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

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