Wednesday, June 24, 2015



I put the UND in just to draw attention to it. There's a fair bit of emphasis, naturally, on it. It's all about the joining. Which reminds me (I seem to be getting to that age) of a schools Verse Speaking Competition. The set piece was called "Black and White" and I was marked down for emphasising the 'AND' as I announced the work before starting off : "I met a man along the road ..." Adjudicators be blowed. And is a pretty important word.

Well, no markdowns here for the and and ands.

It's a huge undertaking, mounting Tristan and Isolde, and the Sydney Symphony did a splendid job. It's not a matter of being grateful for small mercies, as in doing it at all, but in succeeding so well. Mind you, I think they should. Do opera in the concert hall I mean. After all, it was the orchestra in its previous ABC life that shunted the opera out of the big (now Concert) hall, dual purpose admittedly, into the then Drama Theatre, now the Joan Sutherland Opera Theatre. That's faint praise. She didn't like it and neither does anybody else.

The Concert Hall looked very impressive. The acoustics rings were pulled up high and the vastness of the space, an acoustic nightmare, was even more apparent. The rear projection screen was a morphed sail x parting proscenium curtains arrangement. The lighting was wonderful, quite stylish. The concert platform was stuffed with players, and the singers sang from behind the orchestra on an elevated platform, below the big screen, with their own rear screen (the black space in the photo above) which served as a sound board and for some lovely soft abstract lighting effects. That they carried so well across the orchestra (despite some criticisms I've heard) is a credit to this sensibly placed backing, themselves, bless them all, and David Robertson who managed the forces at work, and their balance, brilliantly. I thought, thought I.

S Katy Tucker, from New York, whose projections for The Flying Dutchman were so beautifully evocative, was here again. How hard is it to do projections for Tristan? Really hard. Whereas she had focused on the sea and facial closeups in Dutchman, using footage from off Bondi, and Eric Owens astoundingly beautiful eyes, and kept things pretty abstract, I don't think she was quite so successful this time round. Perhaps she had intended to use the singers faces, especially the eyes, the windows, who knows, but the cast changes would have precluded that anyway. The step into literalism with various Adam and Eve like images of idyllic almost teenage gooey love smitten faces and figures in various stages of rapture was a step too far. For me. But this is evolution of the art form, and I am totally supportive. The fine line between emphasising the text and music and distracting from it is a very fine line indeed. I've seen a semi-staged Ring (Budapest) where the projections were sometimes overwhelmingly moving and sometimes clunky. It is as individual as any production decisions and I welcome more. Like a Lohengrin.

(these pics are from Michael Halliway's review)

Robertson and his orchestra deserve great praise. The sound was good, for this hall. The balance was excellent. The detail was there, and the sweep never lost. And the soloists were delicious, especially Tobias Breider's gorgeous viola number. While I might have wished for more indulgence and some goose bumps in the Act 2 duets, like the most beautiful moment of the whole work, the call for the night, O sink hernieder, nothing prepared me for the closing bars where he let them rip in (cliche warning) waves of emotion so strong as to overpower, appropriately, the formidable Isolde of Christine Brewer, drowning here to death in a wondrous outpouring of sound.

Christine Brewer, a mature and experienced Isolde, was a noble stately princess bride lover doomed. I had reservations (she's been here twice) that were swept aside with the sheer stamina, the sheer will power, the lovely middle voice and the every word.

Lance Ryan stepped in for Stuart Skelton who withdrew because of delayed preparation. He needed a potion or some healer. That was a huge disappointment - to not hear his role debut (now to be Baden-Baden before Berlin, London and the Met) in his home city before his home crowd. Ryan we'd heard in Milan in the Siegfried Siegfried and, well, it wasn't much to my liking. But what could be a nasal timbre here was delivered as steel, a bit pitchy wobbly under pressure notwithstanding, effectively broken by his submission to the sword (his guilt, in my book). Stamina again carried the day, or night, or whatever page of Schopenhauer you're on at the moment.

