Saturday, October 31, 2009

PETER GRIMES last night

Some of us are lucky to now have something very special. Heavens knows how many performances come and go and fade and change with time or disappear completely. Sometimes, rarely, something magic and transcendental stamps itself so deep in the psyche that it is there forever, embedded. They make a change, make you change, make you different. I'm different because of this Peter Grimes.

Thinking about Stuart Skelton's Peter Grimes I am left with how completely he wasn't for a fraction anyone but Peter Grimes. I didn't once think about watching Stuart Skelton. Even for his solo curtain call it took a while to shed the character. The assumption of the role was absolutely complete, dramatically and vocally. I couldn't imagine this character communicating any other way. The spoken word would never have been enough. And Skelton's big beautiful voice was so married to the word that it wasn't his natural way of dealing with his world wasn't ever in question. He was, and is, fearless - he spoke without the slightest arrogance about this in the broadcast interview. And put his vocal resources into a fearless player and you have a definitive Peter Grimes. I talked with a man before the performance who had heard both Pears and Vickers live. Now he can say he's heard Pears and Vickers and Skelton.

I keep coming back to the moment on opening night when, in the panic of the beating mob arriving at the door of his hut, he startled, let the rope slip, realising instantly what now lay before him as he spun around helplessly, tragically but never pathetically. The mob had killed the apprentice; Peter would receive the death sentence. I'll never forget that look on his face.

It's all been said

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

PETER GRIMES even more

Tonight's (Wednesday) Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes was running hot, on fire, going OFF.

Act 1 ended with a roar from the house and the sort of genuine emotional applause that can only be stopped by the house lights. People were crying. Lots of them.

Stuart Skelton was no bewildered innocent tonight. In magnificent control of his voice and the stage, he was big and masculine and proud and "I don't like interferers". The strength of his first Act set up an even more harrowing descent into tender madness.

Even more detail:

Balstrode stayed at the end of the court scene, just a few moments, the mob dispersing, lingering close behind Ellen, she unaware, and with just one look toward her we were invited into another level of complexity by Neil Armfield. That Ellen and Balstrode would later come as 'we', to take him Home, emerged in a different light. The ambiguity now includes questions about the relationship between Ellen and Balstrode - did they have a common purpose and agree just where home was; who decided what, and when.

I hadn't noticed Stuart Skelton's face as the storm approached, the crowd baying fear and begging salvation, while he beamed with excitement, anticipation, relish.

The pit is blacked out for the mad scene. The use of the spoken word by Balstrode is even more apparent as an extension of Peter's unaccompanied monologue. Without orchestration we had been taken onto another level altogether, that of Peter's madness and psychotic imaging. (I don't hear the voices of the crowd as the continuance of the hunt, but as the echos of persecution in his head.) Balstrode breaks into Peter's crazed reverie, into that altered space, and the spoken word delivers a jarring earth-bound impact, on us if not Peter, whose delivery to his death is as natural to him as it is unnatural to us.

Susan Gritton was even more radiant.

Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke's boy was even more heartbreaking.

Everyone was even more.

The orchestra was even more even more.

Mark Wigglesworth should be the new music director. Create the position. Even more so under the circumstances.

There was no foot stamping - you can't stamp your feet when you're standing. There was a standing ovation of clapping whooping red eyes.

Stuart Skelton hugged Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke.

I am even more fixated on Britten.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Economic statement from the House of Jensen outlining how to make a small fortune:

start out with a large fortune.

1. Gamble in speculative stocks but not in tobacco and gambling
2. Ban tenants to whom you lease space (on your land that you got for nothing and don't pay tax on) from gambling related activities like selling Lotto tickets to reinforce your aversion to gambling
3. React slowly with disbelief when thing start to go bad
4. Keep reacting slowly for months
5. Sell at the bottom of the market so you end up with 44M not the 200M you started with
6. Feel bad about it, especially about the funds in which you have a special interest
7. Argue with yourself as to whether you've been ethically dubious and decide you haven't
8. Blame someone else, like God
9. Try to read God's mind, the one that twirls up hurricanes and triggers earthquakes and tsunamis
11. Tell the people who gave you the money why God might have taken all their money - they are sinners, they are arrogant, they indulged in unethical behaviour (unlike their leader), they let their elected reps go to a meeting to talk about another elected rep who thinks homosexuals may just be able to share in the divine love cake
13. Tell the people who gave you the money that if God is punishing them then that means He loves them.
14. Tell the people who gave you all the money that everything you said might be wrong anyway.
15. Resolve to reorganise things so you end up with, at the very least, a small but wealthy cult.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

PETER GRIMES more notes

Now the buzz has eased, and before I see it again, and again, there are some little niggling things in my head to let out.

