Tuesday, July 28, 2009

MANON LESCAUT performance

It was as exciting as ever to be going again to "our house". That first glimpse of it as you come down Macquarie Street gets me every time. 

BIG sing from Cheryl tonight. 

She was there and she was simply magnificent and in full command of her fantastic instrument in a pretty challenging role. She did look pleased and well she should and this happy chappy resorted to foot stamping like the old days. Trills, plural, a lovely mezza di voce, fabulous fabulous middle voice, shining confident top, and the voice sounded big and bigger, an absolutely compelling stage presence from near-nunnery to death in the desert, it was one of those nights where every aspect seemed effortless. Oh Cheryl Barker, I'm joining the swoon club I think.

Second only to the only other reason (see rave paragraph above) to see this show, as far as I'm concerned, was Alexander Polianichko. He extracted from Puccini'c embryonic score, with all the little cells of what his lifetime would evolve and differentiate, some extremely beautiful quite heart touching emotions which the AO&B Orchestra poured out as well, and as loudly, as I can remember. 

Jorge Lopez-Yanez tried his best, and his best was very good, but the sense of trying was a wee bit evident, though anything lesser would have detracted from the whole, and he didn't ever do that. It was quite fine. Act 1 was a bit rocky , and for that matter, it could go altogether with no loss. 

Teddy T R occasionally sounded like he had found some lyricism in his voice and played a poorly written and musically under-developed part of uncertain focus as the Hollywood rascal, yet again. 

Richard Alexander sang well but seemed uncomfortable straddling something between a fop and a geriatric and falling somehere in between. All good in the minor roles.

Apart from the appropriately huge Parisian mirror, all the better to see you with Ms Barker, I didn't care much for the staging. Well, actually apart from Act 2, which was beautifully choreographed, and then add Act 4, surely very difficult to stage manage, but they did it well, all credit to Cheryl Barker. So make that the staging not half bad, and with Act 1 chopped, there's only Act 3 to sort. Get rid of those dreadful cages for starters.

But a mighty showing from Cheryl Barker and the pit and we're home with a lot to be proud of.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Stuttering is the only way to describe what has been going on with this post but I do want to get some memories and links down before too long, so here we go again.

The tiny village of Vauvenargues (there is a 'gallery' in the top bar menu) is 15 Km or so east-nor-east of Aix-en-Provence mid-way along the foot of the northern side of Mont Sainte-Victoire, a craggy east-west limestone spine, studded with pine, just to the east of Aix. The west end of this spine, facing Aix-en-Provence, is a blunt cut-off and the mountain then tapers down to the east. It looks like a residue, a fossil, a pre-historic tail left behind after some giant beast escaped the cleaver.

Anyone driving around Mont Ste-Victoire will drive through Vauvenargues, or at least see the turn off from the winding mountain road, and if, as we did a few years ago, you catch a glimpse of this

you will be tempted to stop, and foolish to not.

The road in is narrow,

and the village is pressed into a hillside facing the north wall of the mountain with the imposing Chateau de Vauvenargues, a 17 C castle, with origins back to Roman times (as does Aix and its baths) at its foot.

Village looks at Chateau; Chateau looks back; Mont Ste-Victoire is.

What we didn't know those years ago was that the Chateau is where Picasso spent a few of his last years with his second wife, Jacqueline Roque. He bought it in 1958, lived there from '59-'61, relatively isolated and free of the developments and crowds of Cannes, but after '61 he only occasionally visited it before his death (1973) in Mougins, north of Cannes. Because the authorities in Mougins refused private burial, Jacqueline brought his body back to Vauvenargues, where an unusually cold snap with frozen ground saw the body lie in a flower filled guard room for six days till the ground thawed and a grave could be dug. Jacqueline suicided 13 years later and they are buried together, under a singular circular mound at the top of the castle entrance staircase, a large grassy earth swelling surrounded by a neat border of ivy and marked simply by the large bronze, La femme au Vase, at its centre.

Picasso boasted he had bought 'Cezanne', an Aix native, and by that he meant he had bought Cezanne's mountain. His studio faced the mountain and caught the southern light and the provencal shimmer, but he didn't ever paint the mountain. Perhaps he felt there was nothing to add to the masters work. He did paint the village of Vauvenargues, a painting that when seen belies Picasso's late period and speaks directly of Cezanne.

