Thursday, December 26, 2013


Happy Days Everyone.

Last week on Sydney harbour ...

Christmas Eve in the village ...

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


A week exactly after Rheingold we were fronting up for Götterdämmerung. Knowing we'd be late at an after-party, we were already packed for a quick get-away the next morning. It was like it had ended before it had started, as is so often with Götterdämmerung - a late finish and an early start the next day to move on. Somewhere else. Leave it behind. Except I took a lot of this with me this time.

I'd link to the cast but in a brilliant stroke of genius, Opera Australia have removed all details of the Ring Performances and the Ring Festival from their website. Which is bloody irritating. On the Sunday morning we coughed up and went to a talk (there's one on each Sunday of each of the three cycles, but each with different participants) between OA chief Lyndon Terracini and Stuart Skelton (Siegmund) and the Wotan cover Shane Lowrencev.

Audience questions kept coming back to the production which Mr Terracini declined to comment on because he was interviewing director Neil Armfield on a subsequent Sunday (and a subsequent cycle) and couldn't preempt that. But, after prompting, he agreed to put the transcripts of that interview on-line, to the audible relief of those who, obviously, couldn't be there. And during an interval at Götterdämmerung I was given a firm assurance that it would happen. Well, if it did happen, it didn't happen for long. Thanks Lyndon.

So left with the published programme which has some brief Director's notes (along with four excellent essays about things Wagnerian and Ringy), here's the best I can give you of what Armfield has to say about his ideas:

* Love is exchnaged for wealth, and this is no arbitrary exchange

* The Ring is the story of a man "who recognises that the world is being destroyed by greed but is so compromised" by his own situation that he is unable to change anything, as are we all in one way or another.

* And "'it is essential'" wrote Wagner to August Röckel "'that everyone can recognise himself in Wotan'".

* Finally, the thematic message:
"But ours is a world in which species of animals and plants are being lost as they are being discovered. It's a world shaped by the mass movement of people escaping war or persecution or destruction of habitat. A world of miraculous developments of technology sitting on the most glaring inequalities of wealth and opportunity: the third world enslaved by the first.

One hundred and fifty years ago Wagner wrote The Ring as an incitement to both artistic and social revolution. He wanted the self-destructing world to be cleansed and to start over again. As we face deluge and conflagration in the 21st century, Wagner's götterdammerung is perhaps only a matter of time. He asks the essential question: is our love strong enough to save us?"

There's a short trailer which gives a look at the general feel of the staging - the Norns struggling to repair a fading tapestry of life; the Gibichungs in their noveau riche home gymnasium, the designer wedding in the marquee, the rifle club and the murder.

What was really starting to have an impact on me was how appropriate the casting was to the meaningfulness of this production. All were consistently in character in direction (and Neil Armfield is a genius at letting the actor evolve his own characterisation, under the 'gentle guidance', which is why it seems so from 'within') but also in voice. To that extent, this was one of if not the most satisfying of Ring experiences. I might well have heard some of the roles better sung, but there's more to it than that. Sometimes vocal imperfections (against an idealised perfect) are the more revealing.

I loved
the bitterness in Fyfe's Alberich,
the weary masculinity of Stensvold Wotan,
the glorious accomplishment of Skelton's Siegmund,
the wounds in Gordon-Stewart's Sieglinde,
the depths in Humble's Erda,
the persistence in Dark's Fricka,
the boundless confidence in Vinke's Siegfried,
the hapless sexlessness in Macfarlane's Mime,
the startled brightness in Fribig's Woodbird,
the weaknesses in Ryan's Gunter
and last but not least, and this is her opera - the determined, nuggety and ultimately very moving Brünnhilde of Susan Bullock.

She's interesting on stage, very committed, and uses her vocal resources with great intelligence and integrity. She was quite wonderful I thought, with that sense of struggle and battling through thick and thin, and her vocal resources matched that completely and her midrange was splendid and almost Shakespearean in its impact, on me, in those vital exchanges, we know what they are.

The first sms I received the next morning was "how was it - bleak or redemptive?" which is of course the real question, not how was the trill, or the high Cs, as much as I like trills and high Cs. I could only answer that the music was, as written and as wonderfully played, beautifully redemptive but the staging was uncertain, and pointing to the other way. K had tears running down his cheeks, and likewise. The final effect was overpowering, with this sense of something having been set in motion and while everyone knows that something must be done to avert calamity, no one yet has, or can access, the where-with-all to know what.

It was the final moments that pulled all these thoughts together: Siegfried death throes witnessed with the horror of what have we done; the gentle lifting of the body in loving embrace of fellowship; the washing of the feet and death mask ...

