young woman) started singing that I recognized her as Kanen Breen.  In a dressYet again. It’s always good to see him on stage (generally threatening to steal a scene) and his lullaby over Poppea later in the show was one of the best bits in the production.

“It was a stupid production.  Like a cartoon, really” said the female half of the elderly couple ahead of me on the way out afterwards – well not too elderly to be taking the fire escape from Level 3.  “But the music was good.”

There is something in that criticism.  Transplanting to something vaguely Gold Coast sparked things up in some ways but also ran a bit of a risk of trivialising them.  I loved it when Kanen Breen as one of his nurse roles got on the mobile to report the attempt on Poppea’s life.  I felt a bit more equivocal about David Greco’s Seneca as a kind of jokey phoney. That could have been making a virtue of necessity – David Greco is rather light-voiced for a world-historically famous philosopher stage and Top Stoic.  I think I startled my Act I neighbour, a violinist from the AOBO, by saying that when I first saw it done by AO Clifford Grant was Seneca – probably a mixup for Grant Dickson.   But the jokiness rather undercut the famous suicide in the bath scene – given a twist here (I can say this now the run is over) when Nero’s henchmen weren’t prepared to take any chances and suddenly forced Seneca’s head under.  It was a genuinely shocking moment.  “I need a drink after that,” I heard someone say as we streamed out.

One such theatrical coup is OK but the hand was overplayed when two other betrayed plotters – in the libretto permitted by Nero to go into exile – were abruptly chloroformed and borne away.

The scenery obscured it for me but judging by the mimed zipped up fly a cross-sex Poppea lookalike orally obliged Nero.  Gratuitous?  Well, actually it fitted right in with the words and music of Nero’s big aria at the beginning of the second half.

We had live video projection of the wedding at the end – very up-to-the-minute.  It’s all about fame, you see.  (Actually I thought this just a bit laboured and wondered if it was really worth the expense and clutter.)

The overall effect was enjoyable if a bit short on the sublime.  Musical exuberance stood up better in live performance than in the broadcast (available here for another 3 weeks or so) where some of it (not Kanen) sounded a bit vocally rough when I tuned into it the next  Sunday.

When too much music…

August 30, 2017


…is barely enough (with apologies to Roy and HG).

My attendance at live events, generally musical ones, has declined in the last couple of years, but there was a bit of a breakout this month.  I record it briefly below

1.      SSO – Mozart – Wispelwey 10/8

On the day the SSO released its 2018 season, to Angel Place to hear the SSO with Wispelwey – the last of the Haydn “times of the day” symphonies (obviously, Le Soir) and one of the cello concerti. A Mozart wind serenade and an arrangement of a movement of the Elgar Cello Concerto (as a mystery encore – departing from the tradition that these are usually by Mozart) made up the program.   As I write the concert is still available online .

I found I knew the Haydn better than I expected to and realise that it was on one of the relatively few LPs we had in my early teen years – probably the one pictured above.  That could be why I enjoyed it the most, though I also enjoyed the symphony – with some especially striking flute moments as well as Haydn’s frequently rather high horn lines.  The Mozart didn’t quite live up to expectations, perhaps because, in advance, I had been thinking of the Gran Partita.

2.     Gnarly Buttons – SSO Carriageworks 13/8

This was the first of the SSO’s concerts this year at Carriageworks.  An irresistible bargain at $35. The novelty of Carriageworks and its groovy toilets has yet to wear off.  I feel such a hipster just going there!

I had heard the title work earlier in the year played by David Griffiths with the Australia Ensemble.  It wasn’t quite so striking the second time around, mainly I think because of the venue.  Bay 17 at Carriageworks is large and cavernous and features industrial strength ventilation which figuratively speaking has the musicians wading around in a brownish kind of white noise up to about their midriffs.  In addition (though in fact the noise could well have been the culprit in a large degree) I didn’t feel that Francesco Celata managed to bring to the clarinet part the kind of wild freedom that daring that David Griffiths managed for the AE.

