Tuesday, 30 November 2010

French Connection

Chance events can provoke an interest; and it was the appearance of Pascal and Ami Rogé at the Australian Festival of Chamber in 2005 and 2006, together with a chance encounter with them in New York that encouraged me to fight jet fatigue and attend Pascal Rogé’s concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 29 April.

It was also fortunate that the day prior to the concert the Rogés appeared on In Tune on BBC Radio 3. This discussion was valuable not only in getting an understanding of the concert program, but also for the information that, following their performance of a work by Matthew Hindson at the Townsville festival, which I must have heard but am unable to recollect, the Rogés commissioned him to write a concerto for two pianos which they will perform with the Sydney Symphony next year. I have always enjoyed hearing Matthew Hindson’s music. My forgetfulness is related not to the quality of his music but the difficult task of bringing newly heard new music to mind after a single hearing.

When I learned of the new work I thought that Matthew Hindson’s usual fast pace and rhythmic drive will make for a very exciting concerto. I have since heard his short piece Beauty, written for the anniversary of the Australia Ensemble, and his 2010 work Light is both a Particle and a Wave. Beauty is not manic at all, I found it very moving, I don't know if he has achieved this kind of thing in any earlier compositions or if it's an new development for him, but whatever the answer, I now like his music more than ever. There are also some excellent contemplative passages in the second movement of Light... The awful thing is that if I travel as planned, I will not be here in Sydney when the concerto is performed in May 2011.

Of the concert itself, Pascal Rogé said that he designed the program to make the case for Chopin as a French composer. Chopin’s mother was French and he spent 15 years in Paris. He also wanted to show Chopin’s influence on the French composers who followed him Fauré, Ravel, Poulenc and particularly Debussy.

He says in the program:

I have interwoven the Chopin pieces with those of the other composers with hardly any pause between them, moving from one to another, as if walking from one artwork to another in a gallery. In this way, I was able to make connections between the works, and we could transport ourselves into a journey of sounds and colours.

And this is exactly what happened.

The Queen Elizabeth Hall was packed, with part of the audience seated right alongside the piano on the stage. By great good luck when I booked on line at the last minute about the only seat available was in the front row; a wonderful place to be for such a marvellous concert. Pascal Rogé played with an intensity I didn't see at Townsville, and there was, as promised, almost no pause between the works.

I have never been a great follower of Chopin, but I suppose I became familiar with his music by a kind of osmosis by hearing it from time to time on the radio and such. Almost all of the music was familiar to me, and the argument about the connection between Chopin and the French composers seemed unanswerable. Among the French pieces was The Girl with the Flaxen Hair, which has been known bring me to tears, which it did again.

The influence of Chopin cannot have been direct: none of the French composers can have known or heard him. Fauré's dates are the only ones with a small overlap:

Chopin 1810 - 1849

Fauré 1845 - 1924

Debussy 1862 - 1918

Ravel 1875 - 1937

Poulenc 1899 - 1963

so the selection gives some idea of the dominance Chopin's music must have had in Nineteenth century France.

Pascal Rogé made a recording of many of the pieces played in the concert last year, and I have now bought one. There is only one CD, so some of the pieces played in the concert are omitted. Having heard the concert, listening to the recording was a special experience for me, but I'm sure most would find well worth hearing on its own.

International Piano Series Queen Elizabeth Hall London 29 April 2010.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Das Rheingold

I am determined not to become a Wagnerite. It's not that I don't like Wagner - or The Ring; but there is so much more music to hear and enjoy. George Bernard Shaw wrote:

It is generally understood, however, that there is an inner ring of superior persons to whom the whole work has a most urgent and searching philosophic and social significance.

That was in 1898 and they are still around, only now they take to the air themselves and congregate on rocky outcrops wherever a Ring cycle is performed. I have no wish to join them.

But I have bought a ticket to the Met's new Das Rheingold on 2 April 2011 ( as well tickets to all kinds of other things ). And at the risk of seeming obsessive, I am approaching this occasion by stages. First, I was able to hear the opening night of Rheingold streamed on the Internet. And before long I will see it in the cinema - though not live in my time zone.

The Met has invested large sums in the technology required by Robert Le Page's production. An early version of it was deployed in his Damnation of Faust, which I saw in the theatre in 2008 and 2009. When I first saw it I wasn't much taken with the visual effects and thought that the strength of the production was the playing of the Met Orchestra. But on seeing it again, I changed my mind and found the staging to be very effective. The physical part of that staging was a scaffolding like structure at the front of the stage. The structure for the Ring is much more complicated. Some of it didn't work on opening night.

I live in a critical desert where inane and decaying newspapers sometimes manage to print 250 words about a show. The Met is more fortunate and the piece I heard streamed attracted many writers, most of whom were given the space to say something of interest.

There are more but I have seen:

The New York Times
The New York Post
The Washington Post (Associated Press)
The Times
The Financial Times
The Daily Telegraph
The Guardian &
Daniel Stephen Johnson

though some of the links my die with time.

As heard on line, it sounded wonderful. Even at a distance and though medium fidelity speakers the orchestral sound was overwhelming. No explanation is required for the reception the audience gave to James Levine.

As a dedicated non Wagnerite, I was a little disappointed to find how familiar the music was - even after a long break. The singing seemed uniformly excellent and I did not feel at all deprived in not being part of the magic on stage.

The critics confirmed my hearing of the orchestra at a distance:

The true star of the night though was James Levine, who stood through his first full performance at the conductor's podium for seven months due to a serious back complaint. As he has done so often over the past 40 years at the Met, he inspired a great orchestra to give of its best, culminating in a mesmerising climax. The Guardian

Almost as if determined to prove something, he conducted the score with exceptional vigor, sweep and uncommon textural clarity. New York Times

But what chiefly galvanises the drama — as so often at the Met — is the quality and power of the orchestral playing under James Levine's painstaking direction. The Times

The production worked for some ...

Lepage treated the audience to a mesmerising display of virtual magic, giving them plenty to feast their eyes on in the intimate scenes between the coups de théâtre. Telegraph

...keeping the gadgetry low-key and respectful and intelligently enhancing Wagner's mood rather than imposing his own. Guardian

but there were also mixed feelings  ...

For the most part it was an impressive success: an inventive, fluid staging and a feat of technological wizardry that employs sophisticated video elements without turning into a video show. Wagner buffs tend to be a fanatical sort, and no doubt there will be debate about Mr. Lepage’s work. Here he received a mostly enthusiastic ovation with scattered boos. I had mixed feelings. New York Times

and a craving for Eurotrash which I find hard to fathom:

Forget meaningful symbols or sociopolitical undertones. In New York, a tree looked like a carefully painted tree in a canvas forest. The principals struck traditional poses, modelled quaint breastplates and winged helmets. This was no thinking-person’s Wagner, but it made a lot of conservatives happy. Financial Times

But what's already depressingly clear is that Lepage has virtually nothing to say about the political, social, moral or ecological subtexts of The Ring. You might have thought that, in this of all cities — and after everything that has happened in the past two years — a tale about the corrupting lust for gold would be staged with a modicum of irony, if not outright satirical venom. The Times

Until converted, my opinion is that productions should by and large be faithful to the composers' intentions and that the universal appeal of myth isn't enhanced by narrowing its scope.