... the bizarre but riveting standing corpse drapped in black; the people piling up flowers in a Diana-moment; Brünnhilde's taking of some white lillies and joining her dead beloved in a perspective that looked as ridiculous as dolls on a wedding cake but as tragic as anything I have seen as they revolved slowly in the conflagration watched in strange detachment by the people. The people. This was all about people.

And that tinge of despair was what I took away all the while knowing there is another way. There is another way. The music tells us that, but who will listen. And can those who do, do anything.

Monday, December 16, 2013


                                                            (grandfather and you-know-who)

My sincere apologies for the reporting break. These notes on Siegfried and Gotterdammerung have been nearly hatched for weeks now waiting for me to tweak, slash adjectives and adverbs and add some pictures, but there have been more mundane matters pressing, and the longer you leave it, the longer it gets left, dontchaknow.

First up Siegfried (cast etc in there - with an error: Jud Arthur sang Fafner) -  and now we're getting serious. I found this Episode Three in the Evolving Debacle to be so good such as to ponder the unaffordable and unavailable - going again.

To refresh the goings-on up till now :

Rheingold was brilliant  and Warwick Fife's outsider Alberich outstanding, but most of all everything was meaningful. And that ending with its tragic fragility of illusory beauty will stay with me as one of the greats. It's up there with the equally tragic stair climb of the first Ring I saw with the beautiful Yvonne Minton in an ermine trimmed train.

Walküre, despite a terrific first act followed by a full-on domestic between the unhappily married and finally an ultimately very moving farewell to the good daughter, was lessened for me by a lack mystery and magic at other important dramatic moments - the annunciation of death and Siegmund's murder most foul. And the gas-cooker ring of fire is nowadays the sort of cliché Mr Armfield can be so good at avoiding. Maybe they made him do it.

Curtain up and immediately we are in a multi-layered world, a theatre within a theatre, and the promise (well fulfilled) of some revelations.

In a homely and comfortable but struggle street bedsit (and obviously all male - the squeesed-in workshop looked entirely what you'd expect) there's a precocious carrot-top getting too big for his top bunk as well as his boots. School days are stuck on the wall.

Graeme Macfarlane's quite wonderful Mime, as much mummy as daddy, potters about the kitchen dealing with the ingrate with an unusually warm tone (for Mime), all the notes and none of the customary nasal whining or racial hints. There is a genuine sense of caring for the boy to the extent he cares for much at all, except extracting himself from his limited circumstances and capabilities.

Just as I did with his brother a few days ago, I understood him: another outsider saddled with his genes and his lousy status. And if the only way to get out of this mess is by poisoning this irritating foundling, you tend to think you'd do the same. While Alberich may have survived (just) to exact revenge, you get the feeling pretty early on Mime is not going too far too quickly and when he is dismissed at the hands of the great sword, he is just another body to be trampled over in the rush.

Stephan Vinke's sings this over-achieving sword-forging upstart with a lovely full open sound and really pleasant timbre, and with such apparent ease, great diction and olympian stamina, that for the first time I'm thinking that is why it is written this way - he who can sing this can't be beaten: there are no (other) obstacles too big.  Except treachery of course.

And we are in the middle of another huge steady quite complex voiced performance by Terje Stensvold as the Wanderer. His voice and presence speaks of his years of experience that are so apposite for the wise and world weary man for whom no surprises are left. And quite fetching he was (is he really 70) in his bare chested masculinity pitted against the hapless and sexless Mime.

The Act closes with a masterstroke - so simple, so effective - when Siegfried slashes the rear wall of the flat with Notung and the other world becomes apparent. Out of the pan into the fire comes to mind, hah.

Act 2 opens as you know outside Fafner's cave. In an incredibly arresting sequence, we find ourselves behind the Act 1 performance space of the now revolved set-proscenium, in the other reality, where a stark naked actor/singer is seated making up and entering into character as his face is projected in oversized confronting clarity. It took me minutes to realise he was actually in the corner of the stage so transfixed was I with the image.

I could write so much about this. The exposure. The nakedness. The vulnerability. The foolish need to confront with either aggression or artifice to disguise our raw sameness. The template that is us all. We know Fafner the dragon is Fafner the giant. The dragon is a disguise. The giant is a disguise. Everyone is naked. I see it everyday, every week, every year. The nakedness is the same when the makeup and the jewels and the clothes are off. Everything is a disguise. Everything is a play. All the world ...

