Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Our several visits to the Opera House over the last few weeks have been dominated by the most significant - the Jorn Utzon State Memorial on the 25th March.

Before that we had joined a half-full Concert Hall for Opera Australia's Radiance Concert. Sir Richard Armstrong and the Opera and Ballet Orchestra were out of the pit and on full display in a Programme conceived by the late Richard Hickox. It proved to be just another night spent missing his finesse. The Britten Sea Pictures were coarse. Cheryl Barker's struggle against untamed and untempered orchestral forces in Strauss' Four Last Songs was nearly hurtful to witness. The Rossini Stabat Mater was the most successful. What it lacked in subtlety it made up for in volume and some fine singing, particularly John Wegner, Rosamund Illing's arching soprano and Domenica Matthews gorgeous mezzo full of colour and bloom, and more fine choral work from the chorus. I dreamt of a Norma, with a different tenor.

The SSO's second concert in our Series was an absolute joy. The young debut conductor Douglas Boyd tells all you need to know with his hands, a marked contrast to the clenched fist air punching of the knight from the same realm. Paul Lewis made the Beethoven 1st a delight, playing what always seems to me the impossibly difficult with such certain playfulness, or playful certainty. The Hayden was a revelation in beauty and novelty, and the Bartok I loved, huge string forces like giant elastic galaxies, countered with cosmic outbursts from the celesta, xylophone and percussion, and harp. It was exhilarating. This was terrific programming.

The Utzon Memorial is hard to talk about without resorting to emotion and excess. It was a perfect and timely reconciliation, an extremely beautiful, moving, tearful and exemplary display of our gratitude for his gift. We weren't the only ones red eyed and wet cheeked by a long way. I suppose it has been detailed elsewhere, I'm not sure, and maybe later there'll be time to tell the full story. However, Premier Nathan Rees, with words of remarkable insight, gave a particularly fine speech on how a building so few actually enter has entered the hearts of so many and David Malouf's 'An Angel at Bennelong Point' merits nothing less than full reproduction. At the end a heartbroken full house stood to acknowledge the Utzons, Jan wiping away tears, after Lin Utzon's moving reading of the poem "Do not stand at my grave and weep", a poem my niece had read at my mother's funeral the day before.


Monday, March 30, 2009


This morning's walk through the bush started late. I'd spent the early morning, cool with low cloud and a clearing mist, raking the pebbles. There's lots of pebbles, and although I enjoy the gum leaf scatter, which is easing now the days are milder, I also enjoy the raking. This way today, that way next time. I'd been thinking I was ready to post again.

Perhaps it was the time spent in that almost meditative state, a repetitive gentle sway, focused on nothing in particular, or maybe it was a change in antennae, but as I closed the gate near the water tanks and headed down the bush track behind the dogs, there came a clear thought: We saw another snake today. We saw another snake today?  This was so strong it was as if it were trying to be my opening sentence. But we hadn't seen a snake today, and anyway, it wasn't something I'd pick up and blog on about.

By now the cloud had lifted and the sun was breaking through the canopy and spotting the undergrowth. I was, with fair reason, more than usually sensitive to transition, focusing o
n the little changes, things not there, or not noticed, yesterday and maybe gone tomorrow: a small cluster of Hibbertia, buttercup yellow caught in a sunbeam, and a tiny but proud stem of the pea plant, Bossiaea heterophylla, one of our autumn signals, only inches off the forest floor. I would go back with the camera.

It would have been an hour before we were back at the very spot where the 'thought' occurred - we saw another snake today - and there, in the native grasses just off the track, there it was, not as black and shiny as usual, perhaps about to shed its skin, but quietly still in the grasses, in a patch of warm morning sun. 

Both dogs, ahead a few paces as usual, had walked past, and it was not till I was alongside that I noticed it, a metre away. It was as if time had been breached. We'd seen another snake today. The head was down, but it stayed its full fatness, not flattening out as sometimes happens when they're frightened, and I thought it asleep, or even sick.

Not one to hang around, I hurried the dogs along, back through the gate, then down the inside of the fence where I could see it again, wondering if I should duck back home for the camera. It was gone.

As much as I am anxious about snakes, and the dogs, I found myself uplifted and reassured by the experience. Away from the static (as K had noted when we were on Lord Howe Island) connections are there to be made, if only we were more open, something Robert Lawlor looks at in his beautiful book, Voices of the First Day. Time is not linear.

where the snake wasn't / was / wasn't

Hibbertia sp.

Bossiaea heterophyllia

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Thomas Friedman, OBE, Master of Philosophy, Pulitzer Prize winner, author (From Beirut to Jerusalem), and economic, political and foreign affairs columnist, steps "outside the normal boundaries of analysis" in his New York Times article this week, and asks:

" What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.” 

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese ...

Over a billion people today suffer from water scarcity; deforestation in the tropics destroys an area the size of Greece every year — more than 25 million acres; more than half of the world’s fisheries are over-fished or fished at their limit.

"Just as a few lonely economists warned us we were living beyond our financial means and overdrawing our financial assets, scientists are warning us that we’re living beyond our ecological means and overdrawing our natural assets,” argues Glenn Prickett, senior vice president at Conservation International. But, he cautioned, as environmentalists have pointed out: “Mother Nature doesn’t do bailouts.”