The production concept, that the church hall set would be the place of story telling and the scenes would be carried on the music and the drama, seems to be an evolution from the rehearsal process. At the symposium, everyone referred to the loss that was the audience's not being involved in the development and rehearsal progression. It is as if they brought it to us just completed. Or rather took us to them, there, in this case the OA rehearsal space, the Marrickville Town Hall.

Britten, like Wagner, needs little help from the stage, and risks negative inhibition from insenstive ego centric directors, the music is so perfectly explicit. So the concept is good and the concept worked well, really well, except to the point where it breached of its own philosophy and slipped into the over demonstrative. I am not saying Armfield is insenstive or ego centric, nothing is farther from the truth. He has clearly defined his role as not getting in the way of the music, with an impeccable pedigree.

This was always going to be a fine line, just where to leave the imagination behind and display literality. The most obvious example for me, jarring to the point that it broke the 'spell', was Peter dragging the boat through the hall, which of course he wasn't, he was dragging it ashore. I wonder if these moments, another was the boys pulling the ropes across stage, wouldn't have been better mimed.

Where it worked, and that was virtually always, it was sublime and magical and inspired.

Closely associated with all this is the use of Dr Crabbe, a silent presence in the work as written, and here expanded to omnipresence (in Peter Carroll's exquisitely delicate hands) of varying degrees of dramatic penetration. Again I think the concept is wonderful, but lessened perhaps by going just, if not too far, then maybe a little too often. More viewing will help me. There were times when it was just so right - the presentation, for want of a better expression, to the court, the audience, the world, of his Peter, and his final consolation, as if now guardian angel. But there were moments in between where his presence seemed to break the dramatic pulse and pull me back out of the story making me feel a watcher where I had been a participant. I resented that a little at the time.

My other reservation, and I am loathe to mention it before going back, first night issues and all that, was Catherine Carby's Auntie. She is the foil for Balstrode. She too has an ear to both sides. Up against such tremendously powerful performances as the others were, Carby seemed not completely into the role, perhaps too young, neither worldly enough nor mother enough. But that is all pencilled in.

The male support cast was fine. Noone should be left out of praise in the production. It is exceptionally excellent throughout.


Friday, October 16, 2009

PETER GRIMES performance

Tonight we're finding comfort again in Sibelius' 7th (Vanska) - a haunting stream of consciousness on the mystery of existence, his final affirmation infused with necessary threads of doubt, in defence of doubt.

In the absence of doubt, there is festering certainty and the arrogance of fundamentalism, and never were they better exposed than in last night's Peter Grimes. Benjamin Britten's Grimes is a bleak and shocking expose of the malignancy of fear and its manifestation as judgement. In the hands of Mark Wigglesworth, Neil Armfield and the team that Richard Hickox had chosen, it is as magnificent as it is frightening.

The spectre of two ghosts haunt this production. First is that of the late Richard Hickox. This was as far forward as he had shone his light, I think, and 'now at last is gossip put to rest' in this (Hickox/Grimes) tragic story. And his ghost is heard mostly in his choice of Susan Gritton for Ellen Orford, a role debut as far as I can see (I didn't even manage to buy a programme, let alone anything else). All the other elements could have been pulled together one way or another without him (accepting Mark Wigglesworth as his worthy proxy) but Susan Gritton, risking the (already seeded) slur of outsider from our own village, comes as his final voice. And what a voice. And thank you.