The relationship between Cezanne, whom Picasso regarded as the father of the modern movement and cubism, and Picasso is explored this year in Aix-en-Provence to commerorate the 50 yr anniversary of Picasso moving into the region. The Musee Granet has an exhibition highlighting the influence, in content, form and technique. It is dense, and crowded despite regulated numbers (I bought tickets months in advance) and it really needs at least 2 visits as you struggle with the power of what is in front of you, and feel drained just by the looking let alone the understanding.

In conjunction with this, the Chateau, under an arrangement with Jacqueline's daughter Catherine Hutin, has been opened for the first time (and only for 4 months) in the 50 years since Picasso took up residence. Tickets had sold out quickly well in advance and I missed the rush. 40 day tickets are selling each morning and it seemed like something just too hard with late nights, lazy days, and the end of a long trip, and all this sandwiched between concerts like the BPO with Lang Lang, Hayden and Ravel, how could we manage any more and still appreciate anything.

But then, we luckily met two dutchmen at dinner in the square outside the Archbishops Palace, where the tables are crowded as everyone waits for the slow night to arrive so the performance can begin. We were all going to Orfee. The younger is a garden designer of significance, and we went on to meet for dinner the next night, and then again the night after, he without a camera but a sketch book and water-colours and tales and drawings of their visit to the Chateau de Vauvenargues. Even K was now happy with the idea of getting to town at 6am, when the queue started, the cool streets being swept, delivery trucks arriving, and people from all over the world waiting hours in the hope of tickets. We went, we were forth in line, and we went to the castle that afternoon. I gave him my precious copy of David Malouf's Ransom, which after an embarrassing invitation to draw a lyrebird in his book, a few rosés notwithstanding, was the least I could do. He didn't know of Malouf, but was interested to hear he was also a librettist, and in a later conversation he noted the writer to be poet also.

Two groups of 18 an hour go through, fully escorted, one person for commentary, another just watching. No photos. In all of the big cold stone building, the studio supposedly as he had left it, the bedroom a vast space with little more than their bed with the blood red and glaring yellow of the Catalan flag behind it, the bathroom with Picasso's mural of pan in the forest, the dining room with its little wooden table, in all of this the only ghosts were in the guard room, the core of the fortress, the room of last defence which for the occasion was dressed again with huge vases of flowers,  and where Picasso had lain dead for six days.

(Just in case you are wondering, the photos from this trip are mine, all Mine and Mines alone, as the cab driver in New Orleans explained when I asked what M&M Transportation Co stood for. Some are photos of photos - the old Potsdamer Platz pictures are taken from framed photos in the underground of the station there, the interior of the Noh Theatre in Tokyo a photo of a photo in the hotel).

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Coming home isn't as easy as it used to be. Even K said, as that strange orange red light of sunrise at several thousand feet leaked into the plane, and we dropped down over the blackness, that he doesn't get that warm fuzzy feeling of coming home anymore, or at least quite as much. There's books to be written about attachment, especially to birthplace. As K noted, when you're away, at first you tend to filter out the not-so-good things, and then when you're home, you tend to filter the other way around. Attachments. 

I'll be remembering our last days in Provence when time allows, but part of the bumpy landing was some good news and then some not so good.

The good news was all the usual personal things, dogs, home, trees, bed, dogs, and dogs. But two close friends have bad health news. And news is coming in of Sir Edward and Lady Downes deaths. The Sydney Morning Herald tribute is here and The New York Times is here. The Herald has it pretty well summed up, especially the memories of the '72 Rosenkavalier (with the incomparable, that's incomparable, sublime Yvonne Minton), the world-watched '73 Opera House opening War and Peace (his translation I think), and yes yes to the Jenufa (Koppel-Winter, Connell, Gard) the next year, something I've already given my usual dose of hyperbole. It was the first time I cried at an opera.

The Downes's son thought his parents chose a "very civilised way" to end their lives. I hope I am so lucky.

One more thing.  I suspect it was his tenure that set the seeds of not only Janacek, but Britten. The first I remember was Albert Herring, but time stops me looking into this now. There should be a biennial Britten festival in Sydney, summer, and it should carry his (Downes) name.

So to some good news. Here she is, the great one,  "absolutely determined", recovered and still with that smile that is both humble and can beam down an audience, just like the voice did. Go Joan.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


This gorgeous thing has just climbed over the trees to light the valley of the canal de provence and beyond to the Luberon mountains on our north west.

K thinks the pic is unworthy because the detail so clear to the eye has been lost in the exposure. Nonetheless, the night did get to hear his favourite song from one of his favourite musicals, and it was word and note perfect. Trust me.

Not long to go now.

