Friday, 21 December 2007

Kisho Kurokawa


This morning the Sydney Morning Herald contained an obituary of Kisho Kurokawa, the Japanese architect who died on 12 October this year. I find it a sad fact that it’s only when an obituary is published that I can gather together various things of interest about a person. In March 2005 I took some photos of the building in Tokyo which I now know to be Nakagin Capsule Tower.


I had vague memories of the history of the building but put the pictures aside without further investigation. The obituary says that Kurokawa thought that people might keep a capsule in the city for the nights when they attended the opera; but it turned out not to be so. As my pictures show the building is a little decayed and one capsule looks as if it is a storeroom for cardboard boxes.


In addition, as I didn't know anything of Kurokawa, and I didn't associate the Nakagin Capsule with the National Art Centre at Roppongi which opened only this year and which I visited in March.

National Art Center Roppongi

I first saw the building from the Mori Tower in 2006. It was not open and I didn't know what it was:


Nor was I aware that Kurokawa was the architect of Melbourne Central, built to house a (now closed) branch of the Daimaru department store chain. The conical glass and steel roof over the mall preserves an old shot tower inside the structure itself. The tower was used to make lead shot by dropping molten lead from the top into water at the bottom. The drops of molten lead solidified as they fell forming the required spherical shape due to surface tension apparently.

Melbourne Central

Tuesday, 13 November 2007



I was disappointed with Vanessa by Samuel Barber, which began its season at the New York City Opera on November 5. The production and singing were fine; but I don’t think Vanessa really works as an opera. My immediate thoughts about why this is so relate to the story of the work which is simple enough to tell.

It is set in “a northern country”.
Vanessa has waited 20 years in her house for the return of her lover Anatol.
It is a grand house with many servants.
She lives with her mother, the Baroness, (who refuses to speak to her) and a younger woman, Erika, described as her niece.
Anatol does not return, but his son, also named Anatol, arrives and advises his father is dead.
Anatol seduces Erika who refuses his offer of marriage twice. Erika is pregnant.
Vanessa falls in love with Anatol.
Vanessa and Anatol’s engagement is announced at a party: Erika first faints then runs out towards the lake.
Erika is brought back alive but loses her child.
Vanessa and Anatol depart for Paris; leaving Erika at home with the Baroness who now refuses to speak to her. “It is now her turn to wait”.

Many of the events are mediated by The Doctor, and amiable but self confessedly inept medical man, who may have wandered in from Chekhov.

I think that the problem with the opera is that the story does not make sense as a realistic one. And it doesn’t seem to be an allegory or the retelling of a myth. People, outside of psychiatrists’ case books just don’t behave like this. So there is no believable emotional structure to which the music can attach.

Some accounts of the opera mention without elaboration that there are hints of incest in the story. Thanks to a gentleman in sitting behind me in the theatre who told the world at large about this secretive sub plot I can reveal it here.

Before the arrival of Anatol II Erika asks if she should read to Vanessa. Guess what she reads:

Oedipus: Woe, woe is me,
Sorrowful that I am!
Where am I, where am I going?
Where am I cast away?

Vanessa is dissatisfied with Erika’s reading of this and has her own turn. It is so apposite to Vanessa’s own unfortunate condition. As for Oedipus: did Anatol II kill Anatol I so as to marry his mother?? And while we are at it, is Erika really Vanessa’s niece, or maybe……

All of this may be significant for Freudians; and it could be that the members of the audience at the Met who greeted the first performance in 1958 with a standing ovation were all in analysis themselves.

To me, it just adds to the confusion. When Erika goes missing and is found, Vanessa seems to have a maternal concern for her; but if that’s what it is, it is completely gone by the end. A hard but pleasure seeking Vanessa shows no concern at all for Erika’s plight.

Apparently, Barber was inspired Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales, and suggested his librettist Gian Carlo Menotti make use of them. The libretto does not adopt any of the stories but draws on The Gothic for inspiration.

Isak Dinesen was the pen name of Danish author Karen Blixen.

A website devoted to her and her work

“Karen Blixen was escorted to the opera on January 7, 1959, by the composer himself and Menotti. However, part way through the performance she pleaded illness and left the theater. Her secretary says, in Notater om Karen Blixen, that Barber was "upset" by her premature departure from the opera. Karen Blixen made no public comment.”

The music which is tuneful but not particularly engaging has many and varied references to other composers and other operas. There are two duets for Vanessa and Anatol II which give plenty of scope to the singers, and which were well sung in this production, but there is a lack of connection. I was not made to care what these cardboard cutouts thought or felt. An essential element of opera went missing.

As I mentioned, the realistic set, the singing and the orchestral playing were good. Richard Stilwell as The Doctor almost stole the show. It was remarkable that The Baroness was sung by Rosalind Elias, who created the role of Erika almost 50 years ago. She had noticeably smaller voice than the others, but was otherwise fine in a role which would have been more taxing had the Baroness been more talkative.

And now for something completely different. Writing in the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini said:

At City Opera, thanks to a simple but effective production by the director Michael Kahn; an excellent cast headed by the soprano Lauren Flanigan, who gives a smoldering portrayal of the title role; and crucially, the urgent and sensitive conducting of Anne Manson, in her company debut, “Vanessa” emerges as an authentic American masterpiece.

I am not persuaded. I wonder if, because of Barber's pivotal role in the development of American music, critics like Mr. Tommasini, want to believe he was a better composer than he actually was. In his recent book The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross says:

Whenever the American dream suffers a catastrophic setback, Barber’s Adagio for Strings plays on the radio.

I shouldn’t be messing with the American Dream.

Vanessa – New York State Theatre at Lincoln Center – Sunday 5 November 2007

La Traviata


On Saturday afternoon, 3 November, I saw this seasons opening performance of La Traviata at the Met.