The other is Dr Crabbe, written into the opera as a silent part by Britten and Slater, and enlarged by Armfield into the haunting presence of Grimes' creator, an almost transparency in Peter Carroll's exceptionally delicate nuanced portrayal, half otherworld, creator, father, guardian, angel. Nothing was more piercing than the heartbreaking moment of comfort for the deranged Peter and there I at least found the redemption I hoped for, if not from Britten, then from Peter Carroll and Neil Armfield. That was the moment we were told Peter was alright, if not the only one alright, the one to escape hell for his other place.

The curtain lifts and instantly we are there, inside the church community hall (Ralph Myers), the refuge from fear and the place of assembly for the weak seeking self reassurance. The scale of it, the immediacy and accuracy and detail is breathtaking and transporting. From the harrowing moment of Peter's first delivery to the mob, to his final delivery to his fate, it is this immediacy and detail and the clear reality of it all that is totally consuming. And overarching this, carried on the urgent musical direction of Wigglesworth of equal clarity and revelation, is the great moral tale, whose grinding inevitability was never lost for a second in the minutiae of its many segments; on the contrary, if ever something was greater than the sum of its parts, this is it. Like every stitch in Tess Schofield's costumes and the finished cloth. You are overwhelmed by the whole while stunned by the detail.

The lighting (Damien Cooper) was stunning, and beautiful, and frightening.

It is hard to describe Stuart Skelton's Peter, coming here after so much praise, a Peter less angry than I imagined from his London run, a Peter of aching sadness, a bewildered innocent. Sympathy, if not empathy, and empathy is what Skelton asks from us, is engaged from his first faltering guided entry. It is a towering total performance brilliantly nurtured by Armfield. The moment of the boy's fatal fall is one of the most inspired moments I've seen on stage. If you miss this, may God have mercy on your soul.

Susan Gritton came silently. No fanfare, little publicity, a virtual unknown down here to many. She is small, quite delicate, especially next to big Stuart, and hesitant and reserved, almost as shy as Peter, in fact another innocent I think. They are beautifully matched these innocents, outsiders together. Her declaration of failure, with its precipitous violent response and death sentence self declared, is far more understandable than that from the more arch somewhat older matronly more determined Ellens. Her pacing was magnificent, and her final meditative was of beauty and power unequalled. It is that most of all I need again, the fix, the rush, the endorphins, the beauty, the power, the unexpectedness of it.

Linking Peter and Ellen to the mob is the Captain, a wonderful character really, able to see enough into each thought system to be mediator and final decision maker, a terribly difficult role to straddle, beautifully handled by Peter Coleman-Wright, in for me a defining role, perfect for his voice and style. He is in someways the other angel on stage, the voice of each side.

I'll talk more later about the brilliant Elizabeth Campbell and her tense contained Mrs Sedley, never sliding into caricature, the unbelievably beautifully realised nieces/twins of Lorina Gore and Tarin Feibig, vocally perfect, that's perfect, dressed and lit to perfection, almost to transparency, they too now I think about it are more innocents abroad, despite whatever else they do upstairs, and who join the mob in condemnation as children do, these giggly sweet girls. Did I mention the quartet?

And the mighty chorus. As Mark Wigglesworth said, Britten could have called this The Village People. I don't pretend for a minute to understand what has gone into getting this choral masterpiece so right, so explosively powerful, balanced, with a downstage force and dynamic control to curl your hair. Thank you, thank you. And was ever a chorus better lit, or choreographed?

More, much more later. There are many more.

(It is Saturday morning now - the fabulous alto of Johnny Somerville is belting out 'Coming - at last I am free' - from Orlando. No, we don't have neighbours. Things are settling down, at least till next Wednesday.)

Sarah has already uploaded this videocast. Here it is again just to reinforce why words fail.

I am reminded of reading recently of a tattooed barely literate Texan man who was executed, a 1 minute to midnight plea of stay in view of evidence refused by the State after 10 minutes perusal, for the murder of his 2 children who were burnt to death in their house. There was an electrical fault.

Britten is looking at many things here and capital punishment is not the least of them. Sanctioned murder by those decrying murder, Mrs Sedley.

PETER GRIMES has started

There are many reasons to see this complex, this most musically and psychologically complex, opera.