I remembered Wotan as a overbearing figure declaiming about this and that in a way which relied on the subtlety of the orchestral accompaniment for texture. I have heard Bryn Terfel's powerful voice but unlike some critics have not been impressed by his acting. On both counts I was surprised to get the impression of a conversational, domestic Wotan with excellent variation in his tone and delivery. The critics were divided:

The formidable bass-baritone Bryn Terfel sang his first Wotan at the Met, a chilling, brutal portrayal New York Times

Bryn Terfel, making his US debut in his celebrated role of Wotan, the lord of the gods, was brooding and dark. Guardian
The Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel was riveting as Wotan, playing him as a vigorous, hot-tempered god, full of youthful pride and daring. Vocally, he was overpowering, ringing top notes alternating with gently modulated phrases. Washington Post

Not even Bryn Terfel, who hurls out Wotan's lines with customary verve (though edging nervously sharp on some big notes) but musters only a fraction of his usual charisma. For once the big Welshman seems overawed.  The Times

More problematic was bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in the central role of Wotan, king of the gods. He deployed his world-class voice with skill, but when the score called for rich, flowing sound, he tended to yell and go sharp. A stringy wig concealing half his face blunted his usually razor-sharp acting. New York Post

Eric Owens' Alberich was amazing. My memory of Alberich was of a cringing and unattractive dwarf, a typical bully, tormenting Mime as an outlet for his own rage. Again there were two surprises: the audio stream revealed an Alberich as powerful as Wotan, their dialog resembling a prize fight. And having heard Eric Owens as General Groves in John Adams' Doctor Atomic, I didn't expect such a strong performance. The portrayal of General Groves as a figure of fun, probably done to give some variety between the characters, was about the only thing that annoyed me about Doctor Atomic and this may have affected my appreciation of his singing.

Everyone loved him:

And the bass-baritone Eric Owens had a triumphant night as Alberich...Mr. Owens’s Alberich was no sniveling dwarf, but a barrel-chested, intimidating foe, singing with stentorian vigor, looking dangerous in his dreadlocks and crazed in his fantasy of ruling the universe. New York Times

I guess part of the reason I was uncomfortable is that Alberich, in this production, is not the stupid little clown we're used to seeing; in fact, he's fucking terrifying. Johnson

A vocal standout was Eric Owens, whose bass-baritone retained its essential beauty and heft even in Alberich’s moments of rage. New York Post

Another distinctive feature of the audio was the Loge of Richard Croft. My memory is of Loge sung by a wispy high tenor; and I enjoyed the much richer sound I heard here. Loge was only mentioned in passing by the critics and perhaps my strong impression came from the broadcast medium: he may not have sounded as strong in the theatre:

...tenor Richard Croft made for a lively Loge, perhaps lacking quite enough volume to rise over some of Wagner's orchestration. Washington Post

I also enjoyed the creamy mezzo soprano of Stephanie Blythe as Fricka, and so did the New York Times:

the powerhouse mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was a vocally sumptuous, magisterial yet movingly vulnerable Fricka.

Watch this space for Das Rheingold parts 2 and 3.

Metropolitan Opera New York Internet stream Das Rheingold heard Tuesday 28 September 2010 (local time).

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Victorian Opera: Julius Caesar

The second event on my visit to Melbourne was the Victorian Opera production of Handel's Julius Caesar at the Recital Centre. I had been less than enthusiastic about three VO productions heard earlier; and was also sceptical about the use of the Elizabeth Murdoch Hall in the Centre for opera. I'm not critical of the use of a space without a traditional stage: operas staged by Pinchgut Opera in the City Recital Hall in Sydney have been excellent overall and musically outstanding.

However, on my previous visit to the Melbourne hall at the time it was opened in 2009, I heard chamber music, (Schubert's Trout Quintet played by the Goldner Quartet with Piers Lane and Alex Henery and a late night concert which introduced me to Morton Feldman's haunting Rothko Chapel), for which the acoustics of the hall were perfect, and a performance of some opera excepts and Vaughan Williams Serenade to Music, with Orchestra Victoria conducted by Richard Mills and singers, which I thought was not as well suited to the space.
Melbourne Recital Centre

The Elizabeth Murdoch Hall is lined with timber, and I could smell the wood as I came in: I hope this natural aroma therapy will last.

For Julius Caesar, the orchestra was placed in front of the stage. The simple all purpose set included an obelisk, Cleopatra's Needle perhaps, reaching almost to the ceiling and some thin drapes hanging from a rail attached to the roof, which were opened and closed during the performance.

As soon as the orchestra played, my doubts about the quality of the music were extinguished. The ensemble from Orchestra Victoria conducted by Richard Gill, the artistic director of Victorian Opera, played beautifully. The orchestral sound was balanced and well articulated. If I wanted to find fault I would say that the hall was not quite as kind to the singers, as I thought I noticed a little too much reverberation at times. But overall I was enchanted. I should have allowed myself enough time in Melbourne to hear it more than once. So much for scepticism.

I don't think I had heard David Hansen the countertenor who sang Caesar before. He has a remarkably agile voice, his high notes in particular had great clarity of tone. Tiffany Speight was a fine Cleopatra, and it was interesting to hear Tobias Cole ( Oberon in OA's Midsummer Night's Dream earlier this year ) as Tolmeo. He sang Caesar in the most recent revival of OA's famous production. The other singers were excellent as well.

It may not be a universal rule, but I think there is much to be said for staging 17th and 18th century opera in small theatres and halls. I know that when Handel's opera's were first performed the rather static nature of the opera seria was mitigated by the use of elaborate scenic effects; but I'm not certain about how large the theatres were. I have seen the OA Julius Caesar, first performed by Yvonne Kenny and Graham Pushee in 1994, in both Sydney and Melbourne. Those theatres were fine for the music and the space allowed for elaborate and effective staging. I was, however, disappointed by David McVicar's production, originally for Glyndebourne, which I saw at Chicago Lyric Opera in 2007. I will mention some aspects of the production later, but my overriding impression was that the theatre was too large for the work which lacked impact for that reason. It's seen from a distance, and though there are singers who are powerful enough for a large auditorium many fine artists are not. In Chicago, French countertenor Christophe Dumaux, who sang Tolemeo, seemed much more suited to the space than David Daniels, who sang Caesar.

The VO production was directed by Steven Heathcote who recently retired after an outstanding career as a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet. His background in dance was reflected in some aspects of the production, which I thought was well suited to the hall and enhanced the excellent music. I disagree with the critic for the Melbourne Age, who wrote: "All too often, what we were seeing on stage seemed superficial to what was being played and sung."

The static nature of opera seria creates problems for the modern director, but those problems were elegantly solved here. Two examples:

Towards the end of Act 1, Caesar sings the remarkable aria with horn obligato "The skilful hunter treads silently when stalking his prey". In Francisco Negrin's OA production this was done with Caesar and Tolemeo confronting one another around a large table covered with a green baize cloth. It was a thrilling piece of theatre. David McVicar's production picked up a dance rhythm in the music and had Caesar and Tolemeo performing a kind of gavotte which seemed to drain the dramatic tension from the scene. The VO production, with less elaborate resources, depicted the scene as a confrontation in a way which did enhanced the music.

Another highlight of the OA production was the aria -

" If in the pleasant, flowery meadows, the bird among flowers and leaves, conceals itself, it only makes its song more delightful.."

in which Caesar steps out of character and conducts a kind of duel with the accompanying violinist as they compete to find the highest note. This was also very effective in the theatre. (The applause and foot stamping can be heard on the live recording ).

Chicago also had the violinist on stage without the same theatrical effect, but Steven Heathcote's solution was to have a dancer depict the bird of the lyric sometimes eluding Caesar's reach but when caught allowing the singer to try a few lifts from the ballet. It created a nice effect.

Apart from the obelisk, the Melbourne production was not intended to accurately represent Caesar and Cleopatra in their historical context, but it was straightforward and effective. The much more elaborate Chicago production was a sly representation of British Imperialism, which despite the comic effects had a Serious Purpose. Mr. McVicar says in the program: " On some level this is an opera about what happens when you walk into other people's countries under false pretenses". So there.

