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."