Wednesday, January 26, 2011


There's the usual hoopla going on everywhere about the day Governor Phillip set up a penal colony in No Man's Land, except it wasn't. Are we so bereft of honesty, with so little else to be proud of, of which to be proud, yunno.

It's breathlessly hot in the bush. The morning was deceptive, overcast and spotting. In spite of the forecast for a stinker, it was pleasantly mild. They're wrong again I thought, failing to notice that I was the only one out. Except for an English Blackbird (they are around - how did it know it was the day for trespass) trilling itself stupid and me awake just as the sun rose, there was nothing about. Even the dogs hung close to the house. By late morning the sky was a radiant hot blue and the temperature soared. Inside the house was comfortable, doors and windows thrown open all night now well shut. Nothing stirred - not a cockatoo or parrot in the trees, no whipbird to be heard, no wrens on the grass, no swallows near the house.

As if they'd known, and I'm sure now they did, the Cockatoos had been around in larger than usual numbers late yesterday doing whatever they do before weather like this. A large flock of Suphur Crested, high overhead, screeched their way south. Parties of Yellow-tailed Black (Funereal) Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus funereus) winged back and around in the receding afternoon. Just outside the study window one landed in a Hairpin Banksia (Banksia spinulosa) bobbing it over the driveway with its weight. There's green tight new buds emerging, still a month or two from opening into flowers, but it was one of the last years few remaining nutty brown seed pods he was after. Sitting confidently, the pod held up in one hand, dropping as much as he ate, he cleaned it up in no time.

With a cheeky glance, I know you're there, he was away.

Times like this I think Banksia not such a bad name at all.

Monday, January 24, 2011


Here's a very hip Teresa Berganza in a Monroe x Deitrich tribute to Placido Domingo, celebrating 70 years in Madrid, with very little lost in translation.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Mr Malkovich has been all the talk of the town for the last week and I'm afraid it hasn't been all good. In a tribute to 'star power', tickets to the The Giacomo Variations sold like hot cakes. Never mind that John Malkovich's reputation is essentially as a film actor, Steppenwolf and Broadway* notwithstanding, and that he hasn't, as far as we know, been lauded as a fine Mozartian. And the performance was to be in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House, one of the least intimate venues in town, where some small percentage of the audience would see his face, but all would at least hear his voice, albeit via a loudspeaker. However, there was at least one known known - the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was a co-presenter.

I can't criticise the rush. I was in it, swayed by an interesting conceit (Casanova takes a good hard look at himself, using Mozart and Da Ponte, contemporary and acquaintance respectively, to help flesh out the meaning of things), the Malkovich star thing, the orchestra, and the niggling fear that it could be so good, and so one-off, that it would be one of those things you kick yourself for missing. Third back row upper circle - mmm, not great, but you never never know if you ....

We started Week Malkovich with the Jim Sharman interview at the Town Hall on the Monday night. I like the opportunity to see people live - their size, their stature, their composure, their attitude to audience, and their answers of course - and I especially like Jim Sharman, baptised with his scandalously brilliant 1974 Rock Horror Show in Glebe, notably starring Reg Livermore's Betty Davis Dr Frank-n-Furter and Kate Fitzpatrick's Magenta. Reg Livermore isn't done with us yet by the way - his new show with Nancye Hayes just happens to coincide with Mardi Gras.

When they (Sharman and Malkovich) shuffled onto the stage, late, after the usual scrum of everyone struggling ever so politely to get into the place and then trying to divine the seat numbers (some IQ test I failed miserably), a hushed silence came over the hall, almost a reverence. Goodness. Mumbling into his hand JS kicked it off by asking about seduction and what JM had gleaned about it, from the current show, or any other, or life..... And so on. After an hour I was left with a rough superficial impression of John Malkovich, raised in the midwest in a somewhat dysfunctional Croatian American family, finding his way to Chicago, onto the stage, into film, into the world, through relationships or marriages, names not an issue, now living mostly in Europe (France) enjoying a reputation, except he doesn't seem to, enjoy it that is, because 'it' just is, which is rather nice.