This is not a one-go show. Twice will not be enough.

Much has been anticipated, much expected and even more realised.

It will take a while to organise myself, if I even can before seeing it again, but right now two words are keeping me awake -


Thursday, October 15, 2009


Before I am completely distracted by 'when horror breaks one heart all hearts are broken', I confess we've been to Wicked. And for a very good reason - tickets were per kind favour. And it was fun, sort of. The Capitol was full, on last Wednesday night, after an matinee had already played to a full house. There we children of all ages, everywhere, (excursion came to mind) and the grown up ones were sipping electric green drinks. K wanted a green drink but settled for Maltesers.

It was as expected a big showy high production musical (well, there was music), music and lyrics by a Mr Stephen Schwartz (laughing all the way...) packing them in to that gorgeous starry roof of the Capitol.

It starts with a 20 minute lockout (more like a 20 min lockin K quipped). Things did get better. They had to. The goirl with the voice like the blond in "Bullets over Broadway" (think chalk on blackboard) was one witch. The other one was born green. Nice story line - outsider made nasty by intolerance and lack of understanding etc (think Peter Grimes even). Anyway, Maggie Kirkpatrick was fine. Burt Newton was Burt, pinched eyes and always just short of giggling. The cute(ish) guy was cast by Gluteus Maximus. Every one sang, kind of. The microphones and mixing were quite good. The lady band-leader needed a green drink, and then some.

There were lots of witchy things for sale. We went to Chile Cha Cha afterwards.

Last night I caught some on the OA Cosi telecast. By some I mean I missed the beginning and the end. It looked terrific. The camera work was just excellent, even with those up the nostrils close ups, and while we don't see it till next week, and so have no idea how much it reflected what the audience experiences, it really doesn't matter. It's a different medium with a different purpose and it, saying it again, looked gorgeous.

The English was a fine translation, the diction exemplary and it had exactly what Jim Sharman said he wanted to achieve - immediacy and relevance to the audience of the day. After quite a few negatives (friends and luddites), and especially those dreary black and white advertising posters, it came across as luminous and alive and immediate and fresh and dare I say it, very Australian, and by that I mean baggage free, artistically speaking.

Rachelle D sang the hell out of it and kept her arms from flailing around too much. Henry Choo sounded wonderfull. Tiffany Speight was stealing the show. Jose sounded more picky and know-all than wise and masterful. The orchestra under Simon Hewitt kept it moving along, (he'd had a green drink thankfully), and congrats all round.

I do have reservatons about the gushy Ms Byrne, but it was a good start, if a pity it is so late in the season. I am now really looking forward to the real deal, and I was faltering I admit.

Jim Sharman is the genius at work. More please Mr Sharman. Please.

I am nervous about tonight. I haven't felt this way since Joan was around. Something in the air. All things in place.


The last few days have been windy, about the only weather I find unsettling, but there's been no shortage of out-to-lunchers.

Actually, these are men who lunch, 2 males and not a girl in sight. Only the males have that incredible unmissable orange head.

He's an Australian King Parrott (Alisterus scapularis) feeding on the seeds of the just finished flowering Sydney Golden Wattle (Acacia longifolia). Wattles are in the Fabaceae family and seed pods are a big Fabaceae thing.

These are inquisitive but cautious birds, will hand feed, return to the same feeding place each year, will fluff up for the camera

and I'm ready for my closeup now Mr de M.

Meanwhile, with the dogs suitably distracted, the Crimson Rosella (Platycercus elegans), very elegans indeed, has time off from soup can photo shoots for new grass roots...yummo.

You may remember our wild eyed songster the Satin Bower Bird. He's still a courting close to the house, tossing of his descending scales with his usual abandon and feeding on grass grubs - he's no vegan this guy.

Overseeing the general scena, who would you think - the first and last laugher on an old wattle branch over the bird bath.

Someone you don't see very often around here is his cousin, the small compact Azure Kingfisher (Alcedo azurea), all beak for drilling a nest in the side of creek beds, or in this case, our dam.