The production, which is now almost ten years old, was created and designed by Franco Zeffirelli. It is, of course, very elaborate. All the scenes but one are performed in sets which are very detailed architectural reproductions. The country house in Act 2 is straight out of Vogue Living. This and Violetta’s house in Acts 1 and 3 are built in rectangular boxes which occupy only half of the height of the stage; hence a wide aspect ratio. In Act 3, Violetta is first found in her bedroom, which during the course of the act is raised (out of sight) on a lift to reveal the rooms seen in act 1. As is usual the furniture is draped and the gaiety of the first act long gone. Violetta comes downstairs in the course of this change and the final part of the opera is seen in these living rooms.

The exception is Act 2, scene2 which is performed in a set which uses the whole height of the stage, beginning with light drapes which lift to reveal the room in which the party takes place. I suspect that the whole stage was needed at this point to accommodate the dancers who appear in this scene, but the change does create a discontinuity in the way the production runs.

The elaborate staging worked well; but I wonder if all of it was necessary. The movement between rooms in the last act was achieved smoothly and was not a real distraction. La Traviata does require realistic staging but in the end result the success of a production will depend far more on the quality of the singing and orchestral playing than very elaborate staging.

Renee Fleming, one of the great sopranos of today was Violetta and her performance was excellent. I was reminded of her wide ranging skills as an artist by her singing of Blanche in the San Francisco recording of Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

Earlier this year we saw Opera Australia’s production of La Traviata with the Russian soprano Elvira Fatykhova as Violetta. Renee Fleming’s portrayal was more evenly sung: Ms. Fatykhova adopted a new and weaker voice when singing the dying Violetta of Act 3; others have done the same, but this performance showed that singing this part of the opera in a fuller more natural voice was just as effective.

Alfredo was sung by Mathew Polenzani was also excellent. While we may wait for a really thrilling tenor, I have not heard a bad or irritating one at the Met so far.

I have never given much thought to Germont senior and tended to dismiss him as the most boring character in the whole of opera. However,I have been listening to some podcasts from the Lyric Opera of Chicago in which Mark Delavan who sang Germont senior there October 2007 discusses the dialog between Violetta and Germont senior in Act 2. In the first discussion he spoke as if the Germont was not only shocked by the character and integrity of Violetta as it emerges during their conversation but also developed his argument to her by stages, discarding ideas which did not seem to work as he went along. In the second podcast he identified changes in the character first, from the point where he called Violetta by her first name and seconldly from “ Piangi piangi ….”

In this production, Germont was Dwayne Croft. He was stern and unrelenting at his entrance, and his manner did soften as the Act progressed but I wonder if a great deal subtlety is really available in the portrayal of this unsympathetic man. One thing I picked up from the Chicago discussion was the similarity in character between father and son. They both wallow in self indulgent remorse and I think the music reflects this. Certainly the portrayal of father and son here gave full effect to this common trait.

Saturday, 10 November 2007


David Walker as Ottone with automatic weapon and reflections.

I had almost given up on New York City Opera. The performances I had seen there were interesting but I always found something to complain to myself about, rightly or wrongly.

On 2 November, I saw Handel’s Agrippina which is a co production with Glimmerglass Opera. As well as my City Opera phobia I had concerns that Agrippina was an early Handel opera, first performed in Venice in about 1710. Early Handel is fine by me: I should look into it further, but it seems that at that point in his career Handel was less bound by the traditions of opera seria or maybe those traditions hadn’t fully developed. The music is fresh and lively and although Handel later recycled some of it, nothing was familiar to me. The orchestra included recorders, lute and baroque guitar and theorbos but was otherwise made up of modern instruments. There must have been some amplification of these instruments; and I understand that amplification is common in the State Theatre in any event to combat the bad acoustics, but I didn’t notice it. Last year I heard Semele in the State theatre and from where I was then seated in the back of the main auditorium I heard some peculiar effects which made the sound jumbled at times.

There is a delightful flute solo in the second act, and when I looked down, there was the conductor, Ransom Wilson, on his podium playing it. This was a first for me. Afterwards, I thought that I had been suffering from some kind of delusion but search on the net showed that Mr. Wilson is a well established flutist as well as a conductor.

The production was lively, funny, and well sung. The opera itself takes an ironic view of the historical events it portrays and this view is developed by the production. The sets are mobile structures which are moved to form the various rooms and spaces where the action takes place. They are decorated with bits and pieces of Ancient Rome to give the correct sense of place. There are also some simple abstract shapes in strong colours which are used from time to time to provide visual contrasts.

The singers are in modern dress, and there are firearms. Both were keys to the way the production worked and were not intrusive. The dress and firearms in the Met’s production of Macbeth seemed unnecessary, as I have said. I wonder if there is a rule about this. There is always the risk that impressions like this depend more on how you are feeling at the time than any real fault in a production.

As an example, at the time of the events portrayed, Nero, Agrippina’s son is an adolescent. He is sung by mezzo soprano Jennifa Rivera who manages to include aspects of normal adolescent behaviour with strong hints of the pathological character which the historical Nero became. She is helped by the modern wardrobe which establishes that Nero has a narcissistic interest in fashionable dress, and by the firearms. Early in the first Act after doting on his mother Agrippina, he is left alone with a revolver, and plays a game of Russian roulette which ends with a maniacal laugh when he survives.

Arrippina , whose machinations would put any modern politician to shame, was given a delightfully ironic and wonderfully sung portrayal by Nelly Miricioiu. Ottone, the only character innocent of guile, was countertenor David Walker, to be heard again soon as Holofernes in Juditha Triumphans Pinchgut Opera's 2007 production.

The minor character Narciso was David Korn, described as a male soprano. I find that this description is used for a counter tenor who sings in the female soprano range; the more common range for counter tenors being equivalent to mezzo soprano or contralto.
There is an article about the male soprano or sopranist here:
Knowing nothing of the technicalities of the subject I can’t comment on its accuracy.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

French and Russian


On Friday 2 November, I returned to Avery Fisher Hall and the New York Philharmonic.
The conductor was Semyon Bychokov and the soloists in the Martinu concerto for two pianos and orchestra were Katia and Marielle Labeque last heard in Sydney long ago. ( Marielle is married to Mr. Bychkov. )

The first work was Metaboles by the French composer Henri Dutilleux (born 1916). I hadn’t heard of M. Dutilleux and this work was new to me. It is only about 17 minutes long and has five movements played without pause. It was pleasant enough if not particularly memorable. It’s origins may be more complex than I realized as the composer explains in a note:
“In ancient Greek music (Metaboles) was given to a passage connecting the conjunct system to the disjunct system (or vice-versa).”
Sadly insufficient time remains to me; I will never know what this means.

