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