I find that it is now 40 years since I first heard Julius Caesar. I mention this because over that time there has been a change in the performance practice for opera seria, most of which included parts for the then prevalent castrati. I saw the first stage performance of Julius Caesar in Australia presented by Young Opera at the Science Theatre, University of New South Wales. Ceasar was sung by one of the great Australian singers, contralto Lauris Elms and Cleopatra by the equally celebrated Marilyn Richardson. Here is the cast list:

1970 Caesar

As with many programs there is no indication of the year, but looking in Lauris Elms' memoir The Singing Elms I find it was 1970. She says (at the time of her writing): "Twenty-five years later people still remember those performances." And Forty years later as well.

Alfred Deller's career as a countertenor was well established by then, but the voice did not have the prominence it does today. I bought a LP record of highlights of the opera as performed by New York City Opera after hearing it in 1970. Beverly Sills is Cleopatra, but Caesar is sung by a bass baritone, Norman Treigle.

As late as 1999, we have a female Caesar at the Met, in a performance I found on the Met Player:

Jennifer Larmore and Sylvia McNair as the ill-fated couple, abounds with dazzling vocal pyrotechnics as well as heart-rending drama. Stephanie Blythe (Cornelia) and David Daniels (her son Sesto) give memorable performances as the grieving family of the murdered Pompey. Brian Asawa sings Cleopatra’s conniving brother Tolomeo.

I was surprised to see David Daniels, Caesar in Chicago, was Sesto. In 1970 David Parker, a tenor, sang this role, but in the other productions I have mentioned Sesto has been sung by a contralto.

* Julius Caesar, Victorian Opera at Melbourne Recital Centre; 22 July 2010.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Forgotten Operas


In the Members room at the Art Gallery of NSW I came across a display of French opera posters from around 1900. It seems there was a more formal exhibition of the gallery's collection of the posters about ten years ago with an illustrated catalogue I haven't seen yet.

The posters are the work of various artists, none of whom I know; but the fascinating thing was how many of the operas depicted are now unfamiliar. I have made the mistake before of thinking of the history of music, (and the same applies to other things), as an orderly linear progression of famous works, in the case of music, beginning with Bach, or Monteverdi perhaps, and on through Mozart, Beethoven and so on. But in fact as a quick look at the Naxos catalogue proves, at any time there were thousands of composers of countless works which we will never hear. Leaving aside works that were never performed, this small exhibition is a reminder that many operas  reached the stage but soon vanished.

I have not heard any of the operas advertised by the posters, but at least know of Massenet's Esclarmonde, (in a poster by Auguste-Francois Gorguet 1862-1927); and was reminded by an interview with Richard Bonynge in the August 2010 edition of Opera News that it was famously revived by him and Joan Sutherland and performed in San Francisco and at the Met in New York 1976. I hadn't heard of Le Mage (poster by Alfredo Edel 1856-1912) but then as the Opera News article points out that Massenet left 28 complete operas as well as incidental music ballet and songs.

Charles-Marie Widor is famous for his organ symphonies particularly the toccata from the symphony for organ no.5 op. 42 no. 1, but I had never thought to ask if he had composed any operas. There were four, represented in the exhibition by Les pêcheurs de Saint-Jean (poster by Fernand-Louis Gottlob 1873 - 1935).

The operettas are even more deeply lost. I hope time permits me to search for and find Shakespeare! by Gaston Serpette (poster by René Péan, b.1875 'opéra bouffe' at the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiennes) or the saucy Mam'zelle Boy-Scout by Gustave Goublier (Poster by Boulanger 1858 -1924 for the operetta at the Théâtre des Renaissance).

But, because of its curious name, the opera which most caught my imagination was La Glu by Gabriel Dupont (Poster by Robert Dupont 1874 - 1949, the composer's brother, for the opera at the Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Nice). My student's French dictionary has no entry for "La glu" but it's meaning is clear from this review found in the New York Times archive -

PARIS Feb. 12- The new dramatic opera "La Glu" produced recently in Nice has been received with the greatest enthusiasm by all who have heard it. The libretto is drawn by Henry Cain from Jean Richepin's powerful book bearing the same title, and presents the following story:

An elegant Parisienne is known by the significant nickname of "La Glu" or birdlime. To gratify a whim she begins and intrigue with a young Breton fisherman, who, however, takes the affair so seriously and loves her with such mad jealousy that he tries to kill himself on learning that she has betrayed him. His mother saves his life and to rescue him from the charmer who endeavors to get him again into her power, murders her.

The music , which has been written to this simple theme by Gabriel Dupont, is extremely melodious and full of poetic beauty. The orchestration is declared by musicians to be admirable.

Paris desires to hear this opera, which in a general way, seems likely to awaken the same emotions that "Carmen" does, but Berlin will almost certainly enjoy that good fortune first. The Princess of Saxe-Meiningen, a sister of the Kaiser, has sent a copy of it to him from the Riviera, at the same time writing him about it with superlative praise. "La Glu" will be produced at the Imperial Opera House in Berlin early next season."

February 13, 1910

By that point Carmen had emerged as a classic: it was not as well received when first performed. The NY Times itself joined the general opinion of the day:

"...Carmen must stand on its own merits - and those are very slender. It is little more than a collocation of couplets and chansons with a strong flavor of the opera comique ( which may be "spicy" but is not very pure -- art-wise, we mean) and musically, is really not much above the works of Offenbach. It is new, and it has chic, but as a work of art, it is naught. "

October 24, 1878

Australian Shakespeare Company COMEDY OF ERRORS


First stop on my recent Melbourne excursion was the Atheneum in Collins Street for the Australian Theatre Company's production of The Comedy of Errors. Since, by chance, I have happened upon two of the more obscure Shakespeare plays, King John and Henry VIII this year, I thought, why not see them all; so when I found that the Comedy of Errors was being performed in Melbourne during my visit I decided to add another to my list.

The play dates from about 1592. It concerns the confusion arising from the presence of two sets of identical twins, each set unaware of the other, in Ephesus. Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, were separated in a shipwreck when they were very young. Their servants, both named Dromio, were separated with them.

The introduction to the Penguin edition of the play says:

Modern productions and scholars, as if taking their cue from the play’s good-natured laughter at erroneous perceptions, have re-examined the play through theatrically innovative and historically revisionist perspectives to overturn older prejudices against it as a mechanical farce of mistaken identities representing a one-off piece of Shakespeare juvenilia.

The Melbourne production, I think correctly, presented the play as a mechanical farce of mistaken identities. The problem of presenting the identical twins was overcome by having the characters in masks which owed something to the comedia del arte, and something to cartoons and the muppets. As dressed and masked the sets of twins were pretty much indistinguishable .

The twins named Antipholus, are the children of Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse and Emilia (who has become Lady Abess at Ephesus. At the begining, we learn that Egeon has been sentenced to death by the Duke of Ephesus, as he has entered Syracuse contrary to restrictions imposed because of a trade dispute between the two cities. As written, Egeon has a very lengthy speech in which he sets out the misfortunes of his family and his search for his son as an explanation of his presence in defiance of the ban. The duke relents and gives Egeon time to find the money for a fine in lieu of excecution

The penguin editor says:

And in the hands of an actor who can tune the rhetorical peaks and valleys of Shakespeare’s masterly piece of verse-narrative to Egeon’s turmoiled recollection, the story can grip theatre spectators completely, as modern productions have often shown.

This production passed over this possibility by breaking the speech into sections and interpolated between later scenes. This became a running joke, as Egeon was dragged across the stage to execution, time and again, reciting his apparently never ending story. The joke worked well; so I will need to await another production to see if the speech can be completely gripping. At the moment I am sceptical about this.

The only trouble with presenting the play as knockabout farce and slapstick, is that, although it is Shakespeare's shortest play it makes for quite a long real life cartoon. I don't say this as a criticism of the production, more of the play, or at least way Tom and Jerry and the like have changed our expectations of the content and pace of slapstick.

It is wonderful that Melbourne has retained so many of its traditional theatres, and although the Atheneum looks somewhat run down it was a pleasure to see the play there.