The work has a long history of performance here. It was composed for the 40th. anniversary of The Cleveland Orchestra in 1965 and dedicated to George Szell. Charles Dutoit conducted the premiere at the Philharmonic in 1988 and it was heard most recently here in 2001.

(Trivia note: while looking at the photos of artists at Carnegie Hall on Sunday I noticed that George Szell signed his picture in 1970 only shortly before his death.)

(Second Trivia note: I know the year of George Szell’s death as it occurred shortly before the 1970 Edinburgh Festival (which I attended) where he was due to appear.)

The program notes: “The work’s first four movements successively spotlight the woodwinds, strings, brass and percussion, with the full orchestra operating with greater equality in the fifth movement”. In the first movement the woodwinds returned to the aviary heard the week before in Night’s Blackbird.

Next came the Martinu concerto for two pianos which is a lively and enjoyable piece. The first movement had jazz elements and also reminded me of Poulenc. The second movement opened with the pianos alone playing music which had echoes of the beginning of Saint-Saens Second concerto . The last may have been inspired by something by Ibert . So the whole thing was like a pleasant tour of 20th century French music to me. The reviews say that the piano parts are fiendishly difficult, one suggests too difficult, but the Labeque sisters played them with great skill and vigour. I would like to hear this work again, it may be a bit derivative but it’s a happy piece. It has been neglected, or perhaps lost in Martinu’s prolific output, and I can only find one CD in print.

The second half of the concert was Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony played without cuts (which the program note says are common). I went to the open rehearsal of this concert and was prepared to write that this performance was far too loud. But at the concert in a seat much closer to the orchestra it did not sound that way at all. Instead I could hear all the string parts, even the violas, distinctly and enjoyed the symphony more than ever before. I am sure the acoustics in Avery Fisher Hall are variable and the closer to the front the better.
As and example of poor listening in the past, I had not previously noticed the clarinet solo at the start of the third movement: so I timed it this time. It runs for two minutes and a quarter. Clarinetists please note.

Blogs about music should contain personal anecdotes and gossip. I am therefore happy to report that at the open rehearsal of this concert I ran into (or found myself sitting near)
Pascal Roget and Ami Hakuno. I accosted them and mentioned I had enjoyed their performances at AFCM at Townsville. Ms. Hakuno seemed astonished that audience members wandered from place to place and at the coincidence. They live in New York and had come to the rehearsal as they are friends of the Labeques.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007



The Met has a new production of Verdi’s Macbeth this season.
Macbeth follows the Shakespeare play with a few variations:

The cast was uniformly strong: Macbeth was Zeljko Lucic from Serbia and Montenegro and new to the Met. His strong baritone had a lyrical expressive quality which contrasted with the darker bass of John Relyea as Banquo. Lady Macbeth was Maria Guleghina, born in the Ukraine. Two young American tenors completed the cast with Dimiri Pittas, who has major aria in an otherwise short appearance as Macduff; and Russell Thomas as Malcolm.

James Levine had a large orchestra assembled and the music was very powerful. As an opera Macbeth tends to wander from episode to episode, but in this case it was given great cohesion and momentum by the conductor, orchestra and strong singing. The score contains some eerie music at points where the story touches the supernatural. According the program note the music for Macbeth’s vision of Banquo’s descendants is scored for six clarinets and other winds all intended to be under the stage. As best I could tell they were under the stage, and it’s quite likely there were six clarinets although I wasn’t able to count them.

The production by English director Adrian Noble used one large semi abstract set with lots of trees in the back and moving pillars and screens which framed the scenes inside castle walls. This allowed the scenes to flow freely from one to the next with good effect. I wonder if there will ever be calls for authentic performances with long breaks between scenes with the sound of hammering from behind the curtain.

The movements of the flexible set were effective as was the arrangement and movement
of cast and soloists on the stage. However, the costumes were modern dress. This was not particularly intrusive, but I wonder why it was done. Do we need instruction that civil war and political ambition are still with us? It’s hardly a new idea. I’m not suggesting that kilts and tartans would have helped, but less specific dress would have worked well here.

One of the changes Verdi made to Macbeth was to substitute a chorus for the three witches. Here the chorus is made up of ladies in overcoats with handbags. When in working order the handbags opened to light the owners face from below giving spooky effect. The New York Times called them bag ladies, which might have been a good idea, but these ladies didn’t have the right kind of bag, and looked reasonably well dressed.

There was also a lot of weaponry – mainly rifles and automatic pistols; though a white SUV appeared in the last act to allow boxes of guns to be unloaded. Directors seem to love unloading boxes of guns. However they must all have been toy guns. All the murders were in the traditional manner by stabbing and in the final battle the rifles were not fired but used as sticks in kendo fashion.

Macbeth - Metropolitan Opera New York 31 October 2007

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall

On October 28, the Orchestra of St. Lukes gave a concert at Carnegie Hall.

The foyers are decorated with signed photographs of the great performers who have appeared there in the past. I was delighted to see that the arrangement of these is permanent and Joan Sutherland is still next to Frank Sinatra. Eugene Ormandy makes up the triptych.

The conductor on this occasion was Roberto Abbado (a nephew of Claudio).

The first piece on the program was an orchestral version of In Memory by the contemporary American composer Joan Tower. I first learned of Joan Tower at the AFCM Townsville where her Wild Purple for solo viola was played by Paul Neubauer, who plays it on the Naxos CD Joan Tower: Chamber and Solo Music, which also includes the original In Memory for string quartet played by the Tokyo String Quartet who gave its first performance in New York in 2002.