The background noise was not a problem for Kate Neal’s The Valley of Lost Things, which was for a larger ensemble – more of a small orchestra.  This had a very diverting kind of rush-all-over-the-place feel.  Towards the end I was getting a little worn out by it and external thoughts intruded and then it ended.  I sort of thought it had gone on a bit long; someone else felt it was only just getting started.  The composer’s notes suggest it was written as an interlude (which seems a bit extravagant), so perhaps development was not really in mind.

The highlight of the concert for me was the Boulez explosante-fixe…. This featured a differently constituted orchestra and three amplified flutes one of which was treated to various electronic manipulations.  The principal flute from the St Louis Orchestra was flown in to take this part.  There were some strange sounds that a friend afterwards told me were amplified/delayed key-slapping.

For once I did not begrudge David Robertson his irresistible urge to speak as he gave us a bit of background: Robertson conducted the first performance of this version of the work (it came in a number of iterations over the years) in 1993.

I couldn’t of course hum a tune from this, and I’m even not sure how I could describe it as “music” – though it is definitely more “music” than the sort of novelty promoted by Jon Rose.  Actually it was music and there was an emotional arc, but my memory of that aspect of it has faded.  What I remember now was the engrossing and delicious sounds – in the way that, for example, harps and bells are delicious – music and sound that I just wanted to lean forward into like swimming into water of just the right cool temperature on a hot day.  Give me more of it until I have excess!

3.    Parsifal 14/8

Whilst the Opera Theatre has been closed, Opera Australia have had a number of special events.  This was probably the most proclaimed – bringing super-tenor Jonas Kaufmann to Sydney in the title role.

I resisted at first the hype and the prices: it would cost me $395 (less a subscriber discount) to secure a seat of the quality I usually enjoy in the SOH Concert hall for SSO concerts.   At the last minute I secured a rather distant but at least affordable ticket.  Once you factor in the length of the performance, seats at this price were not such bad value and if I had chosen earlier or even more wisely I could have got one closer up, albeit at the side in box D.   I now regret not responding to the shocking prices by confining myself to cheaper tickets but allowing myself more than one go.

Parsifal was my first exposure to Wagner.  Not the opera itself, but the Prelude/Vorspiel which featured in the opening of Simon Gray’s Otherwise Engaged, which I saw at the Old Tote in 1976.  Later that year I bought a highlights LP of the Solti recording from Rowe Street Records.  I thought as a result that I knew it, but little did I know. The first act and all of that business with the swan being killed seemed positively interminable when I went to the concert performance conducted by Charles Mackerras in 1977.  This year’s were the first live (and still concert) performances in Sydney since then.  How could I have contemplated staying away?

It took me most of the first act to get used to sitting so far away and to adjust my expectations of the detail of sound you can hear in a singer’s voice.  The first act still seems to drag on a bit – by the time Gurmenanz is asked to reminisce about how Titurel and Klingsor knew each other, I was ready to say “Enough already! We can look that up for ourselves.”  I suppose I hadn’t yet settled into that Buddhist time-space groove.  As a former piano teacher said to me at interval – you just have to enjoy the music.  – Why should I want it to pass any sooner?

Nothing much really happens in Parsifal so on one level it is a good candidate for a concert performance.  Of all the acts it was probably the first which suffered the most from the lack of staged religious ceremony.  There’s a bit paradoxical so far as religious stuff is something I am pretty resistant to, even if we are to accept that we are being shown it in an anthropological way rather than being required to participate in it ourselves.  Wagner’s motives and sincerity when it comes to the religiosity of Parsifal are vexed point as are so many issues when you start contemplating Wagner as a person.

Such is the imprinting effect of recordings that the bits from that highlights record are still the bits I know and consequently like the best.

I enjoyed the second and third acts more.  It probably helped that a few fidgeters near me had gone home.  The other thing that helps is that the music begins to weave its magic more once the expositional groundwork has laid by the first act in terms of motivs etc.  The point at which Amfortas desired to follow his father to death was just achingly sad.

Obviously expectations of Kaufmann in the title role were high.  These were met; the word on everybody’s lips at interval was Kwangchul Youn as Gurmenanz.  It was great to hear the AOB Orchestra out of the box and up on the stage.

I’m glad I went after all.