There was one set, having the appearance of a roughly sketched building. Names were attached to it indicating that it, or its various doors, represented different locations. It was well designed to accommodate those scenes in which the participants can hear, but not see, each other in a convincing way.

The costumes and masks, while elaborate and well made, complemented this style giving the whole production a rough hewn appearance and feel.

The play was well acted throughout. Notwithstanding all the knockabout action, the words were spoken with clarity by everyone. It's probably not a play for great performances; and no one member of the cast seemed to stand out.

The Residents at the Sydney Theatre company are now performing the play at The Wharf; it will be fun to see what they make of it.

Seen at Atheneum Melbourne
21 July 2010

Thursday, 11 March 2010


Queens Theatre
Queen's Theatre Adelaide

While visiting Adelaide, I was fortunate to see a production of Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John by The Eleventh Hour. The Eleventh Hour is a theatre company from Fitzroy in Melbourne.

I suppose I had heard of King John, but when I found that it was on in Adelaide during my visit, I couldn't bring anything about it to mind. The King John of history and myth was lost to my memory as well, and I had to remind myself of Magna Carta, Runnymede and the adventures of Robin Hood (none of which are in Shakespeare).

It's said that performances of King John are rare these days, although the play was popular in the nineteenth century when pageantry, and elaborate scenery and costume were more in evidence. It gave scope for all of these. It may also be that King John loomed larger in the imagination of people at that time; historians of the period treated him as the personification of evil. William Stubbs, professor of modern history at Oxford, described the him as not only as " the very worst of our kings" but also "polluted with every crime" and "false to every obligation". Still under this influence, A.A. Milne taught us that " King John was not a good man-..." I suspect that for the 19th century actor John was what Richard III became in the hands of Laurence Olivier. If you look at the old silent film of Beerbohm Tree performing the death of King John, which was shown in the foyer in Adelaide, you get some sense of this I think.

For those interested, there is a debate about the source of Shakespeare's play and whether it followed in time, and drew upon, the anonymous play The Troublesome Reign of King John or whether Shakespeare came first. Whatever the answer to this, the play is not very coherent, it conflates some incidents from history and jumps forward in time without explaining that it is doing so. King John reigned from 1199 to 1216. The first four acts of the play are chiefly concerned with John's dispute about the inheritance of the Crown with Arthur, Duke of Brittany; or more accurately since Arthur (born 1187) was a youth at the time, with his supporters. This dispute ended when Arthur vanished mysteriously in April 1203 ( in the play he falls, or jumps, from a wall after John's unsuccessful attempt to murder or blind him.) Then the last act depicts the events leading up to John's death in 1216. There is no sub-plot or elaboration, just the rather tortured narrative and countless battles. But a reading of the play does give a feeling of Shakespeare, the working dramatist of great linguistic facility, working against time to get the thing ready and onto the stage.

Stories about the inheritance of royal power were relevant to the politics and events of Shakespeare's time, but are not of pressing concern now.

The Eleventh Hour has tackled the plays difficulties by setting its production in France on the last day of the First World War. It's not simply a production in modern dress. The company, ( I assume its dramaturge William Henderson ) has written a play set on that day in the course of which Shakespeare's King John is performed.


The performance took place in Queen's Theatre in Playhouse Lane, Adelaide. The name suggests a delightful old traditional theatre, but that's not what I found. Although there has been a theatre on the site since 1841, the building, or what remains of it has had a variety of uses over time. The word BAZAAR in faded paint is the only name on the facade. At some stage it was "horse bazaar", I assume a kind of market. All that lies behind the facade is a large space. This is currently used for functions or as a performance space, each user adapting it to their own needs.

A large room to the side was used as a foyer and Shakespeare Tavern; and when it was time for the play to begin the audience was led from there to a side door of the theatre proper, offered paper Chinese fans against the heat, and shown to a steeply raked temporary grandstand structure which held just over a hundred seats. The bank of seats faced back towards the building's facade.

The space between the seats and the front of the theatre was converted to an elaborate set, depicting a barn near the trenches of 1918. To imagine the set, you must forget the usual kind of stage design. The old building was converted into the barn: spaces in the existing wall had been built up and accurately matched with existing structure to show shell damaged walls. Old carts, wheels, barrels and boxes were placed realistically around the "barn" and straw littered the floor. There is a sound design which reproduces the sound of nearby artillery, aircraft and exploding shells and bombs.

The play begins with the entry of a group of soldiers blinded by gas wearing eye bandages, together with three women, two ambulance drivers and an army nurse. The group has sought shelter in the barn, and are soon joined by a badly wounded officer and a chaplain.

This sets the scene for a theatrical device which if simply described sounds contrived and wholly incredible, but which, surprisingly, led to a fascinating and absorbing performance. The nurse, Matron White, suggests to the group that to keep the Captain's spirits up, they should perform the play they have been rehearsing - King John, of course. The Captain is King John. It could be that soldiers at the front in the First World War did some playacting to pass the time, I don't know; but did a group of walking wounded ever learn King John? However, once we take this jump, the strengths of the idea begin to work.

I am totally sick of the convention of placing historical plays and operas in modern times, and the variation of equipping ancient warriors with sub machine guns, with the purpose of teaching those of us lacking the insight and virtue of the Director that war is and was evil and destructive. The improbable device used here managed to skirt a didactic onslaught and instead provided some real insights and emotional force.

The idea drew on some parallels with the plot of King John. As a map in the foyer reminded us, the trenches in France were close to where the action of Shakespeare's play took place. And the futility of that war seems close when Lewis, the dauphin says of a battle:

And now 'tis far too huge to be blown out
with that same weak wind which kindled it.

The gas blinded soldiers give an edge to Shakespeare's very effective scene in which Hubert, acting as the king's henchman, prepares to blind the youthful Arthur with hot irons. In a performance in which all the actors were excellent, Michaela Cantwell (alias Lieutenant Violet O'Faolain, Ambulance Driver) gave a most affecting performance as the troubled and vacillating Hubert. The idea of Hubert being performed by a woman was another bit of the mysterious alchemy which gave this show such emotional force.

Shakespeare's play was interrupted from time to time by episodes in the story of soldiers who were performing it. This did two things. First, it provided another parallel with the old play by showing the stresses which work on wounded and war weary soldiers to produce tension and acrimonious exchanges. But more importantly it gave an impetus to the production which would be difficult to achieve from the text of King John itself. The performance of King John became the driving force of the soldiers' existence: when things got too hard to bear there was always THE PLAY. It became more important to them than issues of life and death, injury, pain and distress.

My only reservation about the performances was that the soldiers developed more identifiable personalities than some of Shakespeare's characters. This might be a fault in King John itself, though I imagine it might be overcome if various of the disputing nobles were given very distinctive costumes. Here they were all in regulation army issue.

One of the ambulance drivers had set up a field telephone which relayed messages from Marshall Foch and General Haig about the armistice to take place at the eleventh hour that day. This also provided some drive to the proceedings; and it was no surprise when the church bells celebrating the end of hostilities accompanied Richard's concluding speech:

This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
...Nought shall make us rue
If England to itself do rest but true.

King John has died, one line of the play explaining that he was poisoned by a monk. This has some point, as during the play John has anticipated Henry VIII by seizing the wealth of the monasteries to finance his battles. No one knows why John died, but I prefer Holinshed's story that his death followed "increased feeding on rawe peaches, and drinking of new sider". No sooner has the Captain delivered John's final lines than he himself falls off the cart on which he rested, dead. I don't want to quibble with such a fascinating production, but this was not difficult to predict.