Slowly and crudely Jud Arthur paints his face, enacting wild animal faces, bared teeth, flared nostrils, the music almost vomiting out of the pit, till he slowly revolves away and we are back on the other side again where youth with sword waits. This was absolutely marvellous riveting theatre, in its execution and its inferences.

The most stunning (and I mean stunning) moment was yet to come. It was when the sword is jabbed repeatedly into the hole, both cave and other world, and it's not a dragon, it's not Fafner, who is killed. It's Jud Arthur. Slashed from stem to stern, a mighty black gash dripping blood down his penis. It's you and it's me.

It is no secret what this cost. It cost us the best part of ten thousand dollars. Yes, catch your breath. Tickets cost six (a thousand each to secure access, and two thousand a seat), travelling and other expenses made up the rest. It cost us a trip to Europe next year most likely. I say this not to brag. I say it to say it was worth every dollar of it for this one shocking revelation of the truth of humanity. I see dragons every day. I am a dragon every day. I am changed by this, I hope.

Congratulations to Jud Arthur for a mighty brave performance.

That's more than enough to say I think but for the need to highlight some of the things one is expected to highlight.

Taryn Feibig was a bright wide-eyed darting wood bird leading the (anti) hero off to the girl behind the gold curtain (this was not the first concept for the fire barrier I gather) which Notung nicely lifted up at once braving the boundary as well as lifting some skirt. Brünnehilde was vacuum sealed in one of those  animal boxes, and one slash and you're out. If all this sounds indigestibly complex, remember this: Armfield is the master of telling a human story and with a cast who noticeably understood this, it was a triumph.

Here it is well time to praise Susan Bullock, which I had thought to leave to her big night with Grane yet to come. But she is very compelling and perfectly cast for this Ring. She guards her vocal resources well, and her middle voice and diction are almost Shakespearian in their impact (and here I refer to her especially to Walkure). Moreover, contrary to my expectations at least, she looks wonderful - a tightly packed energetic and determined woman now, hair extensions and all, an incongruous mix of goddess child and faltering virgin.

Oh, the orchestra and wonder boy Inkenin were thrillingly good and it's getting harder every episode and they are just getting better.

And for a final shock, the aged wheelchair bound Erda (Deborah Humble so commanding again as the mime) had more than a passing resemblance to Dame Elizabeth Murdoch (yes, his mother).

Here's some bits:

Addit: It seems to me some of the links aren't working, and as far as I can see Opera Australia have pulled most if not all of the pages relating to the Ring, including casting, from their website. If this is the case they are complete idiots. I can easily find the cast for a Ring in London in 1980, but not for one in Melbourne last month. If I'm wrong, and I hope I am, I'm the complete idiot.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


Don't read on if you are going to Siegfried.

There's a lot going on down here and our stay is rushing to an end. Melbourne is in full flight with the Ring creating quite a buzz and the mammoth Melbourne Now exhibition just opened.

Here they are cleaning up in the morning after a night installation on the side wall of the National Gallery of Victoria, the wall facing the entrance to the State Theatre where the Ring is on.

Today is Sunday and this morning in the State Theatre we went to a wonderfully relaxed chat between OA Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini, Stuart Siegmund Skelton, experienced Wagner Man of the World, and the Wotan cover Shane Lowrencev, young father of four carving his way into the big baritone rep. He tears up at the beauty and awe of what this music tells him, and apologised for getting emotional just talking about it. That made me feel a bit better.

On the morning of performances, Prof Heath Lees (university professor, writer, broadcaster, musicologist, founder of the Wagner Society of New Zealand) gives a pre-performance talk in the Melbourne Recital Centre. With a Steinway, slides, videos, lilting Scottish accent, sparkling eyes and wonderful wit ('the thing about German jokes is that they are no laughing matter'), he presents the best ever over and under view of this never-endingly complex masterwork.

Prof Lees has just released a DVD series which is the basis for these talks. Details and teaser clips are here. Bought.

It is two days now since Siegfried. Is it the hardest to stage? Who knows, but nothing I have seen before is a patch on what Neil Armfiled gives us in this stunning subversive theatre of the mind which dinners, lunches, walks, shopping, sleeps, drinks, and the whirl have kept me from getting fully blogged.

So speaking of teasers, imagine that everyone is/could be a dragon, if not by choice then by infliction, or by projection. Imagine every dragon is a dragon only in the eyes which behold it.

There was a marvellous show on TV (or maybe a DVD we have, I can't remember) recently about the life of the Buddha. The point it was making was that the Buddha is in everyone, waiting only to be found. When walking the streets, look at every person and ask yourself - Buddha? Buddha?

