Thursday, April 12, 2012

“Where else in the world could be like this?”

“Austria. Degenerate, that’s the word. Derelict. Grotesque.

Retarded, that’s the word.

Mentally feeble.

Mozart. Schubert. Ubiquitous. Ubiquitosity, that’s the word.

Wherever we tour -- jealousy. Tiny little minds. Xenophobia. White-hot hatred of art. Deep suspicion of abstraction. Violent loathing of the intellect. Where else in the world could be like this?”

“Lifelong imprisonment in the theatre with zero chance of release. And yet we keep going. Theatre as prison. Tens of thousands of convicts, not one of whom has a chance of release. The death sentence is the only definite.”

“The writer is lying, the actors are lying and the audience is lying too. So the whole effect is one monumental idiotic lie. And that’s completely ignoring the fact that we are talking about a perversity that dates back a thousand years. The theatre is a thousand year old perversity which humanity is in love with. And so in love because humanity is deeply in love with its own lies. And nowhere else is this so monstrous and so fascinating as in the theatre.”

-- quotations from The Histrionic [Der Theatermacher] by Thomas Bernhard, translated by Tom Wright. Presented by Malthouse Theatre and the Sydney Theatre Company. Merlyn Theatre, Melbourne, until May 5. Then Wharf 1, Sydney, from June 20.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Turandot with the lot please

Like a fast food burger bun, Opera Australia’s Autumn season is pitched squarely at the taste buds of the masses and at our genetic need to engorge on sweet treats. As much as I hate the idea of ‘dumbing down’ the opera repertoire to make it palatable (if that’s the intention) to more people, it’s pretty hard for me to put up a fight when the Autumn season has three of my all time favourite operas.

The Magic Flute was my very first live opera experience, and first on-screen before that... Ingmar Bergman’s (still magical) version in Swedish. And I can’t say I’m not excited by the prospect of seeing Julie Taymor’s production.

In terms of sheer hours spent listening to it, Turandot -- especially the final act -- is up there, too. I’ve seen Graeme Murphy’s production a handful of times since it premiered in 1990 and even, gasp, own it on VHS. (It was filmed at the State Theatre as a matter of fact, in April 1991.)

Benjamin Rasheed, Susan Foster and Rosario La Spina
in Turandot (pic: Jeff Busby, click on image to enlarge)

The Barber of Seville was another boyhood favourite of mine, along with the word factotum. (Interesting that the company is opting to stage the older tried-and-true Elijah Moshinsky version rather than the more recent and cartoon-like John Milson production, reviewed here.)

So, yeah, it’s all there in the State Theatre in April and May. Sweet, salt, fat... even a bit of tart. (The Merry Widow.)

But in this climate, the chances of seeing Pélleas et Mélisande, say, are absurdly unlikely. Alas. Having said all that, the 2012 season is hardly junk food opera. It’s more comfort food opera. Like really good lamb shanks and mash on the restaurant menu.

Murphy’s Turandot stands up well, even after twenty-odd years, though I have to say it was better done at its last outing in Melbourne. Marginally. This particular production was rehearsed in Sydney for the Summer season at the Opera House so it’s possible that some looseness may have crept in since January. Murphy demands much of the large chorus. It’s constantly on the move, in waves and eddies. When it works well, it’s spectacular. When it’s just a little off, as it was at times last night, it seems overly busy, even contrived.

The stage craft is most apparent in the miraculously good final act, when it is least noticeable. Without fuss, the action transitions from Calaf, solo, floating in fabric and dry ice, to a full complement of soloists, chorus and dancers, back to an intimate duet between Turandot and Calaf and back again for an all-in climax in a blink of an eye.

The first act, if anything, has too many design and choreographic ideas. We hardly have time to admire the bronze eye-like gong in the gloom -- a setting so evocative and inspired it could fascinate the eye for an entire evening rather than a few fleeting moments -- before it is replaced with another set piece or cannoning explosion of fabric and bodies. (Intriguingly, Murphy uses flags and fans and the sleeves of costumes, here, in exactly the same way he uses dancers when choreographing for the Australian Ballet.)

With Andrea Licata wielding the stick in the pit, the massed forces of Orchestra Victoria and OA choruses were barely in control. I’m guessing that was a deliberate choice. This was one of the darkest, driest and most wild performances of Puccini’s score I’ve heard, live or recorded. And it’s a reading I happen to like.
I’ve always thought Turandot is to anxiety what Tristan is to longing, which makes the crescendo of the former and the climax of the latter so extraordinarily affecting.
Vocally, this production is exceptionally strong. Jud Arthur was scarily reminiscent of Donald Shanks as Timur. Hyeseoung Kwon (as Liù) pitched her performance exquisitely. I thought her shimmering voice was a little too dry for the role in the first act, but I think she sacrificed her performance, there, to suit the dusty tenor of the music. Her final scene was lush and memorable.