From, for, the Boyfriend:

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


If you don't appreciate Le Tour, ("the line bewteen insanity and genius is ... a fine one") you've never ridden a bike. If you've ridden a bike, let alone raced one, you know these men - shaved, bronzed, pumped and at the mercy of the advertising dollar and the search for world glory - are the ultimate athletes in the greatest sporting event on the planet.

At last the timing was right. A short drive from our retreat, in the 36 degree heat, this time we get to see it live. We managed to negotiate our way through road closures and country gendarmerie in a Chevy Chase worthy arm waving exercise of going round endless roundabouts before finding a spot to park with only a 10 minute walk to the course. Little boys on bikes with their fathers, lots of young men, one mountain biker next to me skipping work for an hour, one reading a science magazine, quite a few mums and dads, a grandmother and young boy, and no little girls, none.

A 2 hour circus caravan of advertising and promo, with samples of lollies, drinks, keyrings, hats, bags, you name it and it was thrown at you, precedes the racers.

Finally, 4 helicopters are buzzing, a lead car drives past his loudspeaker telling the crowds some details of what is happening just behind  'there is a 4 man breakaway with the peleton 10 minutes behind' , and the leaders fly past to screams of ALLEZ ALLEZ ALLEZ.

The mountain biker has to get back to work. He likes Cadel Evans. He doesn't like Lance Armstrong. Does anyone like Lance Armstrong, apart from Lance?

Minutes later, a motorbike pulls in close, a handsome young policeman is off running up the road, suddenly dashing back for his yellow flag, then up the hill again, all blue and boots. He is the warning flag waver just in front of the railway crossing, and no sooner is he in place than they appear, a multicoloured canopy of heads, around the corner , down the hill, past the policeman swinging his yellow triangle through 90 degrees, over the railway lines, a hard left in fornt of us, and in seconds they are gone...

...as a local farmer plows on, regardless.

Millions are seeing this on television. Turning around to walk back to the car we are reminded that everything and everyone here is watched over by the monumental Mont Sainte Victoire, and the ghosts of Cezanne and Picasso.


Again for the record, here is the team (3 July 2009):

Conductor Sir Simon Rattle

Stage director and stage design Stéphane Braunschweig

Costumes Thibault Vancraenenbroeck

Lighting Marion Hewlett

Siegfried Ben Heppner

Gunther Gerd Grochowski

Hagen Mikhail Petrenko

Alberich Dale Duesing

Brünnhilde Katarina Dalayman

Gutrune Emma Vetter

Waltraude Anne Sofie von Otter

Norm 1 Maria Radner

Norm 2 Lilli Paasikivi

Norm 3 Miranda Keys

Woglinde Anna Siminska

Wellgunde Eva Vogel

Flosshilde Maria Radner

Choeur Rundfunkchor Berlin / Choeur de la Radio de Berlin

Chef de choeur Simon Halsey

Orchestre Berliner Philharmoniker

The staging continued Stéphane Braunschweig's quasi minimalist approach, using a closed cell like box with a high inaccessible window (sometimes we're within it, sometimes without) for Brunnhilde's isolation, other times the stage wide open, beautifully lit, with a rising and falling staircase to nowhere coming and going, sometimes waves, sometimes Valhalla, the end never in sight. Moments seemed reminiscent of the Patrice Chéreau Ring - the slow descent of the black scrim after Siegfried's murder, the large motionless crowd of men and women peering silently into the future. Some of the final video effects were stunningly beautiful (the Rhinemaidens and Siegfried) and others rather coarse (fire on, fire off, water on). 

I felt that we were delivered an extremely muscular, masculine androgenic work, driven by a forceful very forward paced muscial direction from Sir Simon Rattle, with the Berlin Philharmonic unleashing a huge sound into a relatively small theatre, the brass, percussion and basses dominating the evening, at least from where we sat some two thirds of the way back in the main auditorium. It was a work of brutality as men dominated and abused anyone in their way, the women of the world, to satisfy their own needs at the expense of all existence. We saw an intense psychosexual drama of devastating consequence. Where I had expected, or rather hoped, that lyric beauty would finally take hold with a promise of reason as salvation, I didn't hear much, if any, of it, and that would be my only criticism. I remained, I'm afraid, pessimistic at the end, and while that may be the truth of the matter, I'm not sure that it is what Wagner intended.

Again, the orchestra took the honours. As the house lights dimmed and Rattle returned to the pit for Act 2, there was loud acclaim from the house, and whether by error or intent, the lights went up again, and the audience started to rise to their feet only to have the lights quickly dimmed again, as if to settle things down. There was tension in the air. The final curtain calls did not see a standing ovation again till Rattle came on stage and acknowledged his players, again a roar and by now 1500 people were on their feet. What I remember most apart from the sheer depth of the sound is the detail. The exchange between a betrayed and wild, almost animal Brunhilde and the brass, in a savage interplay between words and emotion, said it all.