So Fafner is a Giant is a Player on the world stage. Slay a dragon, and you slay ... the human truth that it is.

Friday, November 22, 2013


The Rheingold set a very high bar and so it was pretty buzzy heading back in for Die Walküre, the most human, and so particularly the see-what-Armfield-does-with-it, of them all.

Long story short - as Rhinegold was all about Alberich, this was all about Wotan. Appropriately.

Curtain went up to find us circling a very very isolated small timber cabin in very very black night in a very very snowy snowy storm. Well, it was circling on the revolve but I was circling it so engaged was engageable I.  The sense of isolation and entrapment was palpable.

And then on he came, head down pushing forward through the cold blizzard night towards a little warm square of yellow light. He was Stuart Skelton's hooded Siegmund about to discover his sister, his love and his destiny. He was in fabulous voice. You know, when you thought there was no better, there's better, with such rich lovely darkening harmonics, heaps of body, a golden glow around it, and completely under his control with masterful finesse. Miriam Gordon-Stewart's Sieglinde was fragile and vulnerable, unloved and barely consolable.

When spring came, it came from within. The snow kept falling, the night stayed black, and only in the eyes of the loved did the flakes tinge with green. It was quite beautiful and understated, and the tragedy it foretold immense.

But without the help of much needed ardency from the pit, and little sense of propulsion, this marvellous pairing was left making less impact on over-expectant me than it otherwise might.

Valhalla was an huge cold clinical white spiral of soullessness. It was empty but for a vast collection of stuffed animals (seen crated and waiting in Rheingold). Again, there is room for much thought about what this is saying: Wotan a good man as preserver in the face of extinction; Wotan acquiring rarities/antiquities as a demonstration of wealth; etc. (Personally, I find taxidermy uncomfortable. I squirm at drawers of pinned butterflies. K's aunt has a huge glass cage full of stuffed birds at the bottom of the staircase. I can hardly walk past it, let alone look at it.)

Anyway, as I was saying, here is a place empty except for trophies and the vitriol of marital decay.

Using the revolve and the helix, Armfield manipulates and positions the players in this bitter domestic break down. Up and down they subtly move, higher then lower, under then above, with unavoidable meetings in chilled silence, until Fricka's dreadful victory kiss is pressed hard onto Wotan's unwilling mouth to be wiped off in disgust with the back of his hand as she ascends in triumph. Magnificent stuff from Jacqueline Dark and Terje Stensvold.

I didn't tell you about a stunning moment in Rheingold where during an 'interlude', the ascent back from Nibelheim I think, Armfield reinforces the horror of what has been happening - Freia helplessly flung over a giant's shoulder; Rheindaughters in dispair at their loss - in chilling 'frozen moments' on the revolve in the vast blackness. This is what we're in for now I thought as the animals were slowly hoisted back up, Wotan slowly climbing up just ahead of them.

But no. The architecture stayed and the serious business of annunciation of death and man-on-man to the death therein was lost. It was for all the world like the set change just didn't happen and the plucky players went about there stuff as best they could regardless. No chills or goosebumps there then. (These thoughts are clarified below in comments.)  (*)

Never mind. Here comes the fun bit, the Ride. Auspiciously, we are back to the look of the beginning of Rheingold. A mass of crumpled bodies, refugees maybe, dying in front of our eyes perhaps, ever so slowly revolving as that music it is impossible to now not associate with Vietnam started up. Now I was really missing that big European sound. Combat gear, like Brünhilde, thinks I. There's a vast black hole is the stage ceiling surrounded by white lights. They'll flash thinks I. We're in Saigon.

Feet appear, legs appear, slowly descending they come, on ... swings! Whatever this music tells you, it's not swings. Good vocals though, and now I'm wondering why it's so good, so forward. It turns out the theatre is acoustically modified (**) and I've no problem with that, I don't think. It certainly hasn't got that creepy directionless sound Adelaide can get. So for all the Ho To Ho'ing and shreiking, these combat girls drop in carefully and cautiously when I wanted risk. I wanted helicopters. Ok, one helicopter. Another million from The Wheelers would have done it. I wanted Apocalypse, Now.

The dead hauled up by the armpits I'll tell you about another time.

So it was left to Susan Bullock, impressing with some lovely controlled exchanges with daddy, and the quite magnificent tireless Terje Stensvold to pull this one off.

Now we had the vast empty black space again, and now Armfield was working some magic. So was the orchestra. It seemed like an eternity, timelessness was on the mountain, and when I thought that that Mr Armfield wasn't going to get me this time, he timed it to perfection and the long delayed contact of Father and Daughter arrived with such a cry of anguish that I broke. So did K, but you'll not hear about that.

