Sunday, September 28, 2008

BILLY BUDD performance

Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Billy Budd, picture Steven Siewert, SMH

Wednesday was the opening night of Billy Budd. We are not really opening-night-people, but there we were, with M, a work friend, and L, one of my sisters. M is a voracious reader, very familiar with Melville, and a lover of all music good and meaningful. It was her first go at Billy Budd. L has been living in the Kimberleys for more than 30 years, where life’s focus is a long way from 20th Century opera, but not from ambiguity and the search for meaning. Now widowed, she has returned to Sydney and is sponging up whatever is on offer. It was also her first go at Billy. There was little bit of who’s whoing going on, but the Opera House seemed quiet and relaxed, nothing in the Concert Hall, few tourists, and what was good, and this applies to all these not–for-everyone sort of shows, most people are there because they really want to be.

My recollection of this Billy Budd was that the set projected out towards the pit, poking out into the proscenium arch, so I was surprised to see the curtain down. More memory doubts. By the end of the night I realised what had happened – this production is a perfect fit for this theatre, the right size, the right colours, the right everything to the point that it seems that the whole theatre is the set, the stage just one end of it, and we are all there, all of us on the black ocean. I had so approximated the drama in my mind that my recall was of such an enhanced perception that the set and the spaces about it had indeed become one.

It was a very satisfying, emotional and ultimately exhausting night. M cried at the end. I experienced a wave of emotion somewhere early in the first act, that place where you realise you are slipping into something of such worth and certainty of excellence that you give yourself up to it completely.

Brian Thomson’s set is genius, an abstract hydraulic of society’s many levels, relentless shifts and uncertainties, class, imbalance, power and oppression, authority and control. Carl Friedrich Oberle’s costumes perfectly rooted the action at sea in the late 18th C, a dirty underclass, officers pumped up, their ridiculous hats to make little men and little minds big and imposing, like frill-necked lizards confronted with threat. The lighting by Nigel Levings made magic, and Neil Armfield, present in the audience, had his stamp all over it – everything with a purpose, and every priorty in place.

My only question mark was over the most critical scene of all, the trial scene. This was on a high deck, half-way up the stage height, and a good way back. It seemed too remote a placement for such an intense and personal moment, when Vere confronts his own demons, and for whatever reasons, hides behind the rules of the law of man, as all our leaders do today, yesterday, last week, last year, unable to deal with the truth, the outer and his inner truth, and weakly stays mute as Billy is judged. Strangely, this was the only time I felt I was watching something instead of being somewhere. Billy's final plea "I'd have died for you, save me!" was lost in the emptiness of it all. Perhaps that’s right after all.

Philip Langridge was in full control of the stage, and his voice, except for a few cracks at the upper limits. There was a spontaneous couple of coughs at one moment. I wondered if he had a cold, or lingering pilgrim flu, like the rest of the city. His return to a safer pitch for the epilogue brought an outporing of resolution, his acceptance of his own circumstance, and reconciliation with his position, a reconciliation based on Billy’s forgiveness, a lesson for us still struggling to forgive him (Vere) for our perception of his moral weakness, we less loving than Billy.

The Epilogue and his lonely silent stage exit had the house frozen and M crying.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes was wonderful, full of wonder. I was sceptical. He looked good, lean, very muscular, even slightly feminised with long blond hair, repeatedly brushing it away, but at the same time, no less masculine. There was something almost androgynous there, that sex was no matter, something you sometimes see in people completely at ease with their own sexuality, and that of others, such that matters of sex are beyond judgement. And his teeth shone white in the blackness. His voice was beautifully modulated, without the burnished brassiness you often hear when he is playing butch-man, and the sweetness of his final farewell "Through the port comes the moon-shine astray!" was the sweetest baritone singing on stage I have ever heard.

Claggart was well served by John Wegner, his bass oiling across the decks, his demeanour almost too vile, perhaps less external evil would have emphasised the internal darkness more.