The program note explains that Joan Tower was in the course of writing this piece as a memorial to a friend when the attack of 11 September took place. She describes the music as expressing rage and anger at senseless loss and it has a much more agitated sound to it that would be expected from a memorial of the usual kind. On hearing of a 12 minute work with a very distant memory of the string quartet on CD is not enough make any comparison between the versions.

Joan Tower was there to acknowledge the audience.

Next was Samuel Barber’s Violin concerto played by Joshua Bell. This concerto opens with the memorable theme which I hope other people can get out of their head on being reminded of it. It then moves into wilder but less memorable territory. Joshua Bell is a fine player might be expected and produced a wonderful full tone at times. I hadn’t seen a performance of the Barber concerto before and saw (not heard ) for the first time that it had a piano part. At least where I was in the hall despite vigorous playing it was not audible.

After intermission Joshua Bell returned to play the world premiere of the violin concerto of Jay Greenberg, a prodigy who was born in December 1991. Not long ago. When we hear the work of prodigies of the past Mozart in particular but Mendelssohn as well we do so with knowledge of what came later. And the word “youthful” sounds right when used to describe their early works.

Greenberg’s concerto was enjoyable to hear but did not sound youthful in any similar sense. It was written in one movement but followed traditional structure as it had a slow middle section. The opening music sounded something like Copland to me. If I am wrong about this influence my description at least conveys the idea that the music opened tunefully. The texture of the orchestral music was varied with a number of conspicuous woodwind solos. And there was a piano part, which this time was given openings in the overall fabric and could be heard.
There were some more agitated sections and after the slow part the music became so again. The finale was similar in a way to the Barber concerto and like the Barber concerto gave many
opportunities to the violin.

The concert ended with Haydn’s Symphony 93, not the drum roll though it opens with one. I have enjoyed recent performances of earlier Haydn symphonies by the SSO and this one equally so. I may start a movement to smash all recordings of Haydn symphonies as they never seem to bring out the excitement and variation which can be heard in a performance. I have nothing against H.C. Robbins Landon or his work but the constant repetition of his overlong name and incantation of his remarks on this or that Haydn symphony leaves the impression that Haydn is deadly serious about some inscrutable 18th century questions. I think he just wanted to amuse people.
The second movement begins with a string quartet, which linked this last workin the concert with the first in a way.

I mentioned that Jay Greenberg is a prodigy. A CD of his Fifth Symphony (recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra) was available and he and Joshua Bell came to sign records. They sold a lot. I am almost ashamed to say I joined the hundreds waiting in line to get a signature. I’m not sure who is exploiting whom. Maybe Sony BMG is exploiting both artists and public. Joshua Bell, a more experienced celebrity, was the more popular signer. He smiled and shook hands with each of his admirers but his signature which he applied to CDs and, disobediently, to programs as well was reduced to two strokes of a red felt pen. Jay Greenberg did not smile or speak. About 17 years old, fifth symphony recorded by the LSO, a standing ovation in Carnegie Hall and then CDs to sign for Joshua Bell’s crowd. I hope he makes it.


Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Madama Butterfly

Tamaki Miura

Tamaki Miura as Butterfly: statue Glover Gardens Nagasaki

At one time I disliked Madam Butterfly which I saw as a travesty of Japanese life. However, it as mistaken to approach the opera in this way as it is to think of Puccini’s other exotic locations as part of the real world. There is nothing wrong with fantasy Japan. It’s popular even in Japan, as I saw in April where the Glover Garden in Nagasaki has statues and exhibits devoted to Madam Butterfly and Puccini. In one house a TV screened endless loops of a local concert performance; and hearing Pinkerton sing Addio, fiorito asil in a house overlooking Nagasaki harbour was a moving end to any last remnants of dislike.

The Met has brought back the production which opened last year’s season. I was lucky to see it then and to walk down to Times Square on opening night to watch the innovation of opera on the big screen.

Madama Butterfly at Times Square

Last year’s Butterfly was Christina Gallarda-Domas. I remembered more her vulnerable appearance in the role than her singing until I played the CD of Sour Angelica, in which she sings the title role. On hearing it the unique quality of her voice came back from memory. She is ideally suited to both roles.

This year’s Butterfly is Patricia Racette who is a fine soprano and a good partner for Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton. The New York Times thought that “Mr. Alagna is free (to put it kindly) in matters of rhythm and note values.” I am not qualified to judge this, but if so, who cares. The Times gets to hear more real tenors that I do and I am satisfied with a bit of volume, clarity and emotional response. Addio, fiorito asil was marvelous.

Suzuki was sung, as last year, by Maria Zifchak, who brought great intensity of feeling to her key moments.

Sharpless was sung by Luca Salsi who was making his Met debut. He has a strong hard edged baritone voice, but I thought something was missing in his portrayal of the American consul. Sharpless is a kind of mediator of the audience’s response: at the beginning, worried at the potential outcome and later horrified when it arrives to a blast of Puccini emotion in the form of Butterfly’s child. Mr. Salsi didn’t seem to respond much at any time. A strong voice is no substitute for some acting. John Pringle might have overdone it a fraction, but I can still see the expression of horror on his face when I hear the ironic fanfare and the child appears.

The production is abstract but realistic as it uses various moving Japanese screens to build and dissolve various rooms in the house. At the beginning of Act II, Butterfly is seen serving tea to Pinkerton who is seated in a Western style chair. A screen gliding across the stage obscures him from view and as it moves the space is visible again but Pinkerton and the chair have vanished.

An unusual feature of this production is the representation of Butterfly’s child by a puppet manipulated by three members of the Blind Summit Theatre dressed all in black. A couple of non singing servants in Act I are also puppets. This arrangement works quite well and allows more acting by the child than would normally be the case, though a few fewer significant glances would probably be welcome on repeated viewings.

I have been reading Puccini without Excuses by William Berger who takes an uncompromising view of Pinkerton’s character. He sees him as motivated by lust alone and says the music of the love duet supports this view. This is wrong. Pinkerton is living in a fantasy world, and while sex might be part of it, the music speaks of the romantic fantasy in which he is enveloped. I’m glad the producer agrees with this and surrounds the love duet with swirling lanterns on an otherwise black stage.