(*) The set stayed for the next scene because it is so big it is not possible to change it with a major performance break.

(**) The Guardian reviewer has added that there is no enhancement.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Get an eye full of this. From Limelight, a great review and video clips.

Das Rheingold Melbourne 18 November 2013.


Neil Armfield's directed Ring Cycle premiered last night, finally, with Das Rheingold (cast and pictures etc there).

I loved it. Sitting in the wickedly expensive seats in the State Theatre in Melbourne, I loved it. The irony is coming thick and fast, and I'm loving it - plush red seats filled with the financially filtered sociocultural elite, variously tickety-booed-up, indulging their own good fortunes.

Disclaimer - I am a big Neil Armfiled fan and he is the only reason we are here, I think. There's a lot of reasons really - home country, a holiday in Melbourne, curiosity, the work itself of course, but really, I don't think I'd have bothered if it weren't for Mr Armfield. And, secondly, I might be about to spill the beans on some of the contents of his brilliant bag of tricks, so far, depending on how this goes. I'm still a bit emotional, but you should be used to that by now.

He comes from the place of 'poor theatre', theatre of the bare bones, where the story telling is driven by the characterisations, the illusions are in the eyes of the beholders, and the magic and suspension of disbelief dependent not on wiz-bangery but on the compelling and horrifying reality of seeing yourself on stage, just another weak ambitious gratuitously self-satisfying love trampling sucker for the razzle dazzle.

Armfield delivers a deeply human tragedy told in brutal bareness with some stunning juxtapositions which serve exactly their purpose - to underline and highlight the horror, murder, filth and trampled under class left behind in the wake of the quest for ... Not sure what to put there. Words that come to mind are: stuff, materialism, money, power, self aggrandisement, completion, adequacy, a bigger dick, meaning, relevance. Feel free to add your own.

If your not up on the background to this production, I'm not going there, except for the last turn-up, which is Warwick Fyfe getting a go at Alberich and as it happens (great character performer that he is) stealing (sic) the show, although it should all be about Alberich I know, except sometimes it isn't.

It made me tear up a few times, and sob twice (Alberich's curse, and Erda's tell it like it is).

Proper clever people reviews out there will be coming soon, and I have no intention of being complete, and every intention of raving and gushing a bit.

It's very Australian. The opening sequence is a beachy river of humanity, without pretence, all manner of the great unwashed and idle classes, lolling around, evolving into what one could probably call the 'in-crowd', or so it is for Alberich, a nerdy outsider for whom Armfield, as is his great strength, engages and holds your sympathy - an outcast, another Grimes. In a amazing portrayal, Warwick Fyfe, in great form, anchors this whole episode in what happens when the rejected manage to acquire the means to have power. And the stunning Show Girl Rhinemaidens as the unattainable objects of desire are a master stroke, brilliantly realised and sung, you lovely creatures of the flesh.

Clan Wotan are at home in a strange place - an enigmatic bland characterless beige unfurnished vacuum ludicrously decorated with the odd stuffed animal and a giraffe still in the process of being installed, suspended in the lowering cradle around its girth. Like antlers over a fireplace (neither here I can assure you) it all spoke of nothing except I have because I can. A Zarafa.

I'm not certain that is how Armfiled envisaged things. I did hear him speak about the saving of species, a great arc (of the Noah's kind) but it didn't read that way to me. I thought reckless poacher and collector, not saviour.

Behind the vacuous ode to plainness, was hanging a massive cyclorama of a traditional Valhalla - castle in the sky with a rainbow forging the valley - all in faded sepia. A conceptual sketch maybe, the architects vision perhaps, something for Fricka to stay home with and be distracted planning the fit-out for. Till suddenly the illusion (for that's what is and will be) was ripped down from behind (as illusions should be) by the reality (as reality ought) of the Giants appearing to collect. That they were in cherry pickers was about the only idea which didn't work for me. It was a bit obvious and unnecessary, but never mind. And Daniel Sumegi is getting a bit big in the vibrato department.

Nibelheim was bordering on a compressed (Fritz Lang) Metropolis like place without the buildings, automatons at work, at work for the stupid childish Nerd (though still with my sympathy) with the Power. In a brilliantly conceived theatrical device, where the genius is in the simplicity of the idea, the Tarnhelm was a magician's magic box into which Warwick Fyfe's Alberich relished the chance to fool nobody.