Conal Coad was so evocative as the old tender hearted seaman, god he’s a good performer, and especially worth mentioning, they were all very good, was the Novice of Andrew Goodwin, and his beautifully enunciated downstage struggle against his fate "It's unjust, it's unfair!"

Mr Hickox and the orchestra, odd brass blurt notwithstanding, made great sense of this, never better than the great 34 chord interlude, the silent interview, the offstage scene between Vere and Billy, the messanger of death facing his own weakness and Billy’s acceptance.

And the mighty choruses were mighty choruses.

ABC have an video interview with Teddy Tahu Rhodes (04:32) , about this role and working with Neil Armfield, including some production footage.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Sunday, September 21, 2008


"But he has saved me, and blessed me, and the love that passes understanding has come to me"

Billy Budd (Armfield director) Houston Grand Opera

Opera Australia’s production of Britten’s BILLY BUDD (1951) returns, 10 years after its premier, to Sydney this Wednesday, September 24.

Britten’s music is set to a libretto by E. M. Forster in collaboration with Eric Crosier, based of the novella by the American Herman Melville. It is a dark morality play: men at sea in Napoleonic times, the action compressed onto the royal navy boat HMS Indomitable, against a backdrop of mutiny and the relentless instability of the sea and war. Confined only by the laws of the sea and the King, goodness confronts evil and innocence meets hate. And the French cop their share.

Conductor Richard Hickox
Director Neil Armfield
Set design Brian Thompson
Costumes Carl Friedrich Oberle
Lighting Nigel Levings

Captain Vere Philip Langridge
Billy Budd TeddyTahu Rhodes
Claggart John Wegner

Big all male chorus. Nudity warning.

This Neil Armfield production was a co-production for Welsh National Opera and Opera Australia. It has been widely acclaimed, and staged in Australia, Wales, England, USA (Houston), Canada, and now it’s back home, carrying the recognition it deserves and a Barclay’s Award (Opera) in London and six Dora Mavor Moore Awards (Canada, performing arts).

Teddy Tahu Rhodes, all pecs and tussled hair, seems to be the main marketing weapon, making his Australian role debut, having just sung Billy for the first time in Santa Fe. Even more marketable should be the likely strength of the performances, the Captain Vere of Philip Langridge, the great Britten tenor of our day. Captain 'Starry' Vere is the vocal and moral fulcrum of the work, and we are lucky that Langridge, as fine a singing actor as there is, is back after his mesmerising 2006 Aschenbach (Death in Venice). He says he may be getting long in the tooth; perfect for Vere I say. Claggart is in the hands of John Wegner. If Wegner's Adelaide Alberich is any guide, we are in for a very nasty bad guy.

When I recently asked a colleague at work if he was going, the snapped reply was “Once was enough”. Oh no, once is not enough. That’s exactly the point. This work probes good and evil, moral ambivalence, corruption, class, power, rank, honesty, loyalty, honour, judgement and forgiveness. It is Shakespearian. “Once was enough” also manages to keep the musical values unmasked, Britten's genius dismissed by a quick and lazy where-are-the-tunes?

Once is not enough. Once is not enough. Once is not enough.

Patrick Summers, conductor and Houston Grand Opera Music Director explains (abridged) :

" 'There must always be two kinds of art, escape art, for man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep, and parable art, that art which shall teach man to unlearn hatred and learn love.' W. H. Auden.

Nearly every work of Benjamin Britten’s life was focused on the tensions between appearances and reality.

Billy Budd, for him [Britten], wove endless webs of ambiguity in its story of how the machinery of state justice can overcome and overtake the individual.

The plot of Billy Budd can be easily viewed as various versions of a Christian allegory, with Billy as Jesus or Adam, Vere as Pontius Pilate or an emissary of God, and Claggart as Herod, or even Satan. The three characters form triangular opposing forces: Billy knows nothing but goodness, and his simplicity makes him unable to conceive of evil; Vere knows goodness, but his cherished philosophies have filled him with doubt, which makes him vulnerable to a man like Claggart, who has rejected goodness for reasons we never know.