Especially wonderful was Katarina Karnéus' Bragane, with gorgeous voice, emotionally committed, here, there, everywhere, warning, warning. Sadly I missed her Nuits d'été. I'd have gone back just for her if I could.

Kurwneal, that's another big sing, was in good hands with Boaz Daniel and then came Uncle Marke - well, thank you John Relyea, another short notice step-in. A Met stalwart and a world-stage bass here at short notice was rich pickings and he was fabulous.

Angus Wood (Melot) and Harrison Collins (Steersman) and the men of the Sydney Phil Choir were worthy locals, and the Canadian John Tessier a bright beautiful young sailor and shepherd of almost unnerving accuracy.

It cost a fortune and I hope the exclamations and praise, and financial support, and the satisfaction of achievement and success, will keep the momentum. Sydney needs this, especially the major works which simply can't fit into the little black box.

Waiting for transport home we heard that the reason the first few rows thinned out as the night progressed was that from them one could not see the singers, nor the subtitles. People either left or tried to move back to other seating. That's an issue needing attention, or appropriate pricing.

Peter McCallum's rave is here.

Margaret Throsby interviews Christine Brewer here. Really touching.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


It turned out that Navy Day was the following Sunday.

Below the hotel balcony we watched them assemble and after about an hour of various comings and goings and rearranging, they all marched off behind the band in their heavy blue serge uniforms, off down through Baixa towards the river, River Tagus, as the sun started to heat things up for another day in the 30s.

After breakfast we took the subway down to Commercial Square, a grand place of three arms of Government buildings embracing the river and welcoming the world, and a man on a horse, of course

and where by now the troops had arrived and the crowds were building up.

After endless speeches, they all marched off to one side only to reassemble again and return in grand style for the big march past the official dais. Nothing to see there, the dais I mean, but I do like a good band and sailors are, well, you know - hello sailor.

(clicking makes them bigger)

The heavy weaponry followed and, bless them, there were a few guns and things but mostly they were parading their zodiacs of various sizes and the most menacing it got was the camouflage and black face.

Meanwhile, some frogman and sundry others waited on the riverside rocks...

... before scaring the gulls off with a few flares to start the 'show':  (In this photo you can see the famous April 25 Bridge and the Christ (Christo Rei) on the other side of the river.)

The show was two helicopters dropping divers into the river as a fleet of zodiacs sped out from one of two warships and in formation they turned and picked up the dropees on the run.

It would be way too patronising to say it was quaint, but there was a beautiful simple charm to the whole event, bereft of aggression and its hardware.

It all reminded me of the time, long ago time, when the new Queen came to Wagga Wagga (1954) and under equally blue skies and beating sun thousands of school children stood. All I remember was a helicopter coming to winch up a woman (or man in a dress?) waved frantically from the roof of a tin shed in the middle of the oval in a flood rescue demonstration. In checking the date, I found this slightly cringe-worthy yet amusing reflection on colonial adulation and while there's nothing about helicopters or floods (and I don't expect anyone to watch all 14 minutes) it does confirm that it was hot.

And it's Wagga Wagga, not Wagga. Wagga Wagga it's so nice they named it twice.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


The cold biting Atlantic chill which cut through to the bone when we arrived abated day by day, except at the dizzy heights of Sintra (more anon) to where I went twice, and the dizzier cliffs of Carbo da Roca (likewise), once. By the end of the first week even the locals were wilting a little.

And by the end of the week, I'd taken to seeking refuge in the late afternoons in the shade of an almost cantilevered garden - the lovely two levelled belvedere Garden de San Pedro Alcantara - with two fountains and of course a man on a horse (lots of them in lovely Lisbon). There was always a breeze from the river while the castle, plonked stubbornly in the belting sun opposite, baked.

