Monday, March 23, 2015

IN MY MIND'S EAR


On Friday we went to our first SSO subscription concert for the year. It was our first because we'd missed the first. I can't remember why we missed it but suspect we ran out of something like time. We missed Schumann's First and Second Symphonies and Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto conducted by David Robertson who also delivered a very good Gala Opening of Bs - Bruckner, Berg and Beethoven.

Robertson might be an exception to my musings that it might just help to have been born and/or raised in a country of the music's origin to get between the notes. Robertson seems good at whatever he puts his mind and baton to. Therein lies the answer. Exceptions make the rule and make for greatness.

I've spared you another photo of the Opera House by the way.

On Friday we heard the Brahms Violin Concerto and Sibelius 5th Symphony in the hands of the husband and wife team of Dutch violist Janine Jansen and conductor Daniel Blendulf, Swedish born. Nigel Butterley's Never The Sun This Watcher opened the second half marking his 80th birthday with acclamation and acknowledgement of his presence.

As soon as I hear the opening bars of the Brahms, I always return to Vaucluse. It's as strong as the smell of cut grass. We had moved from the country and were waiting for settlement (I now understand) on our house-to-be on the North Shore. Mary, my mother's widowed sister, lived there with the younger of her sons, Robert. Mary had red hair and bags of style. The house was a Spanish Revival bungalow high on the slopes of Vaucluse with a fabulous view down over Parsley Bay and across the Harbour to Manly. It was a gentle view, soft and embracing, not the kind to drop jaws so much but something much more: never the same as the harbour light shifted and the big twisty Coral Tree at the bottom of the terraced garden splashed red on the blue.

Robert was a spastic. Spastic was the word then. He went to the Spastic Centre everyday in the Spastic Centre Bus. He was older than I, by at least ten years I'd guess, so he must have been late teens. He smiled a lot. It looked like a grimace, but I thought then and am sure now he was smiling. I'm sure he was smiling and used to think he was smiling at me. He could walk. A harbour blue budgie was always on his left shoulder, as he swayed like on high seas, the bird unflinching. Down the long hallway to the sunroom. With the view.

He couldn't talk, but grunted with an upward inflection when you guessed the word he was typing out with his foot on the big alphabet mat on the floor. If when you die you meet people again I want most to meet my cousin Robert.

Ms Jansen wore a very sea green dress and swayed a lot, leaning to her husband often. It didn't sound like Brahms to me. He's too young for this I thought as the crowd went crazy for her and the critics wrote lovely things.

After the Butterley sunrise, which was really interesting, and I was thinking how down here we write so much stuff about the earth, came the most thrilling Sibelius Symphony I think I've ever heard live. The fifth.

I'm not even going to try and describe it, except to say it worked because Mr Blendulf knew what it meant and how it went and they played for him like they knew too. Of course they did. He's only 34 and while, to my mind, the Brahms escaped him but there's time for that, if I never hear that Sibelius again I am satisfied I've heard it right. No need to meet after death.




Sunday, March 22, 2015

A QUESTION OF BALANCE





It was a dark and stormy night as we headed back to the Opera House for Tennessee William's Suddenly Last Summer.  Good night for it. Another huge (Cunard) boat bulged out into the Quay as lightening cracked the sky behind the Bridge.

I'm reasonably familiar with the film version (it's in our library), a Vidal / Mankiewicz mutant of the play, and of which Williams wasn't a fan. That's understandable. Gore Vidal wrote the screenplay and Mankiewicz pushes the insanity button just a bit too far. Gratuitously from my perspective, although that is judging it from now, not then. But the asylum horrors in the film are pretty clichéd, not that the debate about some therapies and their mediaeval barbarism shouldn't be had, then or now.

Even beyond resorting to asylum extremes, the film always seemed awkward to me. Neither Taylor nor Hepburn satisfied, hindered by too much Hollywood at the expense of enough Williams.

Times have changed. Psychiatry has changed. Homosexuality is no longer a disease, in educated minds at least. Fundamentalists of all brushes remain an exception, but then I said educated. Lobotomy is out. From the here and now one is agog that it was ever in. But Electroconvulsive Therapy is still in, and while its application is more focused, its mechanism of action remains poorly understood. As was lobotomy, other than cutting out the bad stuff. Zapping neurones, delicate little fibres discharging and recharging by finely balanced ionic transfer, releasing their transmitters one to the other across micro-junctions of impossible complexity, each one a tiny part on a tangle of networks and connections that make us what we are, seems barely less crude. But it has its indictions, and can be said to work, even today. What will they say in another 50 years?