I found one dead, limp and broken necked, under a window into which it had flown full throttle deluded that what was behind it was in front; the past is not the future. A suitable and solemn burial was had, nearby the dam, where his mate

was seen a few days later. Do they grieve?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Well if you thought I was about to rabbit on again about death and the never-ending pursuit of what you have already, then lucky you.

It is Peter Grimes I'm worked up about and judgement is the one word answer I'd give if asked what I thought Grimes was about. All this was looping around in my head on this morning's walk (the old dog mostly stays behind these days, with little stiff legged, smiley tail-wagging, always tail-wagging, short walks around the house gardens followed by long sleeps in the shed where swallows swoop) and now I'm back only to find Opera Australia's Allerta had arrived and it is a good one too - the Peter Grimes issue.

What was occupying me on the walk was that word, that judgement word, and Britten and religion, religious belief, and particularly Christianity, the essence of which (if one is to ignore the institutions whose inversion of truth is without equal), as I understand the M/man, revolves around what judgement is and what are its consequences. This then, for me, makes Peter Grimes a particularly Christian work. I emphasise this thought had absolutely nothing to do with the authorities working under said banner to whom I am no subscriber.

Britten and his beliefs are to be inferred, from scholarship, interviews of self and others, from letters, from biography, and mostly surely from his music. One interesting exemplar is his transforming of the (Buddhist) Japanese Noh play Sumidagawa, which affected him enormously, into a Christian parable, Curlew River (which affected me permanently). This you could claim was on purely musical and structural necessity, but I doubt it.

Crunching along the track this morning, the ground moist again and the air quite chilly, I was struck by how powerfully relevant is the set concept of Neil Armfield (director) and Ralph Myers (set design) - the Church Hall (as place of story-telling). Some of these things were raised at the Britten symposium, of which there is a podcast, far better that than taking my word.

The OA's Allerta has interviews with conductor Mark Wigglesworth, Stuart Skelton, Susan Gritton and Peter Coleman-Wright. Read them; you must read them. They're also on the main AO News Page. For those needing tit-bits to convince them:


To his mind, Peter Grimes’ greatness lies in the way it puts across, in dramatic and musical terms, a powerful message that still holds true today. Grimes is rejected by his community because they don’t understand him, and an important part of the story is what that rejection does to the community. “It’s a profound and terrifying story, expressed with shattering directness and simplicity.”

“Britten could easily have called this opera The Village People!


When you’ve sung the final scene and you’re greeted by a deathly silence from the audience…you know that they have been completely destroyed. If you get that reaction twice in a run of performances, it’s sensational.”

This is luxury (casting) – Opera Australia has gone nuts!


What is your favourite CD? Geoffrey Tozer playing Medtner solo piano works. He is one of the finest musicians I’ve ever had the privilege to work with. We recorded some Medtner songs together for his series on Chandos.

And from you local Fish Shop, you can do a lot worse than get very ready, because get set, and go, are not far away:

Britten conducts Britten (the ending is shattering)
BBC Studio Britten conducts (legendary 1969 with Pears filmed in the role he created)

After all that, I have more questions than I started with. Why did Britten stop the music, stop the vocal line, and use the spoken word for the verdict? And is there redemption anywhere to be found?

Monday, October 5, 2009


after the storm

It is absolutely bucketing down. Noisy pounding thunderstorm rain on a true vertical and everything outside is refracted in a morphing sheet of water-glass. I wish I could filter out the sound of its impact, or levitate to a height where all I heard was the sound of itself with its accelerating purpose vibrating the air.

Here I am with the dogs watching the life source fall from the sky. The more I think about it the more I realise I've never thought about it before. Not really. A few minerals aside, it is all we are - bags of water held together by atomic forces not even strong enough to keep us swapping little bits with each other, perceptions being the tricksters that they are.

It is what they look for when they look for evidence of life - the only clue, the clincher, the absolute necessity - water.

I suddenly understand the worship of rivers and remember now Philip Adams interview with Jessica Weir last week about her book 'Murray River Country'. I don't suggest she is talking about river worship, but her explanation of the urgent need to reconfigure the black white interface and for all to see the river in its living light was compelling. I was born on the Murray and didn't ever learn of the place or its meaning. But I'm glad I was born there.