As some guide to how Neil Armfield thinks, Alberich, having had the Ring ripped from his hapless person takes Wotan's spear (that with the rules and covenants of propriety) and it is with this that he, Aberich, launches his curse as the two of them engage face to face, hands gripping the staff, as the little fat man cursing and spitting (which he does again shortly to Loge with stunning effect) downs a crumpling Wotan, just as the music directs. This is no triumph (as some director's would play it) this second theft. Erda puts paid to that idea soon.

Hyeseoung Kwon's Freia was a wonderful fragile little bird-like piece of tradable garbage in a gold lamé dress echoing the plundered rivers of gold, which, and you'll never capture this in a still, had filled the whole stage in shimmering brilliance. It was, I emphasise, quite brutal. Shocking. Raw. Horrible. And no special effects, and that's why.

The evening was effectively hosted by the spivvy Loge of Richard Berkeley-Steele (he goes with she who saves, in a week) until brought to a complete and gob smacking standstill by Deborah Humble's stunning Erda, she who sees nothing and knows all, singing with tremendous authority and depth, while chilling the spine as she ran her hand across Wotan's face.

The acoustics were good. Armfield gets his singers downstage. They sing to us engaging us as the other party. It is powerful and immediate.

After a cautious start, the orchestral sound seemed to grow in confidence and somewhere in Nibelheim seemed to find itself. Details are good while body and fullness (hello strings) will develop, one hopes, The alarmingly boyish Pietari Inkinen knows what he's doing.

And as everyone now knows I'm sure, the bridge to Valhalla was a gorgeous campy rainbow of Marilyn show girls, a superficial dazzling allure, luring the weak to nothing but their own destruction.

And that's just the prologue. As she said - fasten your seat belts.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Southern New South Wales

(UFO = lid on coffee)


Last night was his last as Chief Conductor. We met by chance (well, the waiter had something to do with it) and shook hands. The generosity of spirit is immense.

Entirely not my thoughts, but my thoughts entirely.

Monday, November 11, 2013



November 11 today. Paul Keating has just delivered his address at the Canberra War Memorial in the presence of the usual, and not so usual, distinguished guests.

The day the Armistice was signed was the day Wilfred Owen's family was informed he had been killed just a week before, having returned to the front line in what seems a difficult to comprehend action for the poet pacifist unless it were to imitate, as has been suggested, his beloved friend and mentor Siegfried Sassoon whom he had met at Craiglockhart War Hospital, Edinburgh and with whom he developed a relationship that went well beyond literary mentoring and into the depths, or heights, of devotion.

    (Sassoon - Owen)

Sassoon was vehemently against Owen's return to service, and Owen's farewell came in a letter written after he had left for France. He was shot trying to cross the canal in the tiny village of Ors in northern France, and where he is buried

Two years after the war, after her son's death, his mother wrote this heart wrenching letter to the great Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore when he was in London:

"I have been trying to find courage to write to you ever since I heard that you were in London ~ but the desire to tell you something is finding its way into this letter today. The letter may never reach you, for I do not know how to address it, tho’ I feel sure your name upon the envelope will be sufficient. It is nearly two years ago, that my dear eldest son went out to the War for the last time and the day he said goodbye to me ~ we were looking together across the sun-glorified sea ~ looking towards France, with breaking hearts ~ when he, my poet son, said those wonderful words of yours ~ beginning at ‘When I go from hence, let this be my parting word’ ~ and when his pocket book came back to me ~ I found these words written in his dear writing ~ with your name beneath." 

                  When I go from hence let this be my parting word,
that what I have seen is unsurpassable.
         I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus
         that expands on the ocean of light, and thus am I
         blessed--let this be my parting word.

         In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my
         play and here have I caught sight of him that is

         My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his
         touch who is beyond touch; and if the end comes
         here, let it come--let this be my parting word.  (Tagore)

                                                            (Tagore and Einstein - the eyes!)

Owen's legacy is his beautiful (if truth be beauty) poems of pacifism and forgiveness (if forgiveness be understanding). And so it was with these well in mind and the extra insights of a two hour workshop and a dress rehearsal, that I, along with many others, was brought to tears last Friday (8th, and again the next night) by Vladimir Ashkenazy in his penultimate appearance as Chief Conductor with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, delivering a powerful and hugely emotional performance of Britten's War Requiem to an overwhelmed, silent and ultimately enormously appreciative Sydney audience.

Mr Ashkenazy had assembled a tremendous team - more than 300 on stage - his great orchestra surely feeling  the importance of this occassion, the simply stunning Sydney Philharmonia Choir of more than 208 choristers in full flight, the gorgeous Sydney Childen's Choir of Angels, and three soloists whom I doubt will be surpassed in my time waiting for when I go hence. I am still at the stage where I don't want to hear this again for a very long time, if ever. I get like that. I commend strongly David Garrett's notes in the programme, here (pdf) for anyone interested in the brilliantly layered work, and for my own return, as is all this stuff.