And I rabbit on about this because I've read that consciousness may well depend on the smoothness of traffic flow in this vast network of neuronal freeways, and that loss of consciousness is the interruption of flow - like a massive traffic jam in LA - and when the big pathways are disrupted, consciousness is lost. Awareness ceases. This raises the whole issue of what consciousness is, and by extension perception and awareness. And belief. Belief. And truth? Truth. What you perceived? remember? believe? want to believe? And what Suddenly Last Summer is about.

The film is also relevant because of the significant use of camera and video in this production which elevates, or lowers depending on who you read and how you feel about theatre, the experience of the audience.

Robyn Nevin (interviewed by Philip Adams, well worth a listen) credits her performance with not judging her character but delivering it as written for the audience to interpret. I saw a loving mother with umbilical cord uncut blinding herself from reality, desperately living in a world of her own perception. Hard to criticise really. Don't we all, in absolute terms? Hers was, expectedly, a masterful performance dominating the proceedings, and stage, until the balance of power changes and truth is given its voice.



It was Eryn Jean Norvill's journey as Catharine which really blew me away. From frightened uncertainty to the final great monologue, rivetting as she draws us deep into the calm still centre of her truth, the eye of this storm, this was a tremendous transformation and incredibly powerful. A work colleague could only say he just didn't want it to end.





Marl Leonard Winter's Dr Sugar was much in the Montgomery Clift style, Dr Smooth mainly a foil but whose vested interests lie elsewhere. And the final line is shockingly unresolved. Oh god, we are back at square one.

Paula Arundell (Sr Felicity) and Melita Jurisic (Miss Foxhill) were perfect casting. Susan Prior (Mrs Holly) and Brandon McClelland (George) were clunky and overbearing and gauche and so completely different (as characters) that I kept wondering if they were acting badly or brilliantly at being bad.




I've added so many production photos (from the Sydney Theatre Company's Facebook page) in an attempt to give some idea of the importance of video in the staging. Traditionalists claim it is robbing live theatre of its special art. This is the third time I've seen it used, after STC's The Maids (which post never made it, where the camera was never intrusive but then didn't especially add to the experience which for me was all about Cate, who needs no camera let me tell you) and Bevoir's The Glass Menagerie (where the camera added a dimension of delicate emotional enhancement to wonderful effect).

Kip Williams took things much further. The opening 20 minutes is all on a screen occupying the whole proscenium, although the actors make their entrance in real size in front of the 'screen' to walk through a door in it into the garden. Actually there's two screens - the one we are watching, and one at the back on the action being filmed behind the first, and the combined effect of seeing the second as a backdrop gave a wonderful 3D effect, the filmed action between two screens both receiving different versions of what is happening in real time, if that makes any sense at all.

In a major coup de theatre, the screen revolves away and the actors live in the garden continue, with the rear screen now adding the extra dimensions of power, emotion, uncertainty, etc. Finally, as the acceleration to the frenzied climax increases, the revolve returns so the screen occupies the full proscenium again climaxing, with blindingly brilliant lighting, in the mesmerising slow zoom into Catharine's soul.

Multi-screening of which I've been sceptical worked well for me.


There were times when the camera man and assistant were clearly visible on stage, de rigour to show-how these days, and I found it intrusive. Otherwise, the jarring moments came when you went from full screen to plain stage, and how little the actors seemed!

I guess it is a matter of balance, and that will change from director to director, play to play, audience to audience. It's certainly here to stay I'd warrant.



Saturday, March 21, 2015

UNDER CONSTRUCTION


                                                                       (click to enlarge)

This year's opera-on-the-harbour is Aida.

I took the snap above last week from Mrs Macquaries Road. The stage is constructed over the water (mid-field), with the set build well advanced. Seating is raked down the steep slope of the site to the water, with facilities (foreground in the photo) - walk ways, eateries, decks, toilets etc - built up surrounding and behind the seating and essentially perched high among the trees and plants, and palms, of the Botanic Gardens. It's a massive undertaking.

The set looks like a revolve. There's the well publicised Nefertiti seen above facing the water - away from the audience - with another set now being built behind her.

(Nerfertiti being assembled after being barged on across the water - from OA website)

I went last year to the Butterfly, and was very moved by it. This year certainly has big spectacle as a draw. Camels and the like. Fireworks of course and it isn't hard to predict where. Vast numbers of extras I'm sure. How successful they will be with this year's production team in getting the essential tragedy across remains to be seen. And then there's the issue of the allocation of limited arts budget - mine, not theirs.