The conductor was Mark Elder. I hope I am not reading too much into his interpretation of the score by saying the opening of Act I was more gritty than usual and conveyed a real sense of foreboding.


Madama Butterfly

Metropolitan Opera New York

27 October 2007 (Matinee)

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Lucia di Lammermoor


The Met has a new production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor . It opened the season and Lucia is on all the posters. The Lucia depicted is Natalie Dessay who sang the early performances. I saw Annick Massis , another French soprano who’s first performance at the Met was in 2002 as Lucia. The night promised some excitement as Edgardo was sung by Stephen Costello a young (26) American tenor who graduated only this year from the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. He had made his Met debut as Arturo in this production a few weeks ago. No Young Artists program for him.
Mariusz Kwiecien, an excellent Polish baritone was Lord Enrico Ashton. James Levine conducted.

There is a synopsis of Lucia at

The singers in Lucia are in the shadows of the greats of the past including Sutherland and Pavarotti. So if you are familiar with the recordings by these great artists, it’s as well not to expect their performances to be repeated every time. Annick Massis was a fine Lucia, beginning quietly but giving an indication of what was to come in the mad scene in the second act.

Unlike some of the great singers of the past, she actually looked like a young bride and her performance of the mad scene was dramatic.

A fascinating addition to the mad scene was the eerie sound of the Armonica. I am pretty certain that this instrument has not been used in any of the Opera Australia performances which I have seen. From my seat in the Grand Tier I could see down in to the orchestra pit where the spindle on the Armonica was whirring away. The instrument, which is a version of the glass harmonica, was invented by Benjamin Franklin, so it was nice to hear it in the USA. I found the Armonica player, Cecilia Brauer has an interesting web site - with pictures of the instrument.

Mr. Costello has a beautiful voice but he is not a light tenor and so sounds very masculine as well. He sang with an Italianate diction which was a little overdone. He was at his best when alone on stage in the tomb scene; and if, as I suspect Maestro Levine muted the orchestra a little for him, that’s one reason to have a great conductor in charge.

The production has the feeling of winter, with muted colours used to good effect in the sets and costumes. The main curtain is replaced by a screen with images of leafless trees.

At the beginning of Act 2, Ravenswood Castle looks really impoverished with drapes covering the furniture and chandeliers. Arturo must have brought his money with him as in Scene 2 all the drapes are removed and a large domestic staff appears to arrange things for the signing of the marriage contract. This scene is spoiled by the arrival of that popular piece of post modern kitsch, the photographer with compulsory magnesium flash. I will be armed in future and shoot down any supernumerary carrying photographic equipment. This photographer is kept busy during the sextet arranging a group wedding photograph. A serious distraction. Please just put the singers in a line and let them sing.

More was to come, in the person of a medical man with black bag, who attended Lucia during the mad scene. He administered some pacifying drug with a syringe. This was silly, but not such a serious distraction.

The walls Ravenswood Hall fell away for the mad scene to reveal a full moon, several times the size of the planet, Jupiter looming over everything. This may have been symbolism, or it may have been a special for the night, as a full moon was indeed rising in the east.

Distractions aside, this was a fine production beautifully sung.


Lucia di Lammermoor

Metropolitan Opera New York

25 October 2007

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Von Dohnanyi and Znaider

Avery Fisher Hall

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra holds open rehearsals, generally on the morning of the first concert of a series. I have been able to see this week’s concert twice in the one day. (The rehearsal tickets are only $ 15).
This week the orchestra is conducted by Christoph Von Dohnanyi and Nikolaj Znaider plays the Sibelius Violin Concerto.

I had the idea, maybe a false memory, that Mr. Von Dohnanyi would look emaciated but he does not. He is solidly built and has white hair. He beats the time very clearly with large movements using a long baton. New York Philharmonic rehearsals which I attended last year under Lorin Maazel and David Robertson proceeded pretty much as run throughs of the whole concert. Mr. Von Dohnanyi seems a more demanding taskmaster and called for many repeats some of which involved stopping the orchestra before the end of a movement.

The concert began with a relatively new work by Harrison Birtwistle called Night’s Black Bird, first performed in August 2004. It lasts only about 12 minutes. It follows upon a longer work called The Shadow of Night. Both are inspired by works of John Dowland; the title of Night’s Black Bird comes from the text of Dowland’s song “Flow my Tears”. The piece opens with dying chords which resemble the beginning of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream but in the bass rather than treble.
Bird calls are heard against the orchestral background; the program note says the Black Bird of the title is “only one in a whole aviary, with the high woodwinds (most prominently the piccolo, flute, and E flat clarinet,) adding their calls.” At the concert itself when I was closer to the orchestra I heard more of the layered texture of the orchestral back ground and liked it better. There is a real difference in what is heard in different places in Avery Fisher Hall. There is a large percussion section with all kinds of gongs and cymbals, but they are not over used, and the work ends with the unusual scraping sound of two guiros. The guiro is a South American instrument.

On the Philharmonic’s podcast Mr. Birtwistle spoke about the Dowland songs which inspired his piece. He admires the lyrical quality of Dowland: a quality which he said had been lost in nineteenth century music. Dowland’s In Darkeness let me Dwell was playing in the background and illustrated his point well. However, I didn’t find Night’s Black Bird a lyrical work. The orchestral sound rises to crescendos twice and the bird calls are often staccato.

Nikolaj Znaider is a marvelous violinist and his performance of the Sibelius concerto was thrilling. He plays the Guarnerius “del Gesu” 1741 violin which he explains on the podcast was used by Fritz Kreisler for 15 years. He likes to think that the wood of the instrument contains a memory of Kreisler’s playing. Whatever the likelihood of this, the combination of the instrument and the player’s skill and musicality produced a beautiful sound.

The concert ended with Bethhoven’s fifth symphony. The program quotes a Wittgensteinian remark of Schumann: “Let us be silent about this work!” So apart from the comment that the playing was excellent and from my seat I heard all sections of the orchestra distinctly and enjoyed the precision of the playing, I will.