There were interesting thoughts on art (a heart in conflict with itself), stage craft (be ambivalent, yes is no and no is yes, be in the now, and be the vessel, the empty vessel for the audience to enter) and film, where take after take means little till the rushes are seen, and Betty Davis had a big head. These I remember, though I can't say that's what I heard, exactly. Anyway, it was interesting, if overly serious and in need of a good dose of the larrikan. I thought Mr Malkovich deeply serious, and just maybe that's not really the best place to be. And I have to say, I thought Jim Sharman's questions beautifully informed with a rare depth of experience and the insight of a soul that has asked itself the questions in more private moments. I could have stayed another hour and had JM interview JS.

Now to Mr Malkovich as Casanova. Thursday night was to have been the first night I think, but an extra show had been played the night before. These hot cakes were hot. Karr-ching. The concert platform held three oversized 18C hooped panniered skirts, each capable of hiding an army even before theatrical exaggeration, or at least a bed or so for the naughty moments.

Except that it was wasn't naughty, or funny, or anything much, except rather serious, at least from where we sat, half the surtitles blocked by the lighting, and the band played on, as Giacomo I (JM), Giacomo II (Andrei Bondarenko, Ukranian born of lovely young baritone voice), Isabella I (Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Lithuanian born soprano) and Isabella II (Martene Grimson, Sydney Con graduate based in London) all came and went and I really wasn't sure who was who. If they were all trying to make sense out of life great mysteries, and man's great hormones, then I was trying harder still. And then, as if a veil had lifted, JM stepped up the footlights, and as the band played a sprightly Ecco la marcia from Figaro, he spoke with such animation, and conviction, and intent, I was quite moved, even though I had no idea what he was saying.

We didn't go back after interval. It was simply the wrong venue, way too long and loose, with a generally less than professional (SSO excepted, conducted by Martin Haselböck, who had a big finger in this pie, together with writer Michael Sturminger) feel about the whole thing. Despite a not altogether overwhelmingly successful recent Cosi (which is too long anyway, so shoot me), I kept wondering what Jim Sharman would have made of it, or rather made it into.

* In 1984 John Malkovich won an Emmy for Biff in Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman, the year of my first visit to New York, seeing amongst so many other things, yes, that Death of a Salesman. After a year in Paris, mostly at "La Varenne", L had joined us for the fortnight, with a list of where to dine. In a crowded schedule this was the night we had set aside for Georgine Carmella in Little Mulberry Street, Italian in little Italy in big New York, oblivious to the stupidity of trying to eat way down there before a show way up there. We were still learning, slowly. So thanks to dearest L, no longer here now, the very generous Georgine Carmella opened her restaurant early and there we were, eating porcini mushrooms fresh from Rome that day, gently tossed in something ambrosial, before being sped off in a yellow cab to midtown, just in time.

Monday, January 17, 2011


We caught 'Dracula - The Music and the Film' at the late show last Friday at Sydney's State Theatre, which defies classification except to say that it is late 1920s and decorated along the lines of nothing succeeds like excess.

(there's one of the many draculas on the landing)

(some had gone to a lot of trouble; not that's not us)

This music for the 1931 Universal early talkie early scary classic comes via Philip Glass with a Michael Reisman (director of the Philip Glass ensemble) arrangement written for the Kronos Quartet, all of whom - that's Philip Glass (keyboards), Michael Reisman (keyboards and conductor), David Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola) and Jeffrey Zeigler (Cello) - fronted the stage shortly after midnight. Mr Glass, facing the audience, looked rather in the mode of Friday-must-be-Sydney, but he made it through. Mr Reisman's back looked fine.

Anyway, it was the combination of Glass and the Kronos quartet which had flushed us out. The musicians were in front of the screen, unlike in some other cities where they had played behind but still visible, and the result was ideal - easy to watch both and easy to shift focus wherever, whenever.

(ten to midnight --- ooohhhhh)

I was absolutely convinced I'd seen it before, when actually this was pure construct, the result of having been made so familiar with the genre, seen so many stills etc that it wasn't till the carriage (with the rather handsome Renfield of Dwight Frye) rattled over the mountains that the penny dropped. I was a Béla Lugosi Dracula virgin.