Queens Theatre

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Charles Bell Birch in Adelaide

Queen Victoria

This statue of Queen Victoria is in Victoria Square Adelaide.  I have now added particulars of the statue to my page on Charles Bell Birch, the sculptor.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Robert Burns in Adelaide

The bard
I never intended to make a catologue of memorials to Robert Burns, but since I was visiting Adelaide and since the statue there is found in The World's Memorials of Robert Burns by Edward Goodwillie late of Michigan, I decided to take a look. ( The italicised passages below are taken from Goodwillie's book. )
The second statue of Robert Burns to be erected
in Australia was unveiled on May 5th., 1894, at
Adelaide, the Queen City and Capital of the federated
State of South Australia.
The location of this statue is one of the finest
which any statue of Burns adorns. The site is the
eastern end of the Reserve, opposite Government
House Domain, on Adelaide's glorious North Terrace.
In close proximity are the Public Library,
Art Gallery, Museum, University and School of
Since that was written the statue has been moved twice to different locations North Terrace. First to the Art Gallery* and more recently, after restoration, to the State Library.
At the unveiling ceremony, which was presided
over by His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor,
who was received by a guard of honor of the Permanent
Artillery, there were present two direct
descendants of Burns, namely, Mrs. McLellan, a
grand-daughter, who still resides in South Australia,
and Mrs. Burns Scott, a great-grand-daughter.
Thousands of people thronged North Terrace at its
intersection with Kintore Avenue when Hon. John
Darling, M. L. C., pulled the cord and exposed the
figure of the Immortal Bard to their admiring gaze.
As mentioned, this was the second statue of Burns in Australia; the first was at Ballarat, where, according to Goodwillie, a crowd of 40,000 people was present for its dedication. It's not unlikely that a similar crowd was present in Adelaide. I have previously mentioned the elaborate ceremony held in 1905 in Sydney. In an audio file found on the Artlab Australia website, Joanna Barr, who worked on the restoration of Adelaide's Burns, discusses the change in the response of the public to memorials since the late 19th and early 20th century. Although elaborate ceremonies and huge crowds are not longer seen, she tells of the considerable interest in the statue which its restoration attracted.
The Bard
The Adelaide statue of Burns is of Angaston
marble, and is erected on a pedestal of Monarto
granite. On the die is engraved:
1759 -1796."
The inscription on the base is:
"Presented to the City of Adelaide by the Caledonian
Society, and unveiled by the Chief, The
Hon. John Darling, M. L. C., 5th May, 1894."
The statue is full life-size and stands, with the
pedestal, thirteen and a half feet high. The poet is
represented in the garb worn during his first winter
in Edinburgh when he wore the livery of Charles
Fox, blue coat with brass buttons, yellow buckskin,
and top boots. He is supposed to be reciting the
poem of a "Winter's Night" to a company assembled
at the Duchess of Gordon's house in the Scottish
Capital. The attitude is taken from Hardy's
centennial picture, now in the possession of Mrs.
Barr Smith, of Adelaide.

I have noted that the statue by Frederick Pomeroy in the Sydney Domain shows the poet with rather dainty shoes even though he is standing at the plough. The Adelaide statue correctly shows the boots he favoured, even when mixing with the cognoscenti of Edinburgh.
The Angaston marble used for the statue is found in South Australia.*
The sculptor, Mr. W. J. Maxwell, was born in
Scotland, and took his degree in the School of Arts,
London. One of the last works he was engaged
upon in England was the restoration of the enrichments
of Westminster Abbey. Going to Australia
in search of health, he executed the architectural
adornments of all the public buildings in Adelaide,
besides many in Sydney and Melbourne. The Adelaide
"Burns" was the first public statue which he
chiselled, but before leaving Scotland, he prepared
a model of the poet which gained the silver medal
at Kilmarnock. The Adelaide statue impresses the
spectator with a sense of both strength and grace.

Mr. W.J. Maxwell was an interesting figure: he did other work in Adelaide and also worked on St. Mary's Cathedral in Sydney but has no entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. He is, however still remembered in Scotland. A short biography appears at Glasgow - City of Sculpture, from which it appears that he also designed and built a "mock castle" named Woodlands Park at Edwardstown SA. It's not everyone who lives in a castle of their own construction, and it's a pity that Maxwell's has gone, and that we don't know more about his life and personality.
The restoration I mentioned began in 2002 when it was reported that:
The Adelaide City Council says the 107-year-old statue needs substantial repairs including work to reassemble its left arm and to stabilise cracks.
A missing finger also needs to be remodelled.
Pictures of the work on the left arm are at Artlab.
I don't know if the finger was remodelled - but it isn't there now.

( * information from audio by Joanna Barr at ArtLab.)

Friday, 26 February 2010


Opera Australia has revived Baz Luhrmann's 1993 production of Britten's AMidsummer Night's Dream. Tempus fugit. It's hard to imagine that I first saw this show almost 20 years ago.
It was absolutely magical. Magic has a lot to do with first impressions as Shakespeare's play itself shows, so it's not surprising that the sense of wonder created by the first performance fades a little the more you see it, but it remains an excellent production. I am interested to explore why this is so: the removal of the action from ancient Athens to a bandstand in an India ruled by George V, is a substantial change, but it hardly seems to matter at all.

When W.H.Auden came to The Merry Wives of Windsor in his lecture series on Shakespeare's plays given in New York in 1947 he said:

"The Merry Wives of Windsor is a very dull play indeed. We can be grateful for it having been written, because it provided the occasion for Verdi's Falstaff, a very great operatic masterpiece. Mr. Page, Shallow, Slender, and The Host disappear. I have nothing to say about Shakespeare's play, so let's hear Verdi."

Britten's Dream is also a very great operatic masterpiece, but we can't dismiss its source so abruptly. Britten and Peter Pears collaborated on the libretto. They edited the text of the play so as to reduce it by about half but they made very few alterations to the words.

However, their excisions alter the balance of the play. Act I Scene 1 set in the Palace of Theseus almost entirely deleted and Scene 2 is deferred, so that the opera begins with the chords which are so evocative of the deepening night, and the entrance of the fairies. The fairies are a new character: they replace a single fairy who doesn't have much to say and appropriate many of Puck's lines as well. Britten had a precedent. Verdi did the same thing when he transformed the witches in Macbeth into a chorus.

I haven't counted the lines but I suspect that most of what Oberon, Titania, Puck and now the fairies have to say is retained from the play. But it's not only this, and their placement at the beginning of the opera which gives them much more prominence; Britten has given much of the most memorable music to Oberon from
 "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows... ", and
"Be it on lion or bear or wolf or bull ..." to the wonderful concluding music which sets
 "Now, until the break of day...".
It was a masterstroke to give this music to a countertenor.
In his lectures, Auden says that in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare: "..mythalogically anthropomorphises nature, making nature like man.." so that "..mythological characters are used to describe certain universal experiences which we cannot control." In other words, the fairy characters animate nature and personify the psychological forces which influence the behaviour of the lovers. By giving this aspect of the play greater prominence, Britten has shifted our focus from the human drama to the mysterious forces at work in the wood.

I don't know anything about Hindu religion, but it seems to me that by giving the fairy characters an Indian persona Baz Luhrmann has found in a polytheist, or perhaps animist, religion a good analogy with Britten's version of the play. It fits the music perfectly even if we don't take into account the way in which much of the movement has been carefully choreographed to fit the score. The whole concept enhances the work and does not, as happens too often, attempt to substitute some half thought out idea of the director for the genius of the piece being performed.

There are a couple of references to India in Shakespeare's text which were probably the jumping off point for the Indian setting, but in themselves these would have been insufficient basis for it. References to Athens are retained and are superficially inappropriate, but because the idea as a whole is in harmony with the way the opera works, although they intrude a little, they don't grate.

The set, which places the orchestra in the bandstand on the stage and extends the acting area at the front is also helpful. It replicates the thrust stage, copying the theatres of Shakespeare's time, which has returned to use in the modern theatre.