Friday, 12 October 2007

A Bedtime Story

Perhaps there has been a more unusual concert but it would be hard to find.
The work was Enoch Arden, Op 38 by Richard Strauss (1896).
The program note said:
Strauss himself called it a “worthless piece”.

The location was the aquarium – Reef HQ complex Flinders Street Townsville.

Guide: “Have you been to a night viewing in the aquarium before.”
“It’s really interesting all the fish hide behind rocks and in the coral; some even make themselves nests from mucous.”

The piano and some loudspeakers were set up in front of one of the one of the windows of the large tank. Unaware of the strength of the amplification I sat near the front. Piers Lane was the pianist and Damien Beaumont the reader.

Long lines of the cliff breaking have left a chasm;
And in the chasm are foam and yellow sands.

We are underway. It is a long poem. 20 pages long. From time to time there are short interludes of music. It sounds something like Strauss, no misdescription here.

The fish were in hiding as promised; the water in the largely vacant aquarium changed colour in a light display.

After 30 minutes or so Enoch is stranded on a deserted but verdant island:

The mountain wooded to the peak, the lawns
And winding glades high up like ways to heaven,
The lightening flash of insect and of bird,
The lustre of the long convolvuluses
That coil’d around the stately stems, and ran
Even to the limit of the land…………

A turtle swam up and down in the aquarium.

As well as being long the poem is somewhat morose, so I will not attempt to tell the story here. It does end however, and abruptly:

So past the strong heroic soul away.
And when they buried him the little port
Had seldom seen a costlier funeral.

And seldom has there been such an unusual hour or so. At least I have heard one of Tennyson’s narrative poems read aloud and have become acquainted with it. Life seems to have been an awful burden for the Victorians. Thomas Hardy has seemed to me to have beeen suffering from a unique sense of depression; but hearing this poem is a reminder that this kind of thing was very prevalent.
Why did Strauss compose it; or more accurately the short passages of music that go with it? It was written for performance by an actor Ernst Von Possart who was also the head of the Munich opera at the time. Strauss wished to ingratiate himself. Strauss played and Von Possart proclaimed all over Germany and even on one occasion in London.
Some of Strauss’s songs were described by Ernest Newman as “not music but merchandise” and Matthew Boyden in his biography of Strauss puts Enoch in the same class.

See: Mathew Boyden: Richard Strauss, 1999. Reviewed (unfavourably) by Michael Tanner TLS 13 August 1999.

Australian Festival of Chamber Music; A Bedtime Story 12 July 2007.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Il trittico



My life in the opera audience began in about 1952 with Puccini’s Tosca.
Il trittico was the only one of his major works that I had not seen: why this should be so is a mystery since the production revived this year by Opera Australia is the oldest in the company’s repertoire. It was first seen in 1973. Last year I saw one of the three – Gianni Schicci at the Washington National Opera.

Il Trittico (The triptych) as its name suggests three short operas performed together. They are Il Tabarro (The Cloak) , Sour Angelica and Gianni Schicchi .

The operas were first performed at the Met in New York in 1918. Since then they seem to have suffered a mixed fate and have been performed in various combinations, sometimes with operas by other composers. When I saw Gianni Schicchi in Washington it followed Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Suor Angelica has been least popular. In my edition of Kobbe’s Opera Book, Lord Harwood dismisses it in three short paragraphs which is less that a quarter of the space allocated the other two. He says it has never been popular.

I think that Il Trittico is best thought of as whole, a work in three movements with a dramatic opening. a contemplative middle section and a lively finale. If Suor Angelica were omitted this structure would be lost. But I also disagree with the writer of OA’s program note when she says that Gianni Schicci has been performed with some “frankly strange” partners, such as Bluebeard’s Castle. When I saw Gianni Schicchi in Washington it followed Bluebeard’s Castle and the combination worked very well. The comedy was a release from the tension of Bartok’s dark and tense opera, an effect which was enhanced by the witty use of production elements from Bluebeard in the Puccini.

Puccini’s music is very distinctive but within the orchestral sound he creates each of the three pieces is quite different. The music of Il Tabarro has been described as like an impressionist painting in sound and this is a good description particularly of the passages which set the scene at the outset. There is some evidence that Puccini saw the creation of the atmosphere of Paris and the Seine as more important than the melodrama which develops within it. As originally written Michele’s aria sung after his exchange with Giorgetta began:

Rush on, never ending river,
How deep is your mystery!

The aria was replaced in 1923 with one that begins –

Nulla! Silenzio. (Nothing! Silence.)
There she is!
She isn’t undressing or sleeping…….

In both Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi Puccini gives his characters very specific ages, in Gianni Schicchi these seem appropriate enough but the love triangle in Il Tabarro is unusual. Michele, the husband is 45 and Giorgetta his wife 25; but Luigi, Giorgetta’s lover is 20. If Giorgetta seduced a boy working for her husband it would make Michele’s denunciation of her “Sgualdrina”, expressed with wonderful intensity by Jonathan Summers, very accurate. The difficulty is that Denis O’Neill could never look like a young man of 20 and neither could any other tenor who could take the part; even Carlo Barricelli who replaced Denis O’Neill in later performances. And the words given to him do not sound like those of a youth either.

The exchange between Michele and Giorgetta in which Michele reminisces about their past love includes references to their dead baby with which he continues despite Giorgetta’s pleas. Is this intended to expose a cruelty in him which might explain his murder of Luigi?

The answer to this kind of question is probably not to look past the first impressions made by the characters and to rely on the music.

The popularity of Puccini operas may work against them as it can be said they often wallow in sentimentality. This is true in a way, but it is not everything. Even the well known climatic moments are rarely overdone. Some of the most popular arias are actually very short. There are moments like the duet of the two lovers before Michele’s final aria in Il Tabarro, just 45 seconds to make the contrast with the difficult relationship of Giorgetta and Michele. There are instrumental solos too, often very short but often of great beauty, which add to the richness and depth of the score.