It's a great classic and all the better for the absence of wizbang special effects and the use of pure craft to create some incredibly beautiful scenes and load up the atmosphere. Of course, Béla Lugosi of the hypnotic stare and heavily accented baritone dominates the film. With a voice like that it's no wonder he was plucked from the stage play and immortalised. But Dwight Frye's Renfield is something amazing, as he, still very much in the histrionic silent film style, deteriorates from innocent hapless victim to raving loonie, now riddled with guilt. And there's more than a touch of homoeroticism between the Count and his visitor, or maybe that's just me, rubbing my neck as I type. The film shows considerable restraint, at least by today's standards, and in a sure case of less is more, leaves to the imagination what today's directors indulge - there's not a fang or a bite to be seen.

I don't listen to much Glass, except with Ravi Shankar, which I listen to a lot. But Satyagraha is sitting in the vinyl collection, and some of his sound tracks I find especially memorable - Koyaanisqatsi, Thin Blue Line, Kundun, Fog of War - again all conducted by Michael Riesman. It's hard for me to have any strong feelings about whether the film even needed a soundtrack - I've 'fessed up - I was seeing it for the first time. And Glass's music was reasonably predictable in over-all style, arpeggioing its way along, interspersed with some haunting melodies (Verdi came to mind) beautifully articulated on the violins. Particularly early on dialogue was lost, and there were few, too few, moments of sustained silence.

The film ends rather quickly, as if they ran out of ideas, or time, or money. Glass tapers things out with a few minutes of middle register postlude, and then we spilled out back into the night.

Here, to give you some idea (I can't say how well the sound is matched to the film, which it certainly was live with Michael Reisman, facing the screen, frame by framing it) is the still sane Renfield, and later the first spooky appearance of the 'brides', only to be shooed away in a this-one-is-mine androcentric moment.

Later, Dwight Frye typecasts himself for life.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


I'd intended to go on some more about Patricia Racette's Butterfly in Sydney. About her quite striking stage presence, shorter in stature than I'd expected for whatever reason, but a much stronger persona, quietly confident about herself and her abilities I think. From that legendary Puccini entrance (heard before seen always works well) she has that rare magic something which magnifies her space. And she is very beautiful, in face and eyes and smile, oh that smile, and movement. She's soft but strong. Her Butterfly was no child bride, not a foolish girl who forsakes her heritage for money, but a woman in love. In love with a future, with an exotic stranger, ultimately with her child, though still prepared to abandon her child for honour, dramatically strong if nonetheless somewhat implausible.

And I was going to talk about her voice, and how she sings the words, and phrases the notes into wonderful Puccini lines with a touch of verismo, of which we hear so little these days. And how she when she moves up the scale and opens up the voice takes on a soft pulse which gives it extra warmth and feeling.

And I was thinking I should mention Rosario La Spina playing her gauche self-serving American. Not. There is simply no characterisation at all. Zip. Mr La Spina did sing all the notes, mostly loudly. The set helps, a box set which is about the only way to get the voices out in this theatre. (Remember Grimes and how good it sounded.) But I'd have liked more than the notes, something like words and phrases and meaning, something then approaching feeling. And I have to say, the lower middle girth is getting to the giggle stage - leave your long coat on Mr La Spina. Never mind. Nothing could impact the splendidness of the star, and anyway, she was the only reason I was there.

So then I started You-tubing, and there are some clips of Patricia Racette singing Butterfly, mostly from the Met HD, and one ten years ago from the Tucker Gala, which is quite wonderful although the microphone catches too much on the respiratory work too closely. They give some idea, but that's all, as to what she really sounds like.

But I found this, and here for me is the secret to her Butterfly. She knows about love, and about honesty. That's the thing with Butterfly, she loves, and (exempting the kid of course) she's the only honest creature on stage the whole damn night. The only one.

Honestly, it's all about love...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Patricia Racette is stunning. And beautiful. And beautifully stunning. And stunningly beautiful.

This is by far the most accomplished Butterfly I've heard, eclipsing the very gorgeous lyrico early spinto black butterfly of Leona Mitchell way back sometime last century.

She was complete. Not completely Japanese - nothing much about this production is (Japanese), to my sensibilities, despite the affectations. To be honest I've never really been that keen on it (except for the rather lovely hollywood dream sequence in which PB was, well, a dream). But for Ms Racette it was perfect. I would imagine anything would be perfect. Because she was perfect. Everything about her is just so well produced, most of all the voice. It's a great voice.