One of those who has been warning me of this for a long time is Paul Gilding, the Australian environmental business expert. He has a name for this moment — when both Mother Nature and Father Greed have hit the wall at once — “The Great Disruption."

"We are taking a system operating past its capacity and driving it faster and harder,” he wrote me. “No matter how wonderful the system is, the laws of physics and biology still apply.” We must have growth, but we must grow in a different way. For starters, economies need to transition to the concept of net-zero, whereby buildings, cars, factories and homes are designed not only to generate as much energy as they use but to be infinitely recyclable in as many parts as possible. Let’s grow by creating flows rather than plundering more stocks.

Gilding says he’s actually an optimist. So am I. People are already using this economic slowdown to retool and reorient economies. Germany, Britain, China and the U.S. have all used stimulus bills to make huge new investments in clean power. South Korea’s new national paradigm for development is called: “Low carbon, green growth.” Who knew? People are realizing we need more than incremental changes — and we’re seeing the first stirrings of growth in smarter, more efficient, more responsible ways.

In the meantime, says Gilding, take notes: “When we look back, 2008 will be a momentous year in human history. Our children and grandchildren will ask us, ‘What was it like? What were you doing when it started to fall apart? What did you think? What did you do?’ ” Often in the middle of something momentous, we can’t see its significance. But for me there is no doubt: 2008 will be the marker — the year when ‘The Great Disruption’ began."

I don't share their optimism, at least in the short term, and think we are looking forward to some extreme individual and collective disruption, with the prospect of increasing civil unrest and commensurate increase in authoritarianism. Already in Ireland, last in/first out, workers are marching through the streets of Dublin in the face of contracting public service wages and blood is spilt in the North for the first time since, well, since the economy took off. And that's before people need to fight for water and food.

Consumption is an old fashioned disease, for which the rich get innoculations, the fragile succumb. There is treatment, but recovery is slow. Gaia has consumption. Fasten your seat belts, there's a lot more blood to cough up yet.

In our blessed little corner, nothing so serious to report. The days are shortening quickly; we're on that part of the sine wave where day length change is greatest. At just over 30 degrees latitude, the Sydney area shortens its days with a nice balance of not too fast, not too slow, noticeable but smooth.

Autumn means a late flush after the floral quiescence of summer. The Native Honeysuckles (Lambertia formosa),  have started dotting the bush again with their scarlet tubules, full of nectar, a magic seven per flower. Last years seed capsules are now distinctive little horned devil heads, 

the Mountain Devils that for years were sold at gift shops in the Blue Mountains, mounted on white stick bodies fashioned from pipe cleaners, with dashing red felt capes. Whatever happened to pipe cleaners, whatever happened to pipes, whatever happened to Dad. 

And the forest floor has another story, something I haven't seen for weeks.

The ants are building up again. There's rain coming. And a Great Disruption.

Friday, March 6, 2009


The thing about Dmitri Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934) is that it is not for the fainthearted, on either side of the curtain. 

Opera Australia's Francesca Zambello production, first seen here in 2002, and revisited now by Zambello herself was, and still is, Richard Hickox's baby. Francesca Zambello has returned, unusually, to her production for the pleasure of working with the company, to visit Australia again, to work with the world class cast, and to "deliver the best show, for the Company and to honour his memory." They were close friends. The stellar cast and production team he had assembled certainly did him proud on opening night. Susan Bullock's acknowledgment with a sky blown kiss as her first duty of curtain call was appropriate and touching. He had asked her to take on the role, she had spent a year getting the "quite tricky" rhythms and pitch right, and there he wasn't. It was left to Sir Richard Armstrong to take charge of the evening and for the good job he did, there was something, and someone, missing: Richard Hickox, with his just contained near to bursting energy and those intense penetrating eyes, and the spark and confidence of a man fully at ease with this work. 

The cast has "Chandos' stamped all over it.

Boris Ismailov John Wegner
Zinory Ismailov David Corcoran
Katerina Ismailova Susan Bullock
Sergei Simon O'Neill
Aksinya / Woman Convict Jacqueline Dark
Shabby Peasant / Teacher Kanen Breen
Steward / Sentry Richard Anderson
Porter Charlie Kedmenec
Sergeant Richard Alexander
Foreman 1 / Coachman Stephen Smith
Foreman 2 Graeme Macfarlane
Mill-Hand / Foreman 3 David Thelander
Priest Gennadi Dubinsky
Chief of Police Warwick Fyfe
Policeman Shane Lowrencev
Drunk Guest David Lewis
Sonyetka Dominica Matthews
Old Convict Jud Arthur  

Nikolai Leskov's story was written in 1865, a story of a woman abandoned in a sexless marriage, uneducated, unskilled, unloved and incomplete, whose life was all but out of her control and at the whim of male authority in a society of graft, corruption and oblivion by alcohol; a woman whose longing for sexual satisfaction, worthiness and self esteem was to only take her further down a trajectory of degradation and ultimate self destruction. It was no less valid in 1934 when Shostakovich's operatic version of it was acclaimed, no less valid when 2 years later Stalin blacklisted it, no less valid when a revised version was mounted in 1962, or when Rostropovich recorded the original version in 1979, (a must have), when we first saw it here in 2002, or now. This is, as Zambello says, a work about the abuse of power, the woman as female, or metaphor for any oppressed. And to this I would add fear. There is no power without fear. This work, those times, and these times, were and are about fear. Mardi Gras marchers and viewers take note, both sides of the curtain, the veneer of tolerance and acceptance is shiny but thin. And even at the most literal level, this horror could, and likely does to varying extents, happen in any country town in rural Australia.