4.     SSO, Bruckner, Beethoven, Young, Cooper. 18/8

The next Friday again to the SSO, this time at the SOH to hear Imogen Cooper play Beethoven 2 and Simone Young play Bruckner 5.

I wasn’t so crazy about the Beethoven and tend to agree with Zoltan Szabo’s comments here.  There was much more to the Bruckner.  This had  not been performed by the SSO since 1984 and that was only their second performance (the first was in 1977).  On reflection, this is probably not so surprising.  The fifth symphony is sometimes accounted Bruckner’s first mature work and indeed he didn’t get to hear it himself in his lifetime.  I feel as though the fourth comes round relatively often, but I expect the 5th is jostled aside by the more popular >5 ones.

5.   Australia Ensemble – 19/8

With my friend and former piano teacher, P, to this.  On the way a shocking experience as we drove through what I could only think of as the Desolation of Smaug at the southern end of Sydney Park where the Westconnex works have started.  Things aren’t much better on ANZAC Parade and High Street with the preparations for the light rail, which has also been attended by wanton destructions (elsewhere) of trees.  P and I grumbled to each other about the decision to buy big trams for this line, which has made the track more unwieldy and will mean services are less frequent.  When will the powers that be get it that frequency is the critical thing for public transport for which people will be persuaded to abandon their ownership of cars?  Mutter mutter.  We needed cheering up.

The program was:

Albert Roussel (1869-1937): Divertissement (1906) for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano

Madeleine Dring (1923-1977): Trio (1968) for flute, oboe and piano

Mark Grandison (b 1965): Riffraction (2007) for clarinet, strings and piano, 2016 Winner of the Blakeman National Composition Prize UNSW

Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Octet in F major D803 (1824)

Mark Grandison described his first-half closer as based on a “triple pun” but as far as I can see it was really a single or just stretching it double pun on riff, action and refraction.  It was lively but I felt the violin only got a bit of a late look-in.

The Dring was written for her oboist husband, Peter Lord, who premiered it with William Lloyd and Andre Previn (this must have been an LSO connection).   I reckon the oboist got the best tunes, especially at the start of the second movement, where there was a tune (at about 3:25) which definitely gives me a reminiscence of something else.  The piano writing struck me as rather unimaginative by comparison.

The Roussel was delightful and the “find” of the evening for me.

I am having a bit of a Schubert craze at present (struggling through D568) and so was feeling particularly receptive to this and enjoyed it greatly.

6.  Imogen Cooper – 21/8

This was part of the SSO’s International Pianists series at Angel Place.  IC has a strong following and it was very well attended.  The program was

BEETHOVEN 7 Bagatelles, Op.33
HAYDN Sonata in C minor, Hob.XVI:20
BEETHOVEN Variations on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’
ADÈS Darknesse Visible
BEETHOVEN Sonata in A flat, Op.110

I sat first behind Ms Cooper (looking over her left shoulder from the gallery – what I like to think of as the piano teacher’s spot).  For the second half I moved to the body of the hall – simply because I could and because the temptation to move to a more expensive seat was irresistible.  In hindsight, this was a mistake as I would have been better off where I started for the effects in the Adès (held notes; harmonics; fast repeated notes).  Quite effectively, even if this was partly because people couldn’t be sure when the Adès finished, this turned retrospectively into an old fashioned kind of prelude as it segued to Op 110.

7.  Sydney Chamber Opera – 22/8

– already noted.  I almost went again in the hope that I could overcome the obstacle of the lip synching once habituated, but didn’t quite manage it.

8.   SSO, Robertson, “New World Memories” 26/8

A very popular concert – the modern work, Mnesomyne’s Pool, by Steve Mackey, cunningly slipped in between Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony.  As the title indicates, at least for the cognoscenti, Mackey’s inspiration was the role of memory in music – which is my excuse for some of the associative reminiscences included in this post.  I’m afraid I should have had a longer nap in the afternoon to give MP a better hearing.  I hope to catch it on the radio or on line later to do it justice.

You can see my stamina and maybe also my narcissism are flagging as these accounts get ever more perfunctory.

I also went to two other concerts this month to turn pages for a friend.  That was interesting but cannot really be considered as the same thing as an attendance as an auditor – I am too busy making sure I do not wander away from where it is up to on the page.