Andrew Moran; Rosario La Spina; very cute little curly red haired Sorrow with the longest neck you've ever seen, must be mother's side; Patricia Racette; Jacqueline Dark

Patricia Racette and the man behind her tonight, and the great sound from the pit, Massimo Zanetti.

More later, except that it won't be on 11.1.11, which is the right date to talk about Patricia Racette.

Monday, January 10, 2011


From The Sentimental Bloke comes news that the recently uncovered work of the late American street photographer Vivian Maier is being uploaded by John Maloof, her discoverer.

These photos speak (volumes) for themselves.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


This weather continues - the drizzle and mists keep coming and going with intermittent storms and downpours. As wretched as it is for some, here it is bliss. The bush has never looked better, the usual annual bushfire worry is non-existent, and the snakes are all under logs watching the cricket or something.

The much maligned and under appreciated Black Wattle (Acacia mearnsii) leans heavily over the edge of the lawn.

The Dorrigo Waratahs (Alloxylon pinnatum) have kept their colour and form longer than in a hot dry summer and are still giving a good show in the plantation, red lanterns in the fog.

And the usually impossible to see spider webs on the Astartea become bejewelled fine nets...

... part of an unseen network that looks pretty hard to navigate and avoid becoming dinner.

Last but never least, here she is, all grown up now.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


Happy New Year. Every year, every month, every week, every day. As Mum used to say - "every day should be mother's day" and so on, and so forth.

I've left the city after a glitzy night way up high, looking out over it in all its splendour; here it is, just before the fireworks turn it into a blur of colour and smoke ...

... and have now retreated back to the highlands which have been covered in wispy mists and drizzle for the last few days. As the fog creeps then retreats, everything is played out in layers, like an ever changing series of mysterious scrims.

The last few days of the year in Sydney were unexpectedly beautiful with a respite from the overcast days, and more overcast days, associated with this La Niña, one of the strongest in 20 years. New South Wales is sodden and now Queensland is drowning. And in some regression to the worst of biblical punishments, Mr Hooper from Banana (sic) Shire Council says the snakes are bloody angry.

Meanwhile, back in Sodom, between the sea and the pool, salted and sun kissed, there was time for catching up, starting with a long queue at the Art Gallery of NSW. Well, actually we swished past to the special members desk, which you should too (and if not, why not?) or at least pre-purchase on-line, (believe me, it is a lonngggg queue).

'The First Emperor, China's Entombed Warriors' is on its second visit. Don't wait for a third. In 1974, villagers, digging a well, chanced on the underground army of Qin (pronounced Chin, and thought to be the basis for the English word China) Shihuang, 259BCE - 210 BCE. Ascending the throne at 13 and taking control of the affairs of state at 21, he ruthlessly conquered and united rival states, and in a desperate attempt to obliterate the past (don't they all) finally set about the burning of all the books of the empire and the live burial of 460 scholars, himself dying two years later. Charming little fellow.

Fear knows no ends, especially in the face of the unknown, and he took his terracotta army with him in death, to guard his tomb, to secure immortality. Perfectly employed facing east there lies a staggering 8,000 life-sized soldiers, 140 chariots, 560 chariot horses and 116 cavalry horses, in 4 pits (one empty, suggesting his death before completion) covering 25,000 sq metres.

The realism of these clay figures, the power of their presence and the perfection of every detail, not one the same as any other, each hand finished, is such that you struggle to believe that they aren't the very bodies of dead warriors, ossified and preserved by the earth. In the darkened room stand ten (of the 1900 uncovered so far of the 8000) - an armoured general, armoured military officer, light infantryman, armoured infantryman, standing archer, armoured kneeling archer, cavalryman, cavalry horse, charioteer, and a chariot horse.

(chariot horse - the colours here are a reasonably good representation of the real thing)

(standing archer)

(cavalry horse)

(armed kneeling archer)


Other rooms trace the beginnings and the rise of the Qin state, the life of Qin Shihuang, and his burial complex designed to conquer the afterlife.

(He kettle - 770-476 BCE - bronze)

(Tiger plaque - 475-221 BCE - silver; from Ordos region north of great wall, the ribbing and robust style features of 'Ordos' style)

All pictures, variably cropped, are from the Gallery's (invaluable) official book.