One reason the production works so well for us is that it is modern in this sense. It's modernity also reflects Britten. His mysterious and sensual score is very different from Mendelssohn's familiar incidental music which sounds trivial by comparison. Mendelssohn's music was, it seems to me, perfectly in accord with the way in which the nineteenth century saw A Midsummer Night's Dream. Arthur Rackham and W. Heath Robinson both produced illustrated editions of the play. They retain classical antiquity as the setting, but the characters are pure fantasy.
Heath Robinson
W. Heath Robinson

Arthur Rackham

The artists might have seen the play as a delicate and finely worked out farce, amusing but lacking substance. Similarly, in the nineteenth century theatre, Shakespeare's plays were produced with emphasis on costume and pageantry, with, I suspect, a loss of some human interaction and urgency, even in comedy. Although Britten has altered Shakespeare's emphasis, the dark and mysterious forces of nature were always there.

As the opening scene in the palace of Theseus is excised, the relationships between Demetrius and Helena and Lysander and Hermia and their position in relation to Theseus are not as clear as they might be, and the production makes an attempt to overcome this problem by staging some mime between these characters before the music begins. As the scene is brief and without words, it cannot reproduce pages of missing text, but it is another example of the way in the production is faithful to both the opera and the play.

There is usually much more in a production than can be taken in, unless you see the performance a number of times and pay close attention. And when a show is revived more than once, the director may well make changes, which can play with memories of earlier times. For example, I don't remember seeing the removal of Oberon's finger nails ( or are they fingers), before. When Oberon first appears his hands are more like claws, with long spiky nails. Later on, when his mood has improved, and he is about to be re united with Titania these are removed leaving him with hands of normal proportions. This represents the substantial change which occurs once Oberon has his own way and takes possession of the changeling boy from Titania.

What are we to think of Oberon when we first see him in vengeful mood ? I would have thought he was more scheming and mischievous than malicious, but I found another opinion in Kobbe's opera book. The article by Lord Harewood on the opera quotes David Drew, writing of the first performance in the New Statesman:

"Whether intended or not Britten's Oberon is a more grimly effective horror than the Peter Quint who called from the Tower and had no Puck to help him." Peter Quint, who appears in Britten's Turn of the Screw is a wholly malevolent character who hardly needs a Puck to help ( though he has help of a different order from Miss Jessel.) Apart from Britten's use of the celesta in the accompaniment of both characters, I find nothing in common between them. The music creates an atmosphere of mystery, even unease, but it is hard to find evil personified in the remarkable settings of the verse which I have mentioned.

Even assuming Oberon's falling out with Titania is malicious, his intervention in the lovers' affairs is at worst mischievous, even though it goes wrong at first. Then, as the fingernail removal shows, he becomes quite a benign figure, and his singing of "Now until the break of day", is a dramatic and musical resolution of the whole piece.
In the current OA production Oberon is effectively portrayed by Tobias Cole, who I was lucky enough to hear a couple of years ago singing Orpheus on Orpheus Island as part of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music.
Tobias Cole and Marshall McGuire on Orpheus Island (July 2006)

He also sang the title role in Handel's Julius Caesar to great effect.

The role of Titiania suited Rachelle Durkin's voice perfectly. The cast was uniformly excellent. The overall quality of the singing at Opera Australia seems to get better year by year.

When I first saw this production long ago in 1993, it seemed that the appearance of the rustics in military uniform was an affectionate tribute to the television comedy It Ain't Half Hot Mum. That show is so lost in the past that it took me a while to remember the probable reference to it; and when I checked I found that its production run ended about ten years before this Dream was first seen. I think most people still remembered it then however.

There is an excellent summary of the musical techniques used in the opera in Michael Kennedy's book on Britten in the Master Musicians series. He describes the music for the play performed by the rustics as:" (an) extended, affectionate and musically very witty commentary on the conventions of the Donizetti type of Italian opera.." and suggests that:

"Provided the singers do not overplay it, it is a scene that yields fresh delights at each renewal." Those delights are denied us here, as the play is performed as broad farce. It's amusing, but it would be interesting to see a performance in which the music did more of the work.

After the play, the lovers gather for a group photograph taken by a bellows camera with a magnesium flash. This is a fairly early example of this cliché in recent opera productions around the world.

The end

Friday, 12 February 2010

Charles Bell Birch

The Late Charles Bell Birch A.R.A
from The London Illustrated News, 21 October 1893

This all began in Townsville in August. I was there for the Australian Festival of Chamber Music and after hearing a concert which included various pieces by Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla it was only to be expected that I would find a message from Argentina on my laptop, and there it was:

Hi !

I was wondering if you have more pictures of this:

"Art Nouveau fountain by C.B. Birch surmounted with a bronze statue of a young girl with a heron and reeds and frogs at the base"

That´s an awesome fountain and it would be great if you could upload more images.

Thank you!


Esteban was referring to this photo which I had taken in the Sydney Botanical Gardens the year before:


The description attached to the photo came from The Royal Botanical Gardens website.

I found that Esteban was from Córdoba, Argentina; and provoked by his interest decided to re visit the statue on my return to Sydney.

The fountain, said to be one of the last remaining drinking fountains in Sydney, was erected as a memorial to the businessman and politician Lewis Wolfe Levy, who was born in London in 1815 and came to Australia in 1840. He had an active and successful business career, was twice elected to the Legislative Assembly and was later appointed to the Legislative Council. He died in 1885: according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, "Although self-made, plain spoken and occasionally short tempered, he was widely respected and sincerely mourned".

Red Granite base

There is a more detailed description of the fountain in the excellent Poetry of Place by Edwin Wilson, which catalogues and describes all of the statues in the gardens and the Domain. The bronze statue of a water nymph with a heron and surrounding reeds and frogs is the work of Charles Bell Birch, the English sculptor who is discussed here. The statue was erected in 1889 having been cast at a foundry at Thames Ditton in England.

City background


I don't think "Art Nouveau" is a misdescription of the style: it looks that way to me, but it would make Birch a very early exponent of Nouveau. The Maison de l'Art Nouveau in Paris opened in 1895, and the movement itself is given the dates 1890 - 1905.  The Arts and Crafts movement in England is often cited as a source of Art Nouveau and Birch would surely have been exposed to the movement, but his other work and the little I have discovered about him do not suggest a relationship.

I have found that Birch is a neglected artist in the neglected genre of Victorian sculpture. From one point of view the lack of interest in this field is hard to understand. The cities of Britain, and the old Empire, including Australia, are decorated with statues and sculptures from the nineteenth century made by artists in whom little interest remains. The works are seen by millions of people every day but the artists are unknown.

There are a few references to Charles Birch in more general books and on the web, but no biography I can locate and no article in wikipedia as yet. There is, however, an article in the Dictionary of National Biography.

He was born in Brixton in 1832, the son of Jonathan Birch, an author with the unrealised ambition of becoming a sculptor himself. While still a youth, Charles Birch travelled to Germany where he studied at Kurfürstliche Akademie der Künste and with the German sculptors Ludwig Wichmann and Christian Rauch. It is suggested that: " his style was more or less set by his training in Berlin, with what has been described as 'a naturalistic veneer upon a classical foundation'." I would need to know much more about the German style of the period to assess this view, but the works which I have seen don't seem to embody any one particular style.

Birch returned to Britain in 1852, and entered the Royal Academy Schools. Then in 1859 he became principal assistant to John Henry Foley and remained in that position until Foley's death in 1874.

He had his first great success in 1864 when the Art Union of London awarded him a premium (meaning, I think, a prize for acquisition) of 600 pounds for "A Wood Nymph", which was shown in Vienna, Philadelphia and Paris. There is an image of this work here: although a nymph, this one seems quite different from the water nymph seen in the Levy fountain.

Birch sculpted " realistic and vigorous " or Boy's Own - depending on your approach- military sculptures. He made The Last Call in 1879:

The Last Call
from The London Illustrated News, 21 October 1893

and Walter Hamilton VC "striding over an Afghan threatening him with a knife " in bronze-painted plaster in 1880.