In collaboration with Crozier, Forster eventually provided Britten with luminous prose, weighted with Christian imagery, words that ached for music. To the evil Claggart, he gives words such as “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehends it and suffers,” recalling the gospel of John, first chapter, verses 4–5: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not” (KJV).

Leonard Bernstein, who knew Britten well, as he had conducted the US premiere of Peter Grimes at Tanglewood in 1946, said of him in the documentary A Time There Was, “Ben Britten was a man at odds with the world. It’s strange, because on the surface Britten’s music would seem to be decorative, positive, charming, but it’s so much more than that. When you hear Britten’s music, if you really hear it, not just listen to it superficially, you become aware of something dark. There are gears that are grinding and not quite meshing, and they make a great pain.”

Few composers have so successfully evoked the sea in music as Benjamin Britten. The sea of Billy Budd is an isolating, gaping nothingness, an earthly version of the firmament.

And pay no attention to clich├ęs that Benjamin Britten “has no melodies.” Billy Budd is densely packed with expressive and psychologically telling melodies, but they don’t necessarily do your work for you; they require active, open listening, and an absorbance of the shattering drama they illuminate. The combined effect of his probing melodic writing and the polytonality and can be easily understood and, more importantly, felt. The implications of this story are often disturbing and dark, and Britten’s music is rightfully no less so.

The most immediate impact of Billy Budd’s score can be heard in the many shanties of the sailors, all original. Listen to “Over the water, over the ocean, into the harbour carry me home” and hear the melancholy longing for home in Britten’s music. Another shanty, near the beginning of the work, provides amazing unity through the score. The melody of the work song “Oh heave, oh heave away” is first heard in the prologue of the opera, in the flashback of Captain Vere longingly wondering, “Oh what have I done?” This music is heard two more times: first in Billy’s innocent farewell to his former ship, the Rights o’ Man. (Billy’s mention of the ship early in the opera is misunderstood by the distrustful officers as a reference to Thomas Paine’s famous paean to personal freedom, The Rights of Man, and Billy is immediately suspected of inciting mutiny). Most tellingly, we hear this music transformed into the pure menace of a wordless fugue, as the sailors threaten an actual mutiny following Billy’s death.

There is so much in this overwhelming score. Listen to the opening scene on the deck of the ship, how the officers bark orders in real time, with jagged and whipping vocal lines, while the response of those ordered is slow and oppressed. Listen to the mournful saxophone dirge, based on the sailors’ tune, “We’re lost forever on the endless sea.” It mourns the innocent young novice, broken and humiliated, as he is returned to the deck after his brutal flogging. Britten himself moved the flogging offstage, feeling it “too much” to see depicted. Early in Act II, as the Indomitable is about to fire on a French ship only to be foiled by the mist, listen how the exuberant “This is our moment, the moment we’ve been waiting for!” is transformed into the foggy music that follows it.

Claggart vows to destroy Billy in his sepulchral aria, “O, Beauty, O Handsomeness, Goodness, would that I never had seen you.” He destroys any beauty he encounters (shades of fallen angels). Claggart knows from the beginning that Billy’s goodness must not be allowed to live. Britten’s strange music for this aria, on first hearing so at odds with the words, forces us to question our assumptions about the character’s motivations, and creates a palpable and unnerving emotional tension.The polytonality, so subtly used throughout the work, reaches a heady climax, shortly after the killing of Claggart. The terrified Captain Vere quietly sings “The mists have cleared” after which Britten quickly stacks a massive and painful chord across the orchestra, a chord containing eleven of the twelve notes of the Western scale, and it tells us the emphatic truth about the mists. One chord tells us more than a hundred words that the cogs of justice are now inevitable.

The trial proceeds and Vere must endure Billy’s pleas to save him—“I’d have died for you, save me!”—but Vere, lost in the philosophies and histories he loves, must follow the laws that cradle the democracy he treasures, the sacrifice of one to save the many. Only Billy’s death can save his ship from mutiny and preserve his reputation, for a mutinous ship cannot defend its country.

