Tuesday, October 28, 2008

SALOME live from the met

"Salome", Richard Strauss, live from the Metropolitan Opera House.

Production Jurgen Flimm
Design Santo Loquasto
Salome Karita Mattila
Jochanaan Juha Uusitalo
Herod Kim Begley
Herodias Ildiko Komlosi
Narraboth Joseph Kaiser

Conductor Patrick Summers replacing an ill Mikko Franck

In a break from the usual Sunday morning country routine of doing as little as possible as slowly as possible, we drove to the local town for the Metropolitan HD (that’s video, not sound) latest season kick-off: Salome at midday. About 50 other people did the same. C and G had organised the tickets.

The night before we had watched Oscar Wilde’s Salome in the Steve Berkoff directed stage version, filmed for TV in 1995 in the Ginza Saison Theatre, Tokyo. With hardly any colour, minimal sets and props, and most action in stylised slow motion, it is reduced to the essentials – the text. Berkoff explains: “So much was the perfume and tapestry in the language that I decided that the stage should be bare and allow the words to bounce off the hard surfaces without being softened or cushioned by ‘carpets and ivory tables and tables of jasper

The effect is startling. There’s only one person I know who can, and did, successfully add to Wilde, and that is Richard Strauss. Leaving the original text largely intact, Strauss underlines the drama with his now familiar shocking score and Berkoff’s principle of less is more becomes even more relevant.

What a disappointment therefore to find yourself face to face with a Hollywood version, with a set cluttered to the ridiculous extent that Salome is walking across planks over a crack in the universe in between dodging any other amount of unnecessary steps, stairs, rails, chairs, tables, holes, lifts, crates, faux everything and real nothing. It was crap. It may well have worked better in the big theatre where perspective reduced clutter to impressions and over direction to relevance. All this was then augmented by the transmission direction of Barbara Willis Sweete. That would be the same BWS who cut and sliced and spliced and mutli-screened the T&I to the point that the only way to survive it was with eyes shut tight. No wonder Johannaan had his eyes covered; he’d been to the dress rehearsal.

BWS may be able to edit film to text, but she sure can’t edit film to music. Having failed badly in T&I, this is better, but still she manages to ignore musical phrases and cut across them as if just to remind us that she (BWS) is still there. Just one example, and the worst I remember: the closing moments of necrofiliac ecstasy, with Salome and her trophy locked in orgasm, are spent cutting to the nasty angels (oh, they must be angels of death) to the executioner, black body-builder of course, (oh, someone is sure to get killed around here soon), never mind that Mr Wilde and Mr Strauss are perfectly able to tell us that for themselves, and then a quick peep at how Sal’s going with the head before off we go again, camera roving around the set.

Patrick Summers gave what sounded like a routine performance of little nuance, little eroticism, little vulgarity and little thrill. The sound system we heard was compressed and not good. Back to the Chauvel next time.

Karita Matilla was, as reported, in sensational voice, suffering only from too many close-ups, BWS again doing everything she can to destroy the magic and the illusion. A 48 yr old dramatic soprano playing a singing dancing 16 year old doesn’t need close-ups. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in this league, except perhaps Katarina Dalayman. Can we expect an Elina Makropulos from Mattila soon? Does Makropulos mean big chook?

Speaking of America, what’s wrong with it? We can show a virgin sucking blood from a dead man's mouth, but can’t show a nipple, let alone the bit where the legs join the body, because this is a family show! Mommy and Daddy have nipples and funny bits where the legs join the body, but they don’t suck blood from dead men’s mouths. Maybe in Alaska.

The other Finn, big Juha Uusitalo, was boomy in and out of his cistern and had about as much belief is his holiness and his Lord as BWS has in long shots.The rest of the cast was fine.

The dogs were pleased when I got home, and so was I. That said, Mattila made it more than worthwhile.

Monday, October 27, 2008

MAKROPULOS performance

The Makropulos Thing, or Nothing Lasts Forever.

There isn’t much more to be said about the current run of the OA ‘The Makropulos Secret’ (1926), music and libretto by Leos Janacek. The praise has been pretty well unanimous and superlative. We went last Tuesday when it was conducted by Stephen Mould.

Neil Armfield and Carl Friedrich Oberle, and not least a cast of superb acting singers, manage to engage you at the second of curtain-up and never release you till the final shadow appears. It is fantastic theatre. Yes, people sat really still during Janacek. Without theatre of this standard, I imagine it becomes that much harder, as in too hard, to make Makropulos work.