Too clever for me

August 23, 2017

Last night to Carriageworks for Sydney Chamber Opera’s production of Britten’s first “chamber opera,” The Rape of Lucretia.

Something was afoot.  I was forewarned by Kip Williams’ director’s notes:

The Rape of Lucretia is a foundation myth that tradisionally has been used to perpetuate ideas surrounding the ‘value’ of a republic: namely that men must bind together in order to protect the chastity of their women.  At its core, our production asks questions of the ways in which this thinking still exists in our contemporary lives, and what impact this paradigm has had on how we think about gender, power and sex.  Ultimately, we are interested in examining this ancient culture in the context of our own, drawing parallels between ideologies and systems of power that permit masculine entitlement, engender the disempowerment of women, and both perpetuate and exonerate acts of sexual assault.  This production is an act of illumination and erosion of the exculpatory power of this history.


One of the challenges in approaching a staging of Britten’s opera is the absence of any critical perspective on the gender politics contained within the world of Rome.  By giving our performers contemporary identities as their primary relationship to the audience, we afford them an active critical voice on the politics at play.  through them we explore the performative and restrictive nature of gender in the Lucretia myth by fracturing each charater into three parts: the costume, which represents the character, the actor, who performs the character’s actions whilst lipsynching the dialogue, and the singer, who gives voice to the character.

OK.  LIPSYNCHING!  That artifice of last resort usually called upon when a singer is indisposed.  You can get used to that when it is just one singer, but why would you willingly embrace it for the practically the whole cast?

Just to explain a bit more.  It is 509BC.  Rome is ruled by Etruscan kings.  Lucretia is the only virtuous wife of a bunch of Roman aristocrats who are away in military camp – the others all find their wives otherwise engaged when they pop back to check on them.  One of the husbands, who is envious of Lucretia’s husband for having such a virtuous wife, goads Tarquinius, Prince of Rome whom no woman can refuse, to just pop back again and see how virtuous she really is – after all, maybe her virtue wasn’t tested/tempted quite enough?  T. jumps on his steed, arrives at L’s place in the middle of the night demanding hospitality [interval].  Servants we are told by the narrators (see below) are insolent towards him in a way that only servants can be.  (Servants!  We all know how they can behave!)

In the night Tarquinius goes to Lucretia’s chamber and rapes her, galloping off to the camp before dawn. Next day Lucretia summons her husband back, tells him what has happens and says – despite his entreaties that it is not her fault – that the punishment for unchastity is death and kills herself.  The Roman men vow to rise up against the tyrants, which we all know they did and founded the (scarcely less tyrannous) Roman Republic.

This all comes from Livy (a bit altered and supplemented in some details) save that in the opera a lot of the action is narrated by a male and female chorus, taking primary responsibility for the male and female spheres of action respectively.  From the start it is made clear that they are from some later, Christian, era. At the end the female chorus asks if that is all the story and the male replies it’s all fine because it’s given meaning (what meaning exactly is unclear) by Christ’s love.  This helpfully provides a bit of a chorale for the finale.

Obviously it’s not a very attractive story from the perspective of modern sexual politics.  But can the audience be trusted to work that out for themselves?  Apparently not.

Just to explain a bit more: in the first scene (at the camp) the three women singers donned insignia to designate the male characters, who were then sung, puppetteer style, by the respective male singers hovering in the background.  In the second scene the process was reversed.  And so on until the denouement when the artificae was (mostly) abandoned for more direct dramatic expression.

Various reviewers of the production have tried to find redeeming aspects to the conceit but in my opinion these are even-a-stopped-clock-is-right-twice-a-day sorts of advantages.  I found it genuinely confusing at first and also an obstacle to my enjoyment of the music.  You have to go along with it at the price of being totally put off so I gradually got used to it in the second scene, though not without moments when I found a “the-king-is-in-the-altogether” spirit surfacing within me.

Maybe if I went again (only $35 so not out of the question) I’d be able to deal with it better.