There are times when the music seems to run against the text. I noticed two examples in Il Trittico because the music is very familiar but I had never really noticed the words. In Il Tabarro there is an intense duet between Luigi and Giorgetta which I had always heard as an expression of the intensity of their love: but the text concerns their common delight in the Parisian suburb of Bellevue. The subtlety is that music is saying something altogether more personal. Wagner is famous for this kind of thing but Puccini does not seem to be given credit for it.

The limits of the opera theatre pit are very evident at this point as the crescendo in the brass which is so prominent in recordings is muted; but we are left with a beautifully executed velvety passage which builds up to it. The loss of one aspect of the music enhances another.

The same point can be made about the most famous aria in the piece “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi. I have always heard this as an expression of love and affection from an admiring daughter to her father; and I have no doubt the music says this. The text is a plea to Gianni Schicchi to help the aristocrats he despises overturn a will which fails to benefit them, and, in turn create a situation in which Lauretta can marry. the music of “O mio babbino caro” appears as a motif a couple of times before the aria, first in Rinuccio’s aria in praise of the city of Florence and its maturity in accepting other cultures. There may be something going on here which I have missed: or maybe the motif appears just so it is associated with both the lovers.

I have never heard Jonathan Summers better than as Michele in Il Tabarro; a fine performance. His Gianni Schicchi was also good but Michele was outstanding. Samuel Ramey as Gianni Schicchi in Washington left a more powerful impression.

Denis O’Neill is a singer who seems always so much in control of himself and his voice and unwilling to take risks that his excellent and reliable performances lack the emotion and feeling of a tenor who takes risks. In Il Tabarro, perhaps because it is a short work, he gave a little more than usual perhaps.
Carlo Barricelli’s Luigi sang with Italianate flair, but from where I was sitting sounded a little weak in his duet with Nicole Youl’s Giorgetta which lacked balance.
Cheryl Barker gave a fine performance of the three soprano roles. Due to illness, she was replaced by Nicole Youl in the radio broadcast of the first two operas and in Il Tabarro in the final performance I saw. There was little to choose between them.

I have discovered a CD of the opera’s in which Chilean soprano Christina Gallardo Domas (seen as Madame Butterfly at the Met) sings Sister Angelica. The unusual timbre of her voice brings a real sense of vulnerability to her characterisation of Angelica.

Il trittico

Seen 31 August, 12 and 26 September 2007.

Radio broadcast 22 September 2007.


Monday, 1 October 2007

St. James Church, Sydney Symphony Fellowship

Wednesday 26 September 2007.

After a sushi lunch at sushi train Sosumi, we walked up to St. James for the fellowship concert.
The Sydney Symphony Fellowship is a training group for young artists who often play with the orchestra as well as work on projects of their own including chamber music concerts such as this one.

The first piece was Brahms’ String Quintet in G. Op. 111. The String players were joined by Roger Benedict, the artistic director of the program, as second viola. I was taken by surprise by the quintet, which had been there waiting all this time for me to find it. It was written in 1890, and my book says it was intended as a final work, a kind of musical farewell, though Brahms was drawn out of retirement to write further chamber works all including the clarinet. It is a marvellous piece with many very characteristic features, an echo of the double concerto and yet another gypsy inspired final movement. I thought I heard some Elgar like sounds and was pleased to see my book suggests Elgar was influence by this work.

The second piece was described as a Clarinet Quintet by Penicka. Martin Penicka is the fellowship cellist and I assumed he was a composer as well. Not so, as he pointed out in his introduction. The clarinet quintet was written by his father, Miroslav Penicka , who was born in Czechoslovakia in 1935 , studied music there and migrated to Australia in 1964. It was an attractive and tuneful work; I thought the clarinet was more part of the ensemble than the solo instrument it can be in the more familiar clarinet quintets.

It was an hour of unexpected delights and there was time to buy the Naxos CD of the Brahms string quintets before catching the bus home.

My book: Brahms by Malcolm Macdonald ( Master Musicians Series).

Miroslav Penicka

Brahms, String Quintets Nos. 1 and 2 Ludwig Quartet and Bruno Pasquier. NAXOS

Sunday, 9 September 2007


This morning, thanks to the power of the Internet, I learned of confectionery sold in the United States as INCREDIBLY SOFT & CHEWY WILLY WALLABY AUSTRALIAN STYLE GOURMET LIQUORICE.

Flavours available include

Gourmet Red
Gourmet Green Apple
Gourmet Watermelon and
Gourmet Black.

In all my life I have never heard of Willy Wallaby or these kinds of Licorice. However, it is most important to keep an open mind at all times, and in the spirit of scientific enquiry and adventure I set out to investigate. To my surprise I discovered that similar but not identical licorice was readily available:

Tropical Mango Soft Licorice,
Strawberry Soft Licorice,
Raspberry Soft Licorice,
Choc coated strawberry licorice, and
Red Licorice.

The familiar black licorice is still available in many forms as are licorice allsorts.

Licorice Allsorts

Pink Licorice Confectionary

Two Metres of Licorice

UPDATE 12 November 2007

Great interest has been shown in this important topic. At personal inconvenience and expense, I have extended my research to the home of Wallaby products: The United States.
Here I have not only found but also eaten Wallaby Australian Style Organic Yogurt -

Oz Rules OK

This delicious yogurt is made in California. If a blind tasting were held, even the most dedicated connoisseur would be unable to distinguish it from an Australian low fat strawberry.

Is it too late to save the Wallaby brand for the nation? The Howard government has acted on orangutans: let's have some action on our own beloved wallaby.

As the year comes to a close, I learn that some entymologists have debated the spelling of "Licorice" in this article. I can only note that Dr. Johnson favoured the robust English spelling: although he was clearly aware of continental variants adopted by others.


Wednesday, 29 August 2007


On Tuesday morning we saw a stage rehearsal of Opera Australia’s new production of the Tales of Hoffmann. Wikipedia has information about the opera itself –

There will be more opportunities to talk about this production, but my first impressions are that it is excellent.

The rehearsal covered Act 2 (Giulietta), Act3 (Antonia) and the Epilogue. The opera is performed with spoken dialogue in English and sung in French, which may cause some comment: the last production of Hoffmann was wholly in French. The English dialogue adds to intelligibility but there is some clash between the Australian accented English and the French.