Rosario La Spina and Susan Foster (Jeff Busby)

Likewise the performance trajectories of Rosario La Spina (Calaf) and Susan Foster (Turandot) seemed to cross. Calaf’s ascendancy and Turandot’s ‘fall’ evident in the increasing and decreasing force, respectively, of their voices. Or, rather, her increasing softness of tone.

In short, this was great opera and great theatre.

There are eight more performances in Melbourne between April 13 and May 11.

Turandot by Giacomo Puccini. Directed and choreographed by Graeme Murphy. (Kim Walker, Associate Director.) Rehearsed by Cathy Dadd and Christopher Dawes. Designed by Kristian Fredrikson. Lighting by John Drummond Montgomery.

Orchestra Victoria and choruses conducted by Andrea Licata.

Opera Australia. State Theatre, Melbourne, April 10, 2012.

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Sunday, April 01, 2012

“At last, my arm is complete again.”

No, this is not a piece on Sweeney Todd or his magnificent love song to his cut-throats. But Sweeney’s aria came to mind just now, when I flicked through the hundred-odd photographs I took this evening. Mostly shit. An alarming percentage of shit, really. But it has been a while since I wielded an SLR, and this was my very first sortie with a D-SLR. (All those friken menus & buttons... and new blades do take some getting used to.)

Vanessa, detail. (Photograph © Chris Boyd)

Yeah, I’ve finally succumbed. My ancient Canon EOS has a half-finished roll of film in it from god knows how long ago. Several years doubtless. Its battery is long dead. The camera is dusted with, er, dust and its soft case has been used to store and transport CDs -- gosh what a dinosaur I’ve become -- for three or four years at least.

My film of choice, from my teens, is no longer even manufactured. Vale Kodachrome 64, which I used to shoot with the meter set to 80 ASA to increase the colour saturation in the trannies. (I wonder what percentage of that last sentence will make sense to someone born twenty years after me? Any of it?)

My first serious camera was a Pentax SP1000. Manual. No frills. If the battery was flat, every single function still worked except for the light meter. (A needle in the viewfinder.) Exposure compensation? Easy! Turn the aperture ring or change the shutter speed. The SP1000 didn’t even have a hot-shoe. But it had one of the most beautiful bits of glass on it I’ve ever used. A screw-mounted f2.0 55mm slightly-longer-than-standard lens. Pin sharp. Great contrast. Great definition. A perfect focal length, especially for portraiture. (50mm sucks. I never really understood why it caught on.)

I bought it at 15. A couple of years later it occurred to me that I bought the SLR the very same month that I started keeping a diary. (Which I did, as y’all know, for 25 years.) At 17, I was determined to become a pro photographer. (Hell, I’d even had a photograph of the Harbour Bridge published in a national magazine! Publication fee? $4!! Yes, my dear, they did have dollars and cents back then.) But I was an arty romantic, and not cut out for a career in advertising, which RMIT seemed to promise. Their motto? “If you can’t sell it, don’t print it.”

Given the number of photographs I’ve had ‘stolen’ [i.e. used without permission, credit or payment] over the years -- even back then I’d seen my own photographs reproduced with the name of the subjects diligently printed underneath -- that motto seemed a bit limiting. [Incidentally, the most recent copyright theft was by The Age, fer fux sake. Great example they’re setting. And I’ve had many photographs published by The Age and Financial Review, with credits, since the mid 1990s... so they can’t say they don’t know me!]

Though it, too, is long abandoned, my diary writing was the one place where I would find myself in the presence of a muse. Weird, I know, but the only times I ever read back over something I had written and thought: “Where the fuck did that come from?!” -- where the whole was significantly greater than the mere mortal that created it -- were reading back ‘liary’ entries.

I had forgotten, until tonight, that I used to have the same “Oh my god, I created that!” experiences when I looked at freshly developed photographs: Cartier Bresson moments captured at wedding receptions; shots of fierce, unsmiling children; moments of revelation and vulnerability; still lives and lives stilled... And, let’s face it, more than a couple of lives completely faked. What I see is sometimes (wot, only sometimes?) what I project. So, the second of these shots is a work of fiction. Or framing at the very least. Honest!

Over the road from the Irish Pub (© Chris Boyd)

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