One of the most remarkable musical passages of Billy Budd has been one of the most controversial and discussed, that of the thirty-four terse chords of the so-called “interview” scene, in the scene leading into Billy’s dawn aria, “Billy in the Darbies.” During this music, unseen, Vere is telling Billy of the court’s decision. Surprisingly, Britten was accused by some of “copping out” here by not portraying the scene between Vere and Billy as narrative. But the thirty-four chords pass in no more than two minutes and tell us everything. Britten the dramatist instinctively removes the drama from the realm of the literal, and moves it to the cellular level in blocked, elemental chords that are by turns fearful, shocked, resigned, and finally, calmly accepting. This surprising passage feels somehow scientific, more of the cosmos than of the earth, as though nature itself were the only thing left to explain the tragedy.

The opera, which began in two keys struggling with each other, eventually resolves itself into one in an overwhelming expression near the end of the work. In the epilogue, Vere finds an uneasy peace about Billy, confessing, “But he has saved me and blessed me, and the love that passes understanding has come to me.” "

The love that is forgiveness.

For anyone wanting more on this confronting work, start at the Britten-Pears Foundation, where there are notes on the preparation of the opera, some musical insights, and a fine video introduction: Britten's Billy Budd.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Woollarawarre Bennelong (1764-1813), of the Wangal people, married to Barrangaroo, was 25 when he and one other were captured at what is now named Manly, as they were. They had been tempted with fish. Governor Philip, the first Governor of less than twelve months, was under instruction from King George III to “endeavour, by every possible means, to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them”. Bennelong went on to form a close relationship with his captor, learning English and English ways, teaching white men the language of the aboriginals, and was to entertain the Governor in a hut he had asked be built for him on the promontory of land now bearing his name, Bennelong Point. He later sailed with Philip to England, met the King, was introduced to society, and was introduced to the alcohol that would destroy his life as a man and a tribesman, and see him dead by the age of 50.

It was to where Bennelong had chosen his residence that Eugene Goosens (London born, composer, conductor, man of vision, and Sydney resident from1947-1956) lobbied the governors of the mid 20th century to build Sydney an Opera House. He was then Director of the Conservatorium of Music, conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and about to be trapped, arrested, charged for the possession of unsavoury material considered pornographic, humiliated, and after forced resignations and ruined reputation, driven back to England where he died six years later. He haemorrhaged to death.

After years of compromise, a gentle Danish genius battling brutish locals honoring the tradition of never letting good art get in the way of bad politics, Utzon’s Sydney Opera House was eventually built on Bennelong Point and now transcends all the folly. An inspired building of unparralled beauty, it stands defiantly as a monument to what could have been. It stands alone, connected but separate, earthbound but heaven sent.

The first official performance in the Concert Hall was on Saturday September 29, 1973.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras
Birgit Nilsson soprano

Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883)

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg

Elizabeth’s Greeting: Dich, teure Halle (Dear Hall of Song)

Tristan und Isolde
Liebestod (Love – Death)

Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods)
Siegfrieds Rheinfahrt (Siegfried’s Journey to the Rhine)
Trauermarsch (Siegfried’s Funeral March)
Schlussgesang der Brunnhilde (Brunnhilde’s Immolation Scene)

It was a tremendous night, exciting, glamorous, and full of expectation in a city bursting with pride. I was there. There’s a lot about the night I’ve forgotten but I remember this: Birgit’s entrance onto the concert platform, grey-silver-green evening dress, medals on her left breast, a few moments of collective silence after the applause, hands clasped, baton raised, the stuttering brass, a sweep of strings, and then suddenly a lasered “Oh, hall of song I give you greeting!”.

35 years later ABC Classics have released that concert, remastered for CD, and with a DVD of the telecast second half. That’s right, just the second half. It comes with a very well prepared booklet with due prominence in the photgraphs given to Charles (now Sir) Mackerras, ultimately the star of the night. A long introduction about the history of the building glosses over the conflict about the usage of the major hall, no mention that the ABC, and its then orchestra, was ultimately responsible for the dismantling of the installed stage machinery leaving a commissioned dual purpose hall essentially a recital concert hall, and opera shunted into the little black box next door. You are left wondering how it came by its name.