Of the singers, I was particularly impressed by Andrew Goodwin – not a singer I’ve always been keen on in the past – even if (and this is a response to the work rather than the singer) I found myself sighing just a bit inwardly at some of the more extended passages of aspirated tenor coloratura – BB and PP at it again. (The crucible of light is drowned!) Goodwin gave a bravura account (wrestling a chair as Tarquinius’ steed) of Tarquinius’ rush to Rome.  Later, the sinister night rustlings of T’s approach also caught my imagination.  Things continued with more drama (as you would expect) in the second half.

The orchestra/instrumental ensemble is placed behind the amphitheatre-ish set, which I think if you were low down on the tiered seating would muffle its sound.  Even from where I sat, high enough to overcome this obstacle, the orchestra still seemed a bit distant, especially when it was playing quietly.  Many details were scarcely discernible.

The house (general admission) was full (14 rows of 20 seats), including (in a reserved section) some of the great-and-good – Neil A was there with M Vallentine; Richard Mills was also there (it’s a co-production with Victorian Opera) and the man in front of me, fascinatingly, had his Australian Opera program from when they first put it on up the road in Newtown in 1971 (it came back in 1981).

At present Carriageworks also has an exhibition about the 1917 strike (which started at Eveleigh).  This includes some large and striking union banners which are on display in the main foyer/hall.  I am still trying to work out why in the Australian coats of arms which feature on them, the kangaroo and emu face away from the shield.




Pinchgut – winter festivities

June 20, 2017

Pigmalion curtain call

I went on Saturday afternoon to the second and on Tuesday night to the last performance of Pinchgut Opera’s triple bill:

Rameau Anacréon (libretto by Pierre-Joseph-Justin Bernard)
Vinci Erighetta e Don Chilone (libretto by Vinci)
Rameau Pigmalion (libretto by Ballot de Sauvot)

I had picked up at the last minute two restricted view seats  – on opposite sides for obvious reasons.

Erighetta e don Chilone was a genially amusing (if not quite side-splitting) two-hander for Taryn Fiebig and Richard Alexander.  It’s a Neapolitan piece from the 1720s so stylistically think Pergolesi, who apparently studied with Vinci.  I enjoyed it though the business with a book (apparently it was meant to be a play within a play and a read-through at that) didn’t really add much for me.

The two Rameau works are both Actes de ballet.  Dance is a big element of them.  That is always a bit tricky because our modern tastes for dance and, I venture to say, the significance we attach to it, are probably not the same as in the original context.  Or maybe not so different.  Pigmalion, where there was actual dancing, managed this more successfully;  Anacreon was a bit busy and the resort to rhythmic movement as a substitute for dancing always feels a bit lame.

It’s said in such texts as I found in fragments on the web (or at least some of them) that Pigmalion is Rameau’s most successful work in this genre.  On Saturday, Anacreon had the advantage with me because (as I later realised) I have repeatedly listened to a chunk of it as part of a very old Les Arts Florissant compilation set of CDs.  By Tuesday, Pigmalion prevailed. I also felt that stylistically it was the more successfully realised.

I’m not a critic, so no roll call and just nice remarks.

Lauren Zolezzi, L’Amour in both works (first a kind of feminine Cupid in something rather like Con High uniform and then more adult and in masculine attire a la Cherubino) was probably the newcomer of the night.

In the orchestra, the violins were in fine form – how standards have risen over the years in the early music biz here in Oz!  Leader Matthew Greco played up a storm, especially in a very striking solo in the Vinci. I only noticed one tiny suspect moment in the oboes, which also is a sign of progress in the reliability stakes over the years though perhaps the parts in these works were not the most demanding or exposed.  Both of the Rameau pieces reserved particular moments of poetry for the flutes, and these were delectable.

The fast section of the Pigmalion ouverture includes what I can only describe as a particularly mind-blowing double hemiola system .

I don’t find it so easy to get worked up for an afternoon performance. I’m sure that on Tuesday I was in a more receptive mood than on Saturday. But there is also much to be said for what you can get out of something the second time around, provided of course that it is something that bears repetition.

On Tuesday I enjoyed the program very much.

[Picture from Pinchgut Facebook: I’m in there somewhere.]

Temporary postscript: for the next 3 or so weeks the performance broadcast on Sunday night can be heard from the ABC “Classic” FM website here.