Whereas Ben Heppner had assumed a youthful air in last year's Siegfried despite his physique, here he looked even larger and more awkward, and up against the blanket of sound rather than riding it. He was however especially affecting as Siegfried as Gunter, his bulk and demeanour used to sinister advantage as he slowly came up to the sleeping Brunnhilde with a menace and dominance that spoke of rape. After their bitter exchange, with one arm he slowly turned her over, now face up, legs apart. It was chilling. The sexuality of male dominance was to continue to the end. The voice sounds more frayed than last year but the lovely bell tone is there when he finds it. He watches the conductor very closely.

Katarina Dalayman was an angry betrayed woman, now way beyond her heritage, and in a nearly showstopping trio, outsang the baritones and the orchestra as she joined the brotherhood of vengence. The three were front stage and we were pinned to our seats. It is the memory I'll carry most. Against an ardent if not deeply wise Waltraute of Anne Sofie van Otter, she had rejected the sisterhood and began her, and our demise. Her final great scene was less declamatory and more a personal account of herself and her dead beloved, sung either by intent or necessity, in almost half voice. In served to intensify the humanity of all this even more.

The Russian Mikhail Petrenko's Hagen was a cold voiced and ruthlessly cruel Hagen, in the manner of his Walkure Hunding, with Gerd Grochowski and Emma Vetter his hapless pawns.

The men of the Choir of the Berlin Radio added even more male menace. I was struck more than ever, if you haven't already gathered, not so much by a work of salvation by female love than the sheer destructive power of the male ego.

The final apperance of Wotan as Wanderer irritated me as an unnecessary unwritten overstatement. That said, I liked the appearance of Erda with tree sapling at the end of Elke Neidhardt's Adelaide Ring, so I can't claim impurity to the masters stage directions as the cause. But one more male was one too many. Give women the keys. 

Sunday, July 5, 2009


I think I'd actually forgotten, or under appreciated, the scale of Gotterdammerung. There’s the sheer length of it and the density of the drama let alone the music and the attention it demands. This was especially the case here in Aix in a production of exemplary detail, dramatic and particularly musical. We’ve been wrecked and emotionally drained for 24 hours now and the heat isn’t helping, although the pool is. I can’t imagine how the Japanese man from Tokyo who sat next to me is doing. He sat slightly forward the whole time, his back never touching the seat, hands clenched on his knees (school photo), rocking slightly back and forth, the only break in his rhythm was to wipe his eyes from time to time.

                                             Gratuitous pool pic (for M)

There is a prologue. Way back when, about 5 years ago, I chanced on a rumour that the Berlin Philly was undertaking its first Ring since H von K. Considerable searching and correspondence later, there came a 2 am phone call from La Boutique du Festival d’ Aix-en-Provence offering row A seats to Rhinegold (2006). Anything to decide?  Nothing - the gods have blessed this, we are going. 

The Rhinegold was in the Théâtre de l'Archevêché, the courtyard of the archbishop's palace, with the audience and most of the pit in the balmy night air in front of a smallish stage, and where nothing starts till dark, 10pm. (We will be back there tonight for a giggle.) It was an uncertain beginning.

The next year, 2007, Die Walküre opened the new Grand Théatre de Provence, a 1350 seat new (dual purpose) theatre, with a lively acoustic, bright though not as immediate as (say) the new Budapest Palace of Arts.

In opera mode, the divider (see photo below) between the pit and audience is not completely opaque and the orchestral sound is huge, especially with these Germans making their WAAAAH sound.

Something like this alone would make a significant difference to the squeezed sound coming from the Sydney Opera House pit. 

This Grand Theatre sits slighty downhill on the edge of the old town, circular inside and out, and is entered via a sunken stone amphitheatre-like pit, which in summer, (and it is summer, believe me) radiates the Provencal day back in onto itself. Someone selling Tarnhelms at the top of the stairs would make a fortune.

The Walkure had much more musical impetus, driving forward the fabulous sound the the Berliners, and the stage was very much dominated by the strong and shining Sieglinde of Eva-Maria Westbroek. 