Each performance piece is described in fine musical detail, and the relevant words are in German and English.

The orchestral sound may not be great, perhaps the initial recording was onto videotape leaving a mushy quality, and there is a persistent soft rumble, but there is a solidness to the overall sound, and with great clarity in Nilsson’s distinctive voice, the impact of hearing this again almost overwhelmed me. She gives a performance some have called routine, but routine for Birgit Nilsson was as good as it got, her routine unsurpassed in her day, or to this day, perhaps only the phenomenal Rita Hunter having the Wagnerian heft and seemingly limitless voice to match her. Except for the anxious sounding Mastersingers prelude, Mackerras takes things very slowly, with great effect, no reckless self indulgence here. The ‘Mild und leise’ times at 7’13, compared with Bohm Nilsson 6’15, Mackerras Hunter MSO 6’30, Furtwangler Flagstad 7'02. Others of lesser breath would have been left gasping; only a slightly shortened final “Lust!” hints that she may have limits, even if they were never exposed.

The second half on DVD is better by far, the visuals nothing short of stunning. The Concert Hall of course is in its original state, the little steps either side of the concert platform to the stalls, the organ unfinished, the vast vaulted ceiling, once for all the above stage theatrics now a sound trapping empty space, and the floating perspex dunny-seat reflectors not yet installed. It was before colour, black and white, enough light for the perfomers but not for the audience, beautiful camera work and live editing (I presume) from the six cameras, with appropriate emphasis on Mackerras, silhouetted against the black nothingness of the unlit unseen audience. The close ups of Mackerras alone make this worthwhile, intense black marble eyes, ruminating mouth, startling profile reminiscent of Cocteau, and living and loving this music, right hand the beat, arching left arm, hand, fingers emoting, every movement and change of posture a telling picture in itself.

Donald Hazelwood was the concertmaster. Noticeable is how much older the average age of the players was compared with todays. They did Mackerras, once their principle oboeist, the building, and their city proud, and they still do. By chance I met a member of the Berlin Philharmonic in a restaurant in the South of France earlier this year. When the conversation turned to Sydney, the first thing he established was his knowledge of what a fine world class orchestra we have. Indeed.

Siegfried’s Rhine Journey again is slow but never stalls, the tremendous surging series of waves filling the mighty building’s sails, as if any moment now it is about to leave land, taking us all with it. What’s the best bit? This is the best bit. The orchestra responds superbly. Listen to this and watch Mackerras.

And then through a frightening Funeral March, past the odd horn fart, to the final great climax, the end of all this now the beginning of what we have, for all its faults.

Brunnhilde’s Immolation Scene, from that night, 29 September 1973, Birgit Nilsson and the SSO:

Part 1 Starke Scheite (Friends, let fitting funeral pyre) 08.05

Part 2 Ruhe! Ruhe, du Gott! (Rest thee! Rest thee, O God!) 08.07

Part 3 Finale The end of the beginning 05.51

Monday, September 15, 2008


1965 Sydney Chevron Hilton, Macleay Street, Potts Point

Miss Joan Sutherland

Miss Doris Mitchell
The Women of the National Council of Women, NSW, and other mere mortal earthlings.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


goanna tail and dead flies

Midweek Goanna Tail Soup for busy people:

Braise two large onions in a heavy based pot. Add one medium goanna tail, coarsely chopped.

Fill pot with water, and add a small handful of meduin sized rocks.

Bring to the boil, cover and simmer gently, till rocks have softened but still intact.

Season to taste, and serve immediately dressed with flat parsely leaves.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Sunday, September 7, 2008


Perhaps it was another cold wet day too far, the crook dog, or the energy-sucking farce of elected politicians collapsing in a heap, all connections without talent, wiggling and swirming before resigning, no accountability, more squandered millions of our dollars gone, platitudes and selfish personal regrets... but by the end of the day neither of us felt particularly drawn to the Friday night SSO concert.