Mr Ashkenazy is a broad stroked emotion conductor, and having the pulse of this, the steady beat of inevitability driven forward with no hint of turgidity or self-indulgence, held the forces at hand as best I think I've heard from him, mindful that the present most always fades the before. Forces so large and complex that Britten when asked to conduct the premier at the new Coventry Cathedral deferred and elected to settle for the chamber orchestra, leaving the main orchestra with choirs to Meredith Davies.

Well able to listen to themselves, the orchestras gave wondrous detail to Britten's brilliant palette of sounds, infused with the emotion Ashkenazy evoked so apparently simply. For all the fear and terror and invocation, this is a work of redemption and optimism and belief in the brotherhood of mankind and had all the hallmarks of being in believing hands. The trumpets and horns were outstanding not that any section should be singled out.

Dina Kuznetsova was the amazing Lisa in last years Pique Dame and now her Archangel, poised behind the main orchestra in front of the sopranos, was a warm yet silver edged voice from on high, a head back open throated supplicant, confident yet reverent, with a spine tingling habit of finding the high notes gently for a nanosecond, not tentatively necessarily, the expanding the volume and tone into the hall with quite thrilling effect. It lent a sense of humility to her whole approach with an endearingly beautiful sound which cut through without the slightest hint of harshness.

Andrew Staples I couldn't believe. This big man poured out the sweetest sounds with such apparent ease across the range as to be the talk of the night. He was, for me, Wilfred, the soft innocent sound of youth, ever aware of the 'pity of war', yet ever ready to meet death, and in astoundingly beautiful harmony with the baritone (when lo! an angel) turned the voice of God once feared into the the voice of Heaven itself. His final ascent into the liturgical Latin was spellbinding.

Baritone Dietrich Henschel completed the prescribed Russian, British, German trilogy denied the first performance. Here was the voice of wisdom, of a man, no youth left here, and in a amazing study of character development he progressed from a slightly covered sound of the battlefield, to the ageless face of death, through to the anger and horror of man disobeying God's order to kill not (Abram and Isaac), the slaughter which followed, and finally the agitated 'End'.

At the rear of the hall, far up in the upper circle, was the children's choir (not exclusively boys) and together with the accompanying little organ haunted the whole piece with the voice of the angels. The closing hushed 'perpetual light and eternal rest', when all the forces combined at last in a wonderful metaphor for Heaven (there is no need for anything else within and there in nothing else without), left a silent tearful audience ever thankful for such a moving night, and for their departing, most humble at the service of the music, Chief Conductor.

Sunday, November 10, 2013


Are they fabulous or what?

These are Alice Babidge's costumes for the Daughters of the Rhine ("amazing glittering gleaming beacons that Alberich is drawn to") in the getting-very-close-now Opera Australia's Ring. First impressions are a bit Kosky-esque, but knowing Neil Armfield's (director) work, nothing will be for show itself, and everything will be driven by the music and by the humanity therein.

We drive down to Melbourne today week and I'm really looking forward to it. It's going to be loads of fun, that much I know. I'll see to that.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013



On his first visit to Australia, Murray Perahia gave this recital at the Sydney Opera House last Friday:

French Suite No 4 in E flat

Sonata No 23 in F minor, Appassionata

Carnival Jest from Vienna

Inpromptu No 2
Scherzo No 2

The critics have their say here (Herald) and here (Australian). One headlines with "Quiet storm". The other with "Flamboyant virtuosity". Neither work for me, and certainly not flamboyant. Virtuosity is the right word, and the only other one I can come up with is stunning. Stunned into silence was the packed hall by an absolutely riveting performance by a master musician. We sat close, by choice, third row stalls, with a perfect view of face, hands, keyboard.

The thing is, Mr Perahria is a rare artist. He leaves his ego at the stage door, if not having left it completely. And by that I mean a holy man type of ego leaving. There was a strange other-worldy feeling about his presence, as if he were hardly there, which he obviously was, and it wasn't that he didn't want to be, he obviously did, but he didn't want to be there for his own sake.

He seemed almost in a reverie, going through the recital motions - entrance, perfunctory bows and audience acknowledgment, and seating himself. No scores. Vast concert platform, piano, two handsome stands of flowers. Then something happened. He played, but he wasn't there. This was all about serving the music, and to such an extent that it seemed at times as if the piano was playing him, that the whole thing was happening in reverse, and the composers were inside the piano.