Last year's (2008) Siegfried was a lifetime experience, riding again on the mighty Berlin Philharmonic, and dominated by 3 phenomenal performances, a superbly acidic Mime by Ulrich Burkhard , Katarina Dalayman's gleaming radiant Brünnhilde and Ben Heppner's first Siegfried. This big burly man looked as much like a young boisterous youth as Sutherland did a wee lassie, yet he so inhabited the part vocally, that, like Sutherland, listening completely transposed the visual image, and I was transfixed by the sweetness, tenderness, and the beauty of his tenor, superbly paced, nowhere more moving than when he sang to the woodbird, gently caressing it in his hands, singing to his unknown mother, his guide, as she, Sieglinde, appeared myseriously in the bare woods behind. I was blubbering in the 3rd row. K was embarrassed. At the final curtain, the whole auditorium took to its feet in one mighty roar, the likes of which I've not seen before over here. (It happened after Die Walkure in the Asher Fisch Ring).

There's an archbishop's palace courtyard to get to soon, so Gotterdammerung thoughts will have to wait till tomorrow, assuming there is one. We laughed about this sort of thing with R (a Sydney quack now working for Government) and other Sydney friends at dinner in Paris. Do you think I'll be dead in a fortnight I asked R. Well, at lot of people will be, he shot back.

More soon.

Friday, July 3, 2009


We're here, but the tickets aren't. What tickets? Well these for starters, at 5.30 this afternoon. If you are wondering where I'll be at 10 this morning, it is called the billetterie.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


I had sat next to a woman at lunch in the quiet back of a local bistro, which our (extensive) field survey, and Patricia Wells, confirm as serving the best Tarte Tatin around. Her (my neighbour, not Ms Wells) little dog Dora (think Picasso) took a fancy to me, or so I thought, and what with one thing leading to another, it turns out her son is trying to get to Sydney to do horticulture design (there's a turnabout) and moreover, why hadn't I been to the Parc de Bagatelle yet. Good question.

It is hot here, not unbearable, but it is best to do what the weather suggests, and that is not seeking relief in air-conditioned museums or loitering at the back of cathedrals, but think about phrases like une fine brise and sous les arbres and Parc de Bagatelle.

All you need is a metro ride just short of La Defence, a walk along the river by the houseboats (with street numbers and letter boxes), a stop for a snack (which expands to a few chapters in a book and an hour with the locals) at a little cafe on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, and you are there, a once small retreat and hunting ground for royalty.

Under a tree by the lake, I fell asleep with my head on my book, hearing the occasional giggle as a mother, or nanny, read to some lucky children. They were gone when I woke up.

(click to enlarge)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Last Saturday June 27 was Paris Gay Pride - Marche des Fiertes - in a city where if the poeple own anything, it is the streets.

It is a daytime parade, or street march, or rather something in between (and bigger than either), which starts around 2pm at Montparnasse, moves along the famous left bank boulevards (Montparnasse, St Michel, St Germain) across the river at Pont de Sully and on up to Bastille. And it happens with a minimum of fuss, no obvious police or controlling presence except at major intersections, and considerable french flair. And no barricades, not one.

                                       minutes before, it is business as usual

It is essentially a series of what we would call floats, basically trucks or buses, tricked up with a basic theme, pumping dance music around and behind them, each with a tail of dancers and marchers extending up to 100 m behind, dancing away to whatever they are hearing from the front. As the music fades, the crowd thins a little, till the next 'float' immediately behind repeats the process. The crowd moves freely from the street to the current of marchers, and vice versa, the whole thing a giant organic snake, gradually swelling in size as it picks up more than it loses, till by the time Bastille is in sight, it is dense and seething, in front and behind. And to repeat it, this seems absolutely effortless.

                                             Bastille up ahead

                                             looking behind

This is people, lesbian, gay, family, friends, whoever wants to be there. This is not entrants, not registrants, not authoritarian. This is bottom up (so to speak), not top down. There is mercifully no patronage and no politicians. This is freedom of movement. The comparisons with Sydney are pretty obvious.

Much of the structered content was similar in theme to home , although there was more accent on global issues (death penalty, the middle east) and much less dressing up and drag. 

The crowd was estimated at 700,000. Truly. We thought it about 3 times as big as Sydney, 3 times less complicated, and 3 times more fun. It took all afternoon, dancing, walking, waving, pumping its way to Bastille, from where the crowd slowly released itself into the surrounding streets, with most of the gays heading towards the Marais, the focus of gay life in Paris, and of course the old, and present Jewish quarter.

The night came slowly, but when it did, about 16 (4x4) blocks of the Marais were closed, the proud partying on till daylight, and then some. You were literally shoulder to shoulder wherever you went, no police, no beer cans, no attitude, no trouble, no worries.