There were however two debuts. The young Norwegian conductor, Eivind Gullberg Jensen, and the Venezuelan pianist, Gabriela Montero, a child prodigy now blessed by the likes of Martha Agerich and with a reputation for improvisation and fun games with the audience. There was also the promise of works not yet heard by either of us, the Percy Grainger Danish Folk Music Suite and the Honnegger Liturgical Symphony, and sandwiched in between, the Grieg Piano Concerto. So off we went.

Eivand Gullberg Jensen was young and handsome, with gorgeous curls of Norwegian hair and a tall elegant stance. First up, the Percy Grainger. It sounded very English to me, and was mercilessly complex in parts. Sometimes it felt like they were about to burst into some marching band beat, pick up their instruments and head off down The Mall, but no, here comes Danny Boy. Mr Jensen tried hard. I'd liked to have seen his face. It certainly didn't seem like his favorite music. When I asked K how many rehearsals it might take to get that right, he said, well more than the rehearsal we just heard. It was all saved by the organ, which like some smooth chocolate sauce somehow held it together. I heard later the Wednesday night was better.

Gabriella Montero is an imposing figure, her South American face half covered with flaxen Scandinavian locks, which she could brush aside mid solo, no trouble at all thank you very much.
The Grieg was confident and strong, and the Norwegian conductor had found his stride. This was home territory. It was lovely. Her firmness of touch in the first movement was as evident in the second, but she danced lightly on the keys, little starry starry Nordic stars tinkling through the hall. It was exactly what we needed, lyricism and beauty, and a cleansing of the filth of the week.

Without any encouragement, she encored straight into her party trick. Turned to the audience, she called for a tune, some starter. A few notes were mouthed out from the west boxes, rather indistinct, nothing really to go on. So Dene Olding, a little too unspontaneously, zipped up a few notes. Off she went, an attractive free flowing run around the keyboard, if not startlingly original, certainly not too generic either. Lots of clapping. Then, a grey haired woman sitting in the front row directly opposite the piano stool said something softly, there was a brief exchange, and tilting her head back a little, she sang an ascending melody, her voice opening up to nearly fill the hall. Wow. Back at the piano, Montero repeated the phrase a few times, letting it develope, then off she went again, but headed in a more Bach direction this time, perhaps just to be different, which it was by the time she finished. Lots more clapping. Everyone was having fun, and fun was what we needed.

The first half was longer than usual and the prospect of a quick escape to the country was too much; lets skip the Honneger. This gave some time during the interval to meet the pianist signing CDs in the foyer, and also cruise the CD counter again. I had spotted a big find for me: the Concert Hall Opening Concert 29 September 1973. I was in the audience. There it was, ABC Classics, with a supplementary DVD of the occassion. I suspect I was beaming as I bought it. It sat side-by side with a Naxos label John Antill's Corroboree (New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, James Judd) of which I had read glowing reviews somewhere, and had mentally stored as a buy. Bought. Oh, and there's Radu Lupu playing the Grieg and its companion piece in many ways, the Schumann, Decca Classics. Bought.

The Mackerras Opening Concert I've been stroking with reverance, still unopened. The Antill had a short listen, returning later. The Grieg and Schumann both sound cold on first listening. I grew up on Dinu Lipatti. I will buy some Dinu Lipatti.

Driving away, Norway stayed in the conversation, with its unfailingly polite people in their beautiful fiordland. We had visited in June this year and heard the Schoenberg Gurrelieder in the Grieghallen in Bergen. This late 60s building was also the result of a Dane winning a competition, and the raw concrete interiors and ribbing are reminiscent of our own. The night we were there, the last night of the Bergen Music Festival, the interiors were lit a hot pink.

Grieghallen interior

Grieghallen exterior

Bergen Norway, spring

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Monday, September 1, 2008


Sarah Palin

republican VP candidate
mayor of Wasilla, population 5,500 ish
governor of Alaska, population 700,000 ish
mother of 5
moose shooter, but otherwise pro-life ish