These works have a recognisable style of their own, which looks to me quite different from either nymph.

The success of Hamilton VC resulted in Birch being elected an associate of the Royal Academy in April of 1880.

Birch was at the height of his fame in that year, in which, what must be his most often seen work, the griffin on the Temple Bar Memorial in London was erected.
The Griffin at Temple Bar
from The London Illustrated News, 21 October 1893

 The Temple Bar Memorial which replaced the old Temple Bar was a controversial project at the time. The Temple Bar itself was removed because it had become an obstruction to traffic, but the new memorial was seen as another, if lesser, obstruction in itself. The DNB calls Birch's sculpture " the unfortunate bronze griffin", but I would like to think that at least some of the criticism of it which is reported confuses opposition to the structure itself with a dislike of the griffin.

Temple Bar Memorial

Phillip Ward Jackson in Public Sculpture of The City of London notes that when the memorial was opened by Prince Leopold in September 1880, with Birch in attendance, The Times reported that "...a crowd stationed within the new Law Courts groaned throughout the brief ceremony".

City Dragon

Ward Jackson also records that a critic in the Builder commended the "vigour and power" of the griffin while the Architect said that " the artistic courage and strength of will manifested in this magnificently ungainly object are prodigious ". There was no unanimity however: Building News stated:

"...Let the First Commissioner of Works seize the opportunity and draw (Queen Victoria's) attention to that wretched object the Griffin. If Her Majesty does not counsel its immediate removal, she has lost the unerring perception of truth and beauty which have distinguished her reign".

And Darke's The Monument Guide to England reports that the griffin has been likened to " an animated corkscrew ".


But it has guarded the entrance to the city for almost 130 years.

Charles Birch is often said to be an exponent of The New Sculpture, understood to be a movement towards greater naturalism in later Victorian sculpture. The critic Edmond Gosse used the term in articles written in the 1890's. Frederick Leighton's Athlete Wrestling with a Python of 1877 is seen as the key work in the movement.


Two copies of this work are presently displayed in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Not far from them is Charles Birch's Retaliation made in 1888 and exhibited at the Sydney International Exhibition in 1879 where it won the award of "First Degree of Merit Special".


It can be seen in this photograph from the Art Galley archives taken in 1881:

Art Gallery 1881

And again in 1885 in the new gallery:

Art Gallery 1885

It didn't remain in fashion however and in 1958, it was sold to the Botanical Gardens, where it was placed in the pathway through the Palm Grove. It was not undisturbed: in 1961 a truck collided with the statue requiring repairs to its marble base. Then in about 1977, the Art Gallery had second thoughts and arranged to take it back as a swap for The Satyr by Frank Lynch now in the Gardens near the Opera House gates.


It is quite likely that Retaliation was influenced by the Athlete Wrestling but as it was completed only a year later, it would not be possible to say this with certainty without more information. It is a work of high drama, the naked shepherd, (note the crook), appears to have wrung the neck of the bird of prey responsible for the death of the lamb lying at his feet.


Perhaps it was the success of this work which led to Birch's commission to make the Levy fountain. But if he drew the inspiration for Retribution from Leighton, what was the source of the bronze statue of a young girl with a heron and reeds and frogs at the base on the Levy Memorial Fountain ?


Birch died in 1893.  A full page tribute was published in The London Illustrated News including the images reproduced above.  The article was as follows:


The death of Mr. Charles Bell Birch, the well-known sculptor, removes an interesting and prominent figure from the world of art. Mr. Birch died on Monday Oct. 1, at the age of sixty-one, having been born in Brixton in 1832. For many years he was a student of the Berlin Royal Academy.

It was in Berlin, in 1852, that he produced his first important work, a bust of the late Earl of Westmorland, at that time Ambassador to Prussia. On his return to England Mr. Birch entered the studio of the late Mr. Foley R.A., where for ten years he acted as principal assistant ; in 1864 he was the successful competitor at an Art Union competition, where his subject, " The Wood Nymph," carried -off the prize of £600. For many years Mr. Birch was acting as a wood-engraver, and much of his work may be seen in the pages of this Journal, as well as in other publications. His equestrian group, " The Last Call," exhibited at the Royal Academy, which is here reproduced, was the proximate cause of his election to the Associateship of the Royal Academy in 1880. It is, perhaps, by the work which we reproduce here, the famous Griffin, which looks down upon us from the site of Temple Bar, that Mr. Birch is most widely known to the public, although a mere list of his statues -would make a formidable catalogue. At a later period he devoted himself to producing statues for public buildings in this country and the colonies, and many of these were marked by considerable vigour and massiveness. In his more imaginative work amongst which must be included the silver statuettes and race cups for which he received frequent commissions, he allowed his fancy fuller play, but as a rule his work suffered from the constant pressure under which it was produced.

Towards the end of his life, Birch made a statue of Queen Victoria, of which a number of casts were made. The first was made for Udaipur in India and was erected there in 1889. After Birch's death a cast of it was erected on the northern approach to Blackfriars Bridge in London. It was unveiled by the Queen's cousin, the Duke of Cambridge, on 21 July 1896.  The duke regretted the sculptor had not survived to see his work erected there.
I looked for it  in November 2009, but did not see it. I assumed it had been moved to a place of safety during the renovation works being done in and around Blackfriars Station.

Another example was given to the City of Adelaide by Sir Edwin Smith MLC and erected there in 1894. It stands in Victoria Square where I saw it in March 2010.

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria

Posted 12 February 2010

Amended 23 February 2010 to add illustrations and quotation from The London Illustrated News

Amended 10 March 2010 to add Queen Victoria in Adelaide

Monday, 11 January 2010

TOSCA 2010


Opera Australia has opened its 2010 season with a new production of Puccini's Tosca. There was some fine singing from a wholly committed cast, but it's a production I hope never to see again. American soprano Tekesha Meske Kizart gave strong performance as Tosca; specially, as in her visse d'arte, when unimpeded by the director's concept.

I first saw Tosca in 1953, and thought I might qualify for some kind of record until, while listening to the opening night of the Met's 2009 Tosca online, I learned that Licia Albanese who sang the role at the Met in 1950 was in the audience. In any event, I have known Tosca for more than half the life of the work, and heard it many times.

It's true that Puccini wrote memorable tunes, but there is a lot more to his music. He often creates not only atmosphere and mood, but also a sense of place. For example, in Il Trittico: contrast the music opening Il Tabarro depicting the barges on the Seine complete with fog horns, and the entirely different music for the convent garden in Soeur Angelica. The music of Tosca is very much tied to the historical settings: the Te Deum in Sant'Andrea della Valle and the sound of the church bells at the opening of Act 3. I discovered from an article in the OA program that Puccini went to the top of the Castel St. Angelo to hear the bells and ensure he had their pitch right.


In April last year I stood at the ramparts of the Castel St. Angelo, looking out over Rome when church bells began to ring. It wasn't dawn, but it was extraordinarily moving to be reminded of the music of Tosca in the place where Act 3 is set.

The new production by Christopher Alden for Opera Australia places the story in a single room, and moves the story to present day Italy. The intention is to heighten the immediacy of the drama, but it is a bold step to excise so completely the locations movingly represented in the music. Nothing a particular production does can destroy a work, which remains intact to be performed again in another style; classic plays are cut and altered often to excellent effect, throwing new light on the familiar. Notwithstanding the advent of directors' opera, the continuity provided by the music makes it impossible to cut and amend the text in the way which has become commonplace for Shakespeare and other classic plays. Some works appear in different versions of course and some can be and are cut, but the music is a constraint. I think that in Tosca, the music is more than a constraint on adaption; its suggestions of place, character and atmosphere are the reason the opera continues to be performed over 100 years since it was composed. The play by Sardou, on which Tosca is based, is not in demand.