It was an extraordinary revelation of the power of being at one with the music. The Appassionata was almost scary. I mean, scary in that Beethoven was in the room. I struggle to recall such an experience of apparently selfless transmission of such power and intensity, of truth even.

Reading about him has lead me to this, in an interview with Haaretz:

"Music represents an ideal world where all dissonances resolve, where all modulations - they are journeys - return home, and where surprise and stability coexist."

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


The heat has eased off somewhat, and while there are storms around we have had little in the way of rain. Much time is spent mulching and watering. Not being on town water, every year I appreciate water more and more, precious resource that it is. Nothing, nothing, is more satisfying here than rain.

Last week it was a bit of a thrill to catch sight of this glinting in the morning sun.

Yes, there's only one - the great Indian Pacific - its stainless steel carriages dusted with the Nullarbor.

Born in AlburyI was raised on trains (and blackberry picking) and many a time, staring down from the bridge over the railway station at the people crossing from the Sydney train to the Melbourne train (the rail guages were different and Albury was the border town), Dad would say - let's go and look at the engine. And we would.

So here it was, about 700 metres or so of it (diverted* away from the Blue Mountains where the fires were still raging) moving slowly north to Sydney. It stopped very soon after, long enough for me to get past, jump out of the car at Exeter, the next station, call out to some startled man getting out of his car at the parking area - hello there, look what's coming - and together we stood on the platform, waiting. The blue engine with its blazing wedge tailed Eagle ...

I waved at the driver who grinned back and pulled the whistle, and we stood, stranger and I, for ever it seemed, and I waved, and met the eyes of one woman passenger waving back, just one, like a ghost in a scary movie, and waved till it was gone.

No one knew I was a bit teary behind my sunglasses, a boy again. Not till I called K and said - you wouldn't believe it, how it took me back. He knew.

* At Parkes it is shunted off the Great Western Line to Cootamundra (birthplace of Bradman, and the Wattle of the same name) and onto the Great Southern Line.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Back in the country there has been a welcome break from the early dry warm conditions, enough to get the accumulated debris from a few big wind storms and general droppings burnt off before summer.

Showers have moistened the top soil and we are between fire bans so despite these days there being a not so comfortable feeling about burning green waste, this is big stuff that can't be mulched without the use of a mulcher, neither practical nor affordable here, and so early one morning up it went.

It rekindles strong memories of dad burning piles of russet and gold autumn leaves on cold winter's days, leaning on rakes watching the curly whisps of smoke, the sparks fly, and not knowing then that that smell in my nostrils would take me there again, every time.



These mornings are rare and sobering. Mornings when you wake to hear that someone who had a significant influence on your life is dead, always unexpected but this one especially so, and you reflect for the first time seriously about what this person has meant to self and to the world and without exaggeration I can say he enlightened me. Yes, the Ring, but I think in honesty about the meaning of theatre.

This coming weekend we will watch Queen Margot (it's on the shelf) and now seek out his other works starting with Those Who Love Me Can Take The Train. I feel desperately sad for his partner and family and friends.

Friday, October 4, 2013


I am now back in the big smoke for a few days where if nothing else the dog gets to meet old friends twice a day in Centennial Park, our only significant big green oasis and which like most other parks just can't be left alone. I don't mean maintenance and the like. I mean chipping away at the most unspoiled areas, once were wild places, of creeks and fallen trees and refuges from human interference.

The grassy belvedere, built up fairly recently on the top of the hill overlooking Federation Valley

(January 1, 1901, Federation Valley)

on what used to be a tumble down unspoiled corner of the park, is now being rased and the terraces under the pine trees which are leased to a major movie distributor for summer film nights are undergoing considerable redevelopment. It is all part of the leasing of public space to keep the revenue flowing in the face of dwindling Government funding about which others have strong feelings, too. By the way, the pine trees have gone.

So what a joy and skip of the heart there was to find in the late afternoon light in the woodlands not far away something beautifully simple and simply beautiful. Peace and tranquility indeed.

The elements are rocks and pine cones decorated with floral parts from the coral trees and tufts of white flowers from a wild shrub scrambling along a nearby creek.

I was immediately reminded of Derek Jarman's "Paradise haunts gardens" and his rock circles.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Monday, September 30, 2013


The Cicadas have started drumming. They're everywhere and not unexpectedly for the last few days there's been lots of Kookaburras (and Currawongs) around. And well fed they are.

This fellow (actually there were two) was sitting in the gum outside the bedroom late this afternoon.