Monday, March 16, 2015

BLACK OUT





I love this photo of an eclipse of the sun as seen from a satellite. The fuzzy edges surprised me at first because, without thinking, I thought the umbra and penumbra would be sharply defined. And for the first time I have some real perspective on the size of the shadow.

How little we are.



Wednesday, March 11, 2015

FAUST AT LAST





Sitting down (about to see Faust for the first time) next to Mr C, a Wagnerian through and through:

"Good Heavens (anticipating Act V), fancy seeing you here!"
"You mean, what am I doing at this French Muck?"
"Well ... yes, actually"
"Because it's excellent French Muck!"

Excellent and French it was. Muck no. The other big word attached to this five act marathon is: grand? Grand? Not really, no. But it could have been, with the right scale. That is to say - in a house with a decent stage and pit. But then we've had Norma here, and Trojans, even War and Peace, and out of it all comes what matters - good theatre. This was good theatre. Really good. And on said basis I've now booked for the other Grand One coming up later in the season: Don Carlos, in the exact same cheapies as we sat in last night. Moreover, it was so good I completely forgot myself and failed to embarrass self and other by taking curtain call pics.

                                                                    (ROH production photo via OA website)

The David McVicar production has been doing the rounds having started at the ROH early 2000's I think. It is attractive and engaging story telling, incredibly well detailed, with tension sustained at times where in lesser hands things could well fall into boredom, and revels in good old misogynistic chauvenism where women are either chattels or whores and redemption is in the hands of a Male God, wings and smoke writ large. It has wit, warmth, cleverness, charm and is blessed here with fine performances from the whole cast.

To be honest, I was especially interested to hear the young (just 30) American Michael Fabiano, sparked by this interview (Limelight magazine)



which shows such a committed, confident and articulate artist. And he really is something out of the (jewel) box. The voice is big, attractive, nuanced, controlled, and with so many colours, a Joseph's coat. His stage presence is strong yet delightfully unselfconscious.

Speaking of presence and voice, and bloom of youth, Nicole Car won me over last year in Onegin and delivered in spades. She is lovely to look at, despite some pretty tedious costuming, and dreadful wig, and had the measure of this French style. Her Jewel Song, with trill, oozed with virginal naivety and youthful tone but maturity indeed in technique and colouring. This was great casting - intensely felt performances, a delicateness in presentation and well matched vocal resources which held up beautifully to the not-so-bitter end.


Teddy's Mephistopheles, the other side of the Deity,


was an amazing engine, and really well produced (after miking his way through musicals year in year out) which kept on and on (it's a very big sing) and on, tirelessly, and presented in a slightly detached stand-offish in a devilish kind of way manner. Giorgio Caoduro, worth sitting close for alone, had some absolutely splendid moments. The others were excellent and I especially liked Anna Dowsley's Siébel, another very genuinely felt performance.

So to the ballet, the bane of many a Grand Opera, especially on small stages. Well, you have to say this was brilliant stuff. Well done Michael Keegan-Dolan and those who followed to rehearse and direct. The Willis perversion was exactly that - perverted. At last we had reached some real profanity and set it up for the big final salvation which, expectedly a Man thing such were the times and has anything changed, was very moving. The big trio by the way was stunning.

Mr Fabiano is off to open Glyndebourne in Poliuto (wow) and Nicole Car is heading to Deutsche Oper to sing Tatyana. Stars ascending.

(production photos from Nicole Car's website)



Friday, March 6, 2015

BACK TO THE WHARF





It's thirty years since the STC's first production at The Wharf, and quite a while since we were last there too. So, just because, and because their celebratory opening for 2015 was, said everyone, very funny, and very funny is always on the menu, we headed back to catch Andrew Bovell's very first play: the 1988 (bicetennial year) 'After Dinner'.

It's interesting to see perspective playing out - the evolution of the overdrawn gauche Australian persona, hapless and unfulfilled, yet endearingly loveable in its tragedy of seeking (mostly) to love and be loved, from Edna to Muriel and beyond. And Bovell would go on to write award winning plays and screenplays like Strictly Ballroom (wonderful film but disastrous musical still trying to find its feet) and the beautifully confronting Head On.

We enjoyed the play, now playing to sold-out houses. It's a fun bit of nasal gazing. But in truth, the night was especially special for getting back to The Wharf again to watch the evening slip away and the city come to lights on from this splendid ironbark timber wharf poking its finger into the harbour. We arrived early enough for dinner (so the play was really after dinner) and took the 1980's option - Steak Diane and chips.