Christopher Alden's production, though new to Australia, was first performed by Opera North in 2002, and has been revived there since. English critics liked it; which makes an interesting comparison with the reception given by both critics and the opening night audience to the much less radical new production by Luc Bondy for the Met in New York.

Writing in The Independent in 2002, Anthony Arblaster, who admits he thinks Tosca is a "nasty melodrama", said:

Alden sets the opera in contemporary Italy, and treats it as a lesson in the habitual ruthlessness and casual brutality of modern state power. This involves taking a few liberties with the narrative (sic), but the gain is that the story is dragged out of the comfortable never-never land of Late Romanticism and placed in our time, when torture and murder are the stock- in-trade of many states. The results are suitably shocking.

And Richard Morrison, writing about the 2008 revival in The Times enjoyed a compelling night in the theatre.

while recognising that:

...the American takes brazen liberties with the time, place and plot of Puccini’s 1900 thriller. And sometimes he seems perversely determined to subvert the music’s power as well.

Writing in The Guardian, Mr. Alden himself says:

 The posters for Berlusconi's Forza Italia party that line the walls of the dingy church basement in which this Tosca is set rob the audience of the comforting thought that Scarpia's repressive despotism has vanished from our world.

These days many opera directors are anxious to rob us of these kinds of comforting thoughts: but who thinks them? I have never met anybody under the delusion that repressive despotism has vanished; anyone suffering from it would need to live in comfortable isolation from all the media, even Berlusconi's media. At the risk of turning moraliser myself, it is not accurate or sensible to equate the Berlusconi government and Scarpia's despotism.

The single purpose set is a large room, apparently attached to a church though with some very large klieg lights hanging from the ceiling. Though not a usual ecclesiastical fitting, they are useful if the room is wanted for an interrogation. There is a confessional box in the back and glassed in alcove with a television set, probably tuned to a Berlusconi channel, in the front.

Though I was puzzled about how the Te Deum would be performed in such a utilitarian space, things were promising to start with. The sacristan's conversion into a surly janitor was a nice change from the familiar comic turn, and Tosca's display of jealousy and suspicion was particularly effective. Then a strange thing happened, the escaped prisoner, Angelloti, emerged from the confessional which served as the private chapel where he hides, and sat in a chair to the side of the stage. Strange because the score includes music to show his stress and anxiety as he leaves the chapel, but this music comes after Tosca has left.

Tosca does not see him as she leaves ( understandably in one sense, as in the opera as written he is not there ) which makes no dramatic sense. Later, in Act 2, Scarpia's henchmen Spoletta and Sciarrone are left in the back of the room oblivious to the seduction and murder taking place a few feet away. This kind of thing is a distraction from the drama, unless you are intrigued by working on something akin to a cryptic crossword puzzle while watching the performance. It must be a STATEMENT of some kind, but what ? It could just be the usual post modernist device of leaving actors sitting about the stage so that we don't forget we are in a theatre; but my best guess about this one is that it somehow stands for a proposition resembling evil is everywhere but we do not see it even when it's before our very eyes. Bravo.

Scarpia's entrance in Act I of Tosca is, I think, the most spine chilling moment in all of opera. Puccini breaks into the games of the choir boys and sacristan with an ominous statement of Scarpia's theme. Here, the possibilities of this moment are lost, as Scarpia has already wandered into the room by the time this music is reached.

I think that the portrayal of Scarpia in this production is wrong. It is true that Scarpia, as written, is a sterotypical villain out of melodrama; but this has not prevented great performances of the role which provide alarming insights into the nature of lust and despotic power. This Scarpia escapes one set of stereotypes and enters another: he is seen as a pathological figure whose lust is accompanied by a frenzied religious guilt.

This cannot be the Scarpia who sings:

I lust, and what I lust for I pursue,
I take my fill and throw it away
Then turn to a new attraction.
God created an abundance of beauties and wines
I want to savour all that I can of God's creation !

This passage and its music do not stand with the characterisation imposed on Scarpia, and as John Wegner performed it with great force and effect, he seemed to step out of himself and into the shoes of the real Scarpia.

The enactment of the Te Deum which ends Act 1, is associated with the distribution of lotto tickets from the sacristan's alcove. Why, I cannot imagine.

Act 2 and 3 are run together. The introduction to Act 3 is sung by the Marchesse Attavanti, rather than the shepherd boy as specified. The Marchesse had taken up a position on top of the confessional box where she reacts to the action with various gestures, assumes a foetal position and so on. The only consolation for this was the opportunity to hear Sian Pendry, who has a lovely voice, even when singing music which only emphasised the limits of what was going on.

Act 3 would have been wholly inexplicable, as almost all of the narrative is replaced by one which has no relation to the libretto or the music, had I not found Mr. Alden's Guardian article, in which he explains:

And when it comes to the last act, the production rejects the naturalistic verismo ethic as the best way to capture its bleak horror; instead, it is played out as a fantasy unfolding in the broken Tosca's demented mind. By the final curtain, the basement is littered with the corpses and the atmosphere hovers somewhere between Beckett and Tarantino.

Consistently with this approach, Tosca spends the whole of the Act cowering at the side of the confessional box. This is not a performance of Tosca at all. It is an invention riding on the coat tails of Puccini's magnificent score.

The AO production replaces one by John Copley which has had many revivals. It was a production which owed a great deal to Franco Zeffirelli's Tosca at the Met which was replaced by the new Luc Bondy production I have mentioned. Unlike the Zeffirelli and Copely productions, the new Met Tosca doesn't attempt to reproduce the historical locations of each act, but it does retain them. The church, palace and ramparts are replaced by nondescript sets and the costumes do not reproduce the dress of the historical period - or any particular period. The new Tosca was met by uproar on opening night and great objection from traditionalists - and Mr. Zeffirelli.


When I saw it in October, I was unable to understand the commotion. It was true that visually the historical locales were lost; but what was seen did not depart in any radical way from the story or the music. There was a gripping performance of the title role by the wonderful Katia Matilla. It is now available for everyone to see on the excellent Met Player - though the video production seems overly dark, and a lot of the movement in Act 3 is much harder to see than it was in the theatre.

It seemed to me that, although something was lost by making the locations anonymous, the production did gain a feeling of contemporary relevance of the kind Mr. Alden was attempting to achieve. I wondered if a few subtle changes to the libretto could place the work in, say, Franco's Spain to good effect.

But it was not only the first night crowd wrenched from their familiar pretty scenery that objected.

Alex Ross wrote in the New Yorker that Bondy:

...delivered an uneven, muddled, weirdly dull production that interferes fatally with the working of Puccini’s perfect contraption.

And in The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini:

Mr. Bondy probably wanted to rid his “Tosca” of stock clichés, yet his heavy-handed ideas are just as hackneyed.

When sensitive and experienced critics express views like these, it's worth pausing to consider the intricate relationship between words, music and dramatic narrative that give opera its place in our imagination. There cannot be innovation without mistakes, but the OA Tosca, for all its superficial excitement and excellent singing, goes too far in the wrong direction.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Burj Dubai

Today is the official opening of Burj Dubai, the world's tallest building. There seems no doubt that it is the tallest; and its actual height will be revealed at the opening. The Times says it is the first time the Arab world has claimed the title of the world’s tallest building since 1311, when Lincoln Cathedral exceeded the height of the Great Pyramid of Giza. It also reports that it cost a billion pounds, somewhat less than the ABC news claim that the tower and surrounding development has cost about $22 billion to build.

In March 2009, when I spent a day in Dubai, the building was, I think, structurally complete and dominated the city skyline.

Dubai skyline

The architecture of Dubai is entirely modern; but the evocative sound of the call to prayer from any number of mosques as the night fell told that we were in a different world.

Dubai at dusk