Robert Gard deserves special and repeated mention. He jolts the stage into life when he enters. He alone, in a performance of a remarkable mix of delicacy and broad strokes, manages to raise Emily from her hereto stultifying ennui. I have to wonder if he hasn’t found the secret. My first memory of him was also Janacek, my first Janacek, in another exceptional local (John Copley) production of Jenufa, with Lone Koppel Winter and Elizabeth Connell facing off. Robert Gard sang Steva, 34 years ago. It was a revelation in music theatre and my template was set. I think it was the first time I was aware of seeing opera for its content, not just its form. It was Elizabeth Connell’s last night before leaving for the Northern Hemisphere except for a single farewell Wagnerian recital. At final curtain, friends of Connell, and there were lots, had shredded the nightly cast fliers into floaty squares of snow which were flung from the upper front boxes when she took her solo curtain. The audience was stamping its feet. I miss that level of excitement and enthusiasm too Emily. I somehow ended up in a small crowd at the Bennelong Restaurant where it happened she (Connell) was celebrating her birthday at another table. Waiter’s gossip. A bottle of bubbly was sent, she beamed, then stood and waved, and everyone laughed and sang, across the tables and across the restaurant.

Back to Makropulos - the set is not unlike the 1995 (Hoheisel) Glyndebourne production. It is a delicious yawning horn, or helix, or time tube, or a genetic helix, (or ground floor Australia Square, for the less romantic) opening to the full extent of the proscenium. It is beautifully dressed and filled with an elegance and reverance for the little things – reaching for a book, bobbing heads in the snow outside the stage-door, frozen moments of life.

Musically, and philosophically, The Makropulos Thingy is challenging, or rather challenges me. It begins, and continues, infused with restless striving, short motifs of strain to gain, aborted and repeated, aborted and repeated, none two the same. It is almost harrowing at times, and all this starting in a legal office, where combatants prepare to win and winning, as far as I see it, is all that matters.

As it finally approaches resolution of purpose, the great closing moments, where ‘nothing has purpose’ is replaced by the greatest purpose of all, death, Janacek delivers an almost Straussian orgasm, an ecstasy of relief, but nothing redemptive, nothing anticipated, nothing if not nihilism. Admittedly, Emily is different to other dealers in immortality - she had longevity imposed on her, while most others solicit and bargain for it. She lets it all go for no other reason than she doesn’t want it any more (or was it sleeping with Prus). Moreover she ultimately declares the soul will die with her, which didn’t quite fit the final stunning visuals, both as beautiful and as meaningless as they were.

This must say a lot about Janacek; he wrote the libretto, based on Karel Capek's comedy, as well as the music. He was born in 1854 in Moravia, the ninth of thirteen children, in a time and place where Church, school and home were closely integrated. By the age of eleven he was at an Augustinian Monastery, where from chorister he became choir master and finally composer. He went on to become a declared atheist, holding organised religion in contempt, describing it as ‘…concentrated death. Tombs under the floor, bones on the altar, pictures full of torture and dying. Rituals, prayers, chants – death and nothing but death. I don’t want to have anything to do with it’. His muse, Kamila Stösslová, was Jewish.

Next step, The Glagolitic Mass (1927), there will be clues there.

Meantime, a paper “Immortality and Meaning: Reflections on the Makropulos Debate”, Mikel Burley, (Department of Philosophy, University of Leeds), has surfaced. More on that later, or for those interested in sooner, here it is.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


It started off well enough. 10:30 weekday morning. Not far along the gently curving street, where I’d spotted 2 gardeners in about the first 20 houses, there was a collection of snappy little mid-size cars outside a cream picket-fenced corner block with neat hedges inside and a curved sandstone path wandering through a scandalously green buffalo grass lawn to an open front door. This must be it.

M. is a retired country school teacher and an old friend. I’d managed to help her through a few rough patches lately, and I was now her guest at something most unlikely for me…a cooking class, on the upper North Shore, just a short walk from where I had grown up and had long since left behind. A main road now crosses the deep eucalypt gully where all those years ago there was only a wood and cable pedestrian suspension bridge, swinging just to the side of a fantastic stone castle. The castle is still there, but the little wobbly bridge is gone and with it the gut sinking feeling of looking down through the white painted rails to drop penny bungers timed to go off mid-air.

It was a generous thank you and lots of fun. Thirteen ladies who lunch, and me. We sat with recipes, made notes, watched, swapped food tips and stories (well, they did), and with perfect timing, sat down to eat what had been cooked. Rather than get stuck again next to the woman who had a slightly different way of doing everything that was being demonstrated, you know the type, I snapped a place next to the shortcut blonde, whose husband it turned out was away in China on business. Perhaps I’d looked eager, because when she offered me an extra serve of the lamb backstraps, which I declined, she leant a little too closely, and said a little too softly, ‘ah, that’s why you’re so beautifully lean’. Neither lean nor beautiful, and now completely wrong-footed, I stumbled over something about waiting for desserts, at best hitting the ball into the net.