The long walk down the great wooden floor ...


... looking east to the bridge


and west to the west.



By interval the full moon was up escorted by Venus I assume.


Chocolates at the exit (yes, after dinner mints), and it was the long walk back


with lights playing tricks with the water and the glass louvres.





Sunday, March 1, 2015

GREAT PROGRAMMING II





The Sydney Symphony Orchestra (riding high into the second year of David Robertson's tenure and buoyed by the news that, politics and climate change willing, there's a couple of hundred million for upgrading the concert hall acoustics) just brought off a fabulous Opening Gala. It wasn't the first concert of the season (The Schumann Symphonies and violinist Christian Tetzlaff had the honours) but it was the Gala Night.

Quite dressy too, though not stuffy, and a packed house dotted with VIPs - notably the totally wonderful Lord Mayor the divine Clover Moore with Mr Peter of the jolly smile; the GG (a long way from the parade ground); the newly Damed ex NSW Governor and orchestra patron, the irrepressible Marie Bashir; sundry pollys and one whose name I can't bring myself to type but he's the current (just) great overseer of allocation of buckeroos; socialites and sponsors (Credit Suisse with several rows in the stalls), and a very excited Sydney audience in a city that is fairly buzzing as Mardi Gras winds itself up and the Big Boats roll in and out one a day.




Great programming, really great:

Bruckner's       Motet, WAB11  -  Christus factus est

followed without pause by

Berg's Wozzeck Act III

and after interval, and another drink

Beethovens' 9th - The Choral

Conductor David Robertson
Miriam Gordon-Stewart, soprano
Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano
Simon O'Neill, tenor
Peter Coleman-Wright, baritone

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs
Gondwana Sydney Children's Choir
Sydney Grammar School Choir

This is the work of the new(ish) Director of Artistic Planning Benjamin Schwartz (ex Boston) kicking in, with David Robertson of course.

Bruckner's sacred motet, of Christ's exaltation into Heaven, with a Name above all names, beautifully lays open the case for the ascendency of forgiveness and understanding in, of course, a Christian Catholic way. The choirs - Sydney Phil and Grammar school adding an upper sheen of otherworldly brilliance - delivered a most beautiful rendition freed of churchy sentimentality, not cold but the word of the truth.

That it leads directly into the first of the 5 scenes of Act 3 of Wozzeck (1925, 100 years after the murder case in question) with Marie reading the bible in her room catapults, flings, you into a world of shattered values. Mr Berg's advice is to not to try and listen to the music but to listen to the drama. Drama there was. The scenes were visually enhanced (I think is the expression) with mood lighting - sickly pale green pond, blood red moon, brilliant death white - and worked for me. All four soloists, placed as is Mr Robertson's want behind the orchestra, made it into your head, and into their despair. Peter Coleman-Wright, coming late to the task, showed yet again what a wonderful character actor he and his voice make.

                                                (preperformance showing the new LED lights for easy colouring)

Woyzech was executed for murder in Leipzig in 1824 after considerable public awareness of the case and its questions of culpability and mental state. In 1824 Beethoven completed his 9th, his great treatise on humanity, his great call to brotherhood, equality, understanding and therein forgiveness. The link is hardly obtuse.

Back with routine lighting after interval, we lucky ones were given a stunning performance of controlled intensity, concentration and precision, which brought K to tears (and only excellence of the highest order ever does that) and had the hall mesmerised, frozen, motionless, noiseless, breathless, hypnotised, under the influence, experiencing some thing rare and wonderful: superb music making. Soloists well cast and wonderful, and most notably Simon O'Neills thrilling tenor (a timbre I not always warm to) flying out - 'Joyously, as His dazzling suns' - the sunshine beaming as he threw himself into it. He loves it, it's obvious. He means it. He all but sang the whole thing from go to woe.

Must have been about 200 in the choir and as usual fabulous, for all the right reasons, at the hands of the their task master Brett Wymark.

No adequate words from me for the orchestra and Robertson, the Adagio, except what the tears said in the stillness. I really like David Robertson. He's changed since his first guest visits. He's tight but not stiff. The energy and commitment is palpable. He is, in his own (very genuine) words, driven by and satisfied by the music making. That's it - he's genuine. Not sentimental. Just the genuine tireless real deal.

We stayed for a while, the goodness lingering, leaving as the last idled home.




Ah ha - first review is in.