Shostkovich read the Leskov story as illustrated by a family friend, Boris Kustodiev, who had painted a portrait of the young Dmitri aged 13, and whose taste in women extended well into the voluptuous and blatantly alluring, and such were his illustrations. The youthful composer wrote a work that is ultimately extremely and violently sexually abusive, wanting us to be so engaged and empathic with his (anti) heroine, that we understand and sympathize with her up to and including murder of others and self. That's the really hard bit for this incredibly difficult role.

Which brings us to Susan Bullock, the fantastic English Wagnerian, with all the vocal resources needed to get through the 3 hours on stage. It is incredibly difficult and she was magnificent, from her opening languid longing through to the depths of black deep lake despair, where the fear of death is no longer the greatest fear of all. But, and I hate saying this, she didn't completely erase the memory of Elizabeth Whitehouse for reasons I can't quite put my finger on. Perhaps it was singing in English with a loss of the cold harsh accent, the translation mostly good but occasionally raising a giggle, or something about the tone, or more likely something not coming from the pit, for the music is where Shostakovich said he wrote what he wants you to feel about her, or perhaps it was the least successful part of the staging, but whatever it was, I didn't really care when she took to the river. I felt nothing. 

Simon O'Neill's Sergei was her equal, in difficulty and execution. How high does that tessitura lie! Surrounded by young stud bods, he was at some physical disadvantage, his big bulky body not the best in show (looking remarkable like Heppner actually), but then he was a dishevelled rough bloke into rough aggressive penetration.

"Kiss me so it hurts my lips

And the blood rushes to my head

And the icons fall from their shelves"

John Wegner was the most complete character for me. I don't believe this man. I couldn't take my eyes off him when he was on stage and his masturbation scene (does it get any more difficult) was I thought profoundly moving, the tragedy of it, alcohol fueled, the very essence of attacking what you actually are yourself. He scared me. The terrifying scene of his manifestation as ghost of projected fear was rivetting.

Of the others Domenica Matthews commanded stage attention of a similar order. Kanen Breen continues his run of brilliant character roles, this time as the drunk. Jacqueline Dark's cook rape scene is a triumph for her, and especially too I think for Zambello. My only quibble was with Warwick Fyfe's Chief of Police. Shostakovich mocked the authoritarian state, but Russian police take Russian police very seriuosly, and his character verged just a bit too far into campy G&S for me. I would have been happier with words and music telling one story, bodies telling another. Well sung though. 

All this played out on Hildegard Bechtler's brilliant mid 20C sets for Acts 1 & 2 & 3, anywhere, anytime. Act 4 however just didn't seem right. The stage was now contained by a cyclorama, not a good thing for this stage, it shows all of its weakness and none of its strengths (depth), and Tess Schofield's costumes veered a bit off track, the guards more like leather Nazis than heavy coated Siberians, unless this too was to broaden the time frame. Why they weren't given the opportunity to disappear into nothingness upstage as the scrim suggested I don't know.

We were better prepared than last time for this work, K araldited to a chair for weekends past, as we played it through, and through, and.. I missed Hickox, that's all I'll say. The placement of brass outside the pit was not new; I think it had been done at ROH for this opera. It was better than getting a choked blurt from below, and surely was better for OH and S. but there was a downside. The dynamic shift was so great as to be distracting from the drama, when all your attention was directed to how, not what, they were doing, and it was one-sided, and sounded one-sided, lop sided. I wondered if they could have sat either side of the proscenium.

We left drained, discussing more the state of the world and the spiral into choas (K is a closet pessimist, not much help from me there) than the details of this shocking work, its shocking score, the tumescent brass, the toy soldier mock authoritarian marches, the dreadful last chord. We had been given the big picture. Thank you to everyone involved.

And thank you to the late Richard Hickox. This should be videod. Repeat, this should be videod.

Addit 9 March:

Elsewhere the excellence of the chorus has been raised, and while I lay claim to nothing more serious than 'these are my thoughts', I agree that you shouldn't even think about this performanc without thinking about the chorus, all praise to them, and don't beleive me, believe Francesca 'they're A+ fantastic' Zambello.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


ABC on-line are reporting this morning that there will be a state memorial service for Jorn Utzon  this month (March) in the Opera House.

Performers will include the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Opera Australia, The Australian Ballet, The Sydney Theatre Company.

A ticket ballot through the Opera House Website will be held. I can't find anything there yet. Anyone know more?


The Memorial will be Wednesday 25 March, 11 am, in the Concert Hall. Details and registration for ticket ballot are here.