There is one basic set on a revolving stage which has some changeable elements. Various props are used to good effect in setting the scene for each act. The set works well.

Emma Mathews sings all the soprano roles and John Wegner all the bass. And some other multi tasked singers as well.

There was much stopping and starting and some sections were repeated. Including, I am happy to say the wonderful trio in the Antonia Act, music which might have been written with Emma Mathews in mind.

The skill of the musicians in picking up the music accurately from a direction like “6 (bars ) before K” is remarkable to a non musician. The singers do not have the music but do almost as well from a cue or a few notes hummed by the conductor.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Lunar Eclipse

We had a good view of the lunar eclipse tonight.

Lunar Eclipse 28 August 2007

The full moon rising was clearly visible in the east and then the shadow of the eclipse moving up from the lower edge until the moon was fully covered and quite red. A darker band of shadow followed. We have some Chinese grandparents in a neighbouring house and as the eclipse progressed they banged on saucpans or something similar. This is, we think, a Chinese custom in these circumstances. I don't know anything about it, but the clanging added something to the occasion.

An unexpected problem was that there was insufficient light from the moon in full eclipse to register on my camera. Sandra's camera was more sensitive and she took the photo above.


A visit to the Sydney Town Hall on Monday night to hear the Stuart Challender Lecture given by Norman Lebrecht. it was nice to be in the Town Hall, once the venue for most concerts, again. The building has been renovated on the inside: (I’m not sure how long ago ) and looks impressive. It’s a pity it is not used more for concerts as the character of the hall would add something to the experience.

My bookshop sold a few copies of Lebrecht’s The Maestro Myth. The publicity for his talk said that he “first gained widespread notoriety with his acidic critique of modern conductors, The Maestro Myth.” I didn’t read the book at the time thinking that the author was indeed seeking notoriety by publishing commentary designed to be controversial.

My opinion wavered a little when I heard his appearance on The Music Show via a podcast. He has knowledge and ability and could be interesting.

The lecture itself sent me back to where I began. It started with a doomsday picture of music performance today. Government funding was provided on unacceptable terms; Private donors were unreliable and, if corporations, liable to go broke; the death of the classical record industry has left musicians without a source of income …and so on. All delivered with the assistance of a radio mike which enabled him to wander the stage like a TV preacher. The end was near. There was little by way of fact; many generalisations which ignored the way funding varies from country to country and the history of the many orchestras which had no contracts with the major record companies. After, I recalled the popular lawyers saying “Never let the facts get in the way of a good argument”. And in this cast the argument wasn’t that good.

But not to worry: salvation is at hand. The new technology will bring a bright future. We will all be booking our concert seats on line and grooving to our ipods. What you put on your ipod is called MY MUSIC ! We have a new sense of possession. It’s MINE.

This part of the talk included a few interesting bits of information. Internet bookings at the Barbican concert hall in London have reached 50% of the total.
A Beethoven cycle containing live performances of the symphonies by the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda was offered as a free download by BBC Radio 3 and surprised its most optimistic advocates by achieving 1.4 million downloads. UK and USA were the top countries, followed by Holland and Vietnam. This success led to opposition form the commercial music industry and there have been no free downloads since.

This was accompanied by the claim that this was the only Beethoven cycle recorded in the present century. More hyperbole: last years lecture was given by Osmo Vanska who is recording a Beethoven cycle with the Minnesota orchestra. Minneapolis is some distance from London. And, by the way, did the Minnesota Orchestra ever have a contract with a major record label?

Since I wrote this the transcript of Mr. Lebrecht's remarks has been published on the ABC web site. I wanted to comment on this passage:

When I was here last time you had two thriving opera companies, Sydney and the Victorian State Opera. Then the Victorian State Opera was shut down. Now it’s been restarted. But it’s been restarted in a very wobbly way, nobody quite knows what's going to be happening there next year.

A good example of his lack of interest in getting the facts straight before commenting. I think the Victorian Opera's Orpheus and Euridice which I saw earlier this year might be described as wobbly but that's not his point. So it was good to see Richard Gill get up at the end and state that his company is not wobbly and that its program for next year is fixed.

Sunday, 26 August 2007



1: And there was given me a reed like unto a rod: and the angel stood, saying, “ Rise, and measure the temple of God, and the altar, and them that worship therein. 2: But the court which is without the temple leave out, and measure it not; for it is given unto the Gentiles: and the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months. 3: And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth.”4: These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth. 5: “And if any man will hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth, and devoureth their enemies: and if any man will hurt them, he must in this manner be killed. 6: These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy: and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will. 7: And when they shall have finished their testimony, the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit shall make war against them, and shall overcome them, and kill them….

In 1652, John Reeve and his cousin Lodowick Muggleton took themselves to be the two last witnesses mentioned in this passage; which would not be very remarkable but for the fact that they commenced a religious movement known as the Muggletonians which continued for over three hundred years. The belief that Muggleton and Reeve were these persons and the odd cosmology that accompanied it seem so peculiar that it is hard to imagine how it persisted for so long. It seems to me that it could be an excellent example of the transfer of information and belief between generations by what Richard Dawkins has called “memes”, analogous to genes but not material. In more commonplace terms the argument is that information and belief passed from parent to child along with language is likely to be strongly held.

I am not sure that the meme hypothesis is of much assistance but the way in which tradition and belief pass from generation to generation is interesting.

I have wanted to find a more detailed history of the Muggletonians both as an example of this process and out of interest in the sheer oddity of the sect. The TLS of August 17 includes a review of LAST WITNESSES by William Lamont published last year. The author has had the use of a remarkable archive of Muggletonian records found at a farm in Kent in 1974. The book traces the sect from 1652 to the death of its last member in 1979. I hope to get hold of the book soon and discover more.


I have received advice that I should write a blog; and so I revived this one which so far has nothing in it except a picture of Zippo Man. I found Zippo Man in Nagasaki earlier this year. I have a few ideas about what I will post but that is for later in the day.