It was mid-afternoon by the time I was back in the city. Feeling unusually weary, I headed to the best public pool in the world for a few laps. Nothing felt right, and I kept on getting a funny feeling in my chest, not tight, not heavy, but not relaxed, and couldn’t help but think of an old work friend J, who had taken to his rehabilitation after successful heart valve surgery with unreasonable vigour. When I was cycling, I would see him running in a nearby park, beaded with sweat and grey, always a few paces behind his mates he used to lead. One day he dashed home from work around midday, having been short-tempered all morning. Someone called him to see if he could come back soon, but he snapped an unhelpful reply, and apparently took to his pool, where he swam himself to his death. I was wondering if the last thing he saw were the tiles or the sky, and got myself out of the water.

Despite feeling worse, I wasn’t going to miss the last night of Billy Budd, and didn't, thanks to a good dose of cold and flu tablets. It was magnificent. We sat very close. However good it had been, this was something even more complete. The three main protagonists had evolved. The only word I can find for Philip Langridge’s Vere is perfect. His voice had cleared, no ruff patches, nothing held back. The words hit you between the eyes. In the prologue I was struck immediately by

Much good has been shown me and much evil, and the good has never been perfect.
There is always some flaw in it, some defect, some imperfection in the divine image, some fault in the angelic song, some stammer in the divine speech.
So that the evil still has something to do with every human consignment to this planet of

The libretto stands alone.

And Vere stood alone, all night. He begins alone, haunted by his demons and phantasms, rides the seas alone, and ends alone, stooped and stumbling. The only time anyone gets reasonably close to him is Billy, seeking his mercy, to be pulled back before reaching him. This worked for me this time. K found Langridge's voice quite beautiful, much more approachable than Pears, whom we had been listening to in preparation.

Wegner’s Claggart seemed also more secure and blacker vocally, and his characterisation less histrionic. Teddy Tahu Rhodes suffered a little from having been such a pleasant surprise the first time, and that said, his ‘Billy in the Darbies’ did sound throatier and rather more blokey, not that there’s anything wrong with that, just that my memories were of such youthful sweetness. And, was that some sweat on his left nipple, caught in the light, or an unnecessary adornment?

Langridge gave a powerful and emotional performance I expect to not ever experience again.

That night and the next day I was no good, feverish, aching, spare you the details. In the morning I rang in sick for the first time ever, and stayed horizontal for two days. Why haven’t we evolved to be able to drink lying down yet?

I did however manage to miss K’s nephew’s 21st birthday, a nautically themed affair. K went as a Viking (every family should keep a horned helmet). I was thinking seaweed, or Claggart.


A much admired friend was on the ABC’s New Inventors during the week. He is a man of huge intellect with an enquiring mind which does not take no for an answer. He is generous, funny, and has devoted his life to the welfare of others, in and out of the workplace.

He has invented a man overboard (MOB) rescue device, which he demonstrated with his usual understatement. One of its significant advances is in keeping the victim horizontal during rescue, helping to prevent aspiration into the lungs, and maintaining blood pressure and flow in the hypothermic.
It rightly won the night 2:1, the third vote being given by a woman panellist to a biodegradable multi-hole flower arranger. Remind me to throw her one next time she falls overboard.

For those inclined, you can vote here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008



The day wouldn’t write
What the night penciled in

After six years gestation, The Leonard Cohen – Philip Glass poetry / music collaboration Book of Longing (2007) has been crisscrossing the globe for 12 months, and slipped through Sydney on the weekend, a beautiful Sydney weekend, on the way to the Melbourne International Arts Festival.

We went to the 6pm Sunday show. Why aren’t more things scheduled here on Sunday evenings, perhaps with the exception of the hottest of Sydney’s mid-summer nights, when nothing should be on, including clothes, before sunset? Glass gave a preconcert talk which we missed, blissfully unaware it was on, and blissfully finishing off a harbourside lunch with a creamy sago of the texture of meringue without the sweetness, lightly dressed with a passionfruit syrup. It should have been called endorphin pudding.

Unlike K, who listens to Leonard Cohen as an almost meditative experience, hearing the voice more than the words, I’m not a great Lenny fan. Too much Cohen and I start to feel like I need to kill someone, that’s Lenny or me. Mr Cohen didn’t appear, but sent his voice, his poems, his drawings and his psyche for what was to be a very personal exploration of one man and his search.

My introduction to Philip Glass, who readily acknowledges the influences of Ravi Shankar, Nadia Boulanger, and Steve Reich, was the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, one of those ‘if you remember it you didn’t see it’ affairs. I saw it three times in rapid succession, and more memorably, with his ensemble backing the film live during a Sydney festival some years ago. It epitomised Brian Eno’s description of minimalism : “a drift away from narrative and towards landscape, from performed event to sonic space”. Glass's enormous body of work is many things, and good accompanist is one of them. Probably it was film scores which most brought him into the mainstream (Thin Blue Line, Kundun), and it was a pretty mainstream crowd who came to this show. The hall was full except for the very upper rows of the closest side boxes where there would have been restricted view of the screen.