                              (the exposed lower level with the castle opposite and the river in the distance)

 (retreating to the shade of the upper level with fountain, man on horse, cafe, busker, and idling everyones)

This retreat from the heat is a quick fanicular climb from The Avenue of Liberty (the end which meets Rossio) and the hotel - the white building left of the obelisk, second top floor (below the roof terrace) second doors from the left. Wave!!

A funicular!

There's one at the top and one at the bottom and they pass midway, often with cheers from car to car, windows down, excitement all round.

There's several in Lisbon, and here's why:

It's steep. And steeper than it looks, believe me. Notice the leg in the top right hand corner? Leg by day, sex shop by night.

It was here one afternoon, in the lengthening shadows, with a man lifting his dog for a drink from the bubbler  ...

... that there came, of all things, a small naval band in their heavy blue woollens. And they smiled, and warmed up, and one handed out leaflets: Navy Day was coming up.


Lisbon is lovely, a fading lovely, bleaching out and slightly weary, looking backwards and seemingly uncertain about itself. Residents, unprompted, talk openly about how cheap it is, how friendly and welcoming they are to the waves of mainly Germans and French rolling through, and an antique dealer in things of rare exquisiteness even brought forth a list of former colonies and went through each in faltering English, ending with Timor, 1975. He seemed unaware or too discrete to hint at Australia's role in the Indonesian takeover.

But it is not particularly easy, at least at our age. The city of seven hills is exactly that and with every step cobbled, the blessing of staying upright is levied on the knees and feet.

Rebuilt in a hurry after the 1755 earthquake, it's one of those cities where time seems to have faltered.  In the 20th C, the wily Salazar steered the country around the second world war, and it was spared the worst of the ravages of postwar development. Poverty has some advantages. I've just finished Neill Lochery's Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light : essential visitor reading with its tales of wheeling and dealing, spies and spivs, gossip and intrigue, the tungsten trade, and the tragic details of the death of Leslie Howard, forever Ashley in my mind. Our hotel by chance is at Rossio, the centre of it all.

The one flat part of the city is the mainly retail area Baixa, abutting the river between the heights of the old moorish castle on top of the Alfama neighbourhood on one side and funky Alto on the other. But Baixa's crowded narrow streets are best rattled through and back again (gorged with tarts) on the crowded and charmlessly modern tram 15 to Belem, or on the equally ridiculously crowded old rattler tram 28 best caught in the early morning at its origin - at least you can get on and pity the poor locals who with unending generosity, and necessity, tolerate this disney-land of tourists.

28 loops up and down around the city in a crazy figure of eight, the cross-over in Baixa (the flat part for anyone still following) scraping cars and hapless pedestrians off walls as it clatters its way through one of the most delicious tourist rides in the whole wide world. The round trip takes two hours.

Not since Venice is one so assaulted by tourists and one's own status as same.

Baixa, I should addd, is especially interesting for being that section of the city rapidly rebuilt with small dense housing to accommodate as many as possible as quickly as possible after the earthquake. It proudly carries the name of the remarkable Sebastian de Carvalho e Meioe, the first Marquis of Pombal who amongst so much else oversaw the reconstruction of the city and carries his name - the Pombaline part of the city along with its Pombaline architecture.

Sunday, June 14, 2015


It's a long flight: Berlin-Frankfurt-Dubai-Sydney. From up there, down here looks small-minded, bigoted and immature. And extremely selfish. But the air is clean and the coffee good.

Sunday, June 7, 2015


We are about to head off home.

After ten lovely days in Lisbon we came back to Germany for ten days in Berlin, via a short diversion to Rotterdam to catch up with friends. A lot has happened and there's heaps of stories and snaps for later.

We're just back from a hugely emotional night at the Philharmonie. The orchestra is simply in a class of its own and the love that was poured out for Barenboim with a genuine and sustained standing ovation was very affecting.

Earlier in the week any apprehensions about The Love for Three Oranges at Deutsche Oper were quickly dispelled with a witty Carsen production brilliantly delivered (Steven Sloane), sung in the original French with German and English subtitles. It was stunning.