The Concert Hall stage was blocked in black, comfortably accommodating the eight musicians, and four soloists. Philip Glass was on keyboard. Leonard Cohen drawings hang at the rear around a central screen for further imaging. The effect was quite intimate for such a large hall, helped probably by us sitting mid stalls. It began like entering a private studio or study but by the end it felt like you were exiting a mind, this whole dark space ultimately became inside you-know-who’s cranium.

Cohen’s (“Anyone who says I’m not a Jew is not a Jew”) work is startlingly frank. He exposes himself and his struggle between attachment and release with a repetitive intensity, returning constantly to lust, music, death, sex, no death, rebirth, sex, round and round, Boogie Street to mountain and back. It was all very agitating, as well it ought be. It is after all a Book of Longing. Once when asked if he might turn his attention (from longing) to fulfilment, Cohen’s reply was “What has fulfilment got to offer?

Glass, no stranger to agitation himself, was ultimately the calming influence. His soothing rhythms and soft Buddhist precussions, with fine interludes on violin (a tilt perhaps at Cohen’s comments that the approach by Glass was like being asked by Bach if he could use your lyrics) and cello, amounted to a kind of therapy, reassuring but never hindering or intruding on the word. It was a well drilled performance, choreographed to fine detail, the mezzo of Tara Hugo the most willing of the vocalists to emote beyond the routine, although on reflection, that is counter to how Cohen deadpans his lyrics.

And just when you think he’s trapped in his vortex forever, there comes the

Epilogue – Merely A Prayer

Now I’m here at the end of the song
the end of the prayer
The ashes have fallen away at last
exactly as they’re supposed to do
The chains have slowly
followed the anchors
to the bottom of the sea
It’s merely a song
merely a prayer
Thank you, Teachers
Thanks you, Everyone

Saturday, October 11, 2008


"For me, this role challenges any preconceptions of an operatic diva. She is a true original." - Cheryl Barker.

The first blog reviews are coming in for Opera Australia's Vec Makropulos, Janacek (1926) - The Makropulos Case / Affair / Secret. I spend way too much time bouncing up hit rates on favoured bloggers, waiting to hear, and this one's been slow, but that's sometimes a good sign.

Sarah Noble, usually quick off the mark, slowed lately perhaps by the power of the performances and her committment elsewhere, has made preliminary notes.

Kevin Jackson, twice already, says: "I felt that THE MAKROPULOS SECRET as near a perfect night in the theatre as one can have at the Opera."

"..very likely the best opera I have yet encountered -" begins Esoteric Rabbit.

That's what I like to hear. I get off on the expectation. Going to the beach with Dad, the long long drive up and down Mona Vale Road, over Tumbledown Dick Hill, past the wonderfully exotic Bahai temple, where I secretly wanted to go in but only on the way home, till after what seemed like half a day later we would hit the burning sand to silly squeals of 'last one in's a monkey's uncle'. I love expectation.

We have 10 days to wait, with Philip Glass - Leonard Cohen's 'Book of Longing' (SOH Sunday), and a return to Billy Budd for the last night (once is not enough) in between.

Meantime, there are little things of no less importance. I'm waiting to see what 300 years does to thoughts about little things.

The Anja Silja 1995 Glyndebourne DVD arrived yesterday, and that's for tonight.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


is THE one.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


It was the morning after the southerly blew through. Things hadn’t been good and the world was heading to hell in a handbasket. Walking in the cold early morning was a reminder of the winter we were leaving behind, with day length now rapidly increasing and the sun sitting higher in the sky every day. I miss Winter already.

Scattered on the forest floor were dots of white Eucalypt and Angophora flowers, shredded off the highest branches by the nights winds, lying there like Hansel and Gretel clues to nowhere special, except a change of mood.

Better already.

This little person, male or female I wasn’t about to check, was waiting for us when we got home, snuggled into the ground. All the dogs could do was bark and stay clear.

What a cutie, a spiny ant eater with cream brown spines all puffed out, caught off guard and quickly buried in for safety. The Echidna is an egg-laying mammal, the female suckling its young (they're called puggles - file that in your scrabble cortex) through milk pores. As egg layers, and with a low body temperature of 31 - 32 celsius, they are probably the ancient link between reptiles and mammals. That's between snakes and us!

Almost side by side was this native iris (Patersonia sericea var. sericea) in flower, this day his big day.

And the sky hadn’t fallen in, as blue as ever over the Hakea salicifolia in full spring bloom.