It’s cheering to hear such good reports of the performance of Mahler’s second symphony by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Simone Young. The Resurrection symphony is one of those soaring, world-encompassing works that seems to sum up the universe of sound Wagner created as a musical epic poem. Nothing is better suited to test the newly re-jigged acoustics in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House – that extraordinary building that seems to symbolise all our brightest hopes and all our capacity to stuff them up. The poet Les Murray said once that the creation of Utzon’s Opera House was the moment when Sydney started to think of itself as a great city, this extraordinary apparitional sea-creature of a shape as the governing adornment of one of the world’s greatest harbours.
Well, we wouldn’t be the muddle-headed wombat of a country that we are if we hadn’t, from the get-go, translated the great Danish architect’s ideas imperfectly, and one of the more blatant stuff-ups was the way both the Concert Hall and the Opera Theatre had acoustic dead spots where the sound was imperfect. It’s marvellous that Simone Young’s performance of Mahler with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra resoundingly proves that this has been remedied.
And it’s a fine thing to have the outstanding female conductor of her generation wielding the baton with such a glorious score. Young’s years in Hamburg have matured her mastery though it was there from the start. It’s weird to think how long it is since she conducted Opera Australia’s 1999 production of Verdi’s Falstaff at the Opera House in a production by Simon Phillips with the most celebrated bass baritone of his generation Bryn Terfel at the early height of his massive powers.
Verdi’s Falstaff is ostensibly based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, but it is one of those rare works derived from the Bard where the adaptation is superior to the original. If you listen to the greatest of all Verdian Falstaffs, that great actor-singer Tito Gobbi, in the matchless recording by the early von Karajan, what you hear as he sings, ‘Va, vecchio John,’ is a musical realisation of the Falstaff of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. The line derives from ‘Go thy ways, old Jack,’ and Verdi somehow caught the shrouded grandeur of Falstaff’s sense of the chimes at midnight. In that Sydney production Terfel and Phillips and Simone Young rose to meet him.
Does the mention of artistic achievement seem a far cry from Neighbours whose last episode went to air on Thursday 28 July on the Ten channels? Well, back in August 2007, I found myself having lunch at the Press Club with Ian McKellen who had recently opened in the title role of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of King Lear by Trevor Nunn. It was a very grand company Nunn had assembled which included Frances Barber as Goneril (she also played Arkadina in The Seagull) and Romola Garai (Cordelia in King Lear, Nina in the Chekhov).
And what was this eminent company doing while Sir Ian and Colin Oehring and I feasted on expensive nibbles? They were off on a bus tour of Ramsay Street because nothing is more archetypal about Australia to the Brits than Neighbours. We all know that in their day everyone from Guy Pearce to Russell Crowe appeared in Neighbours and it’s gratifying that Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan have done the climax. But you don’t have to have been a hooked teenager to cotton on to the sheer unfailing professionalism of Neighbours. It’s too easy to forget the absolute expertise of actors like Jackie Woodburne and Alan Fletcher who mastered the kind of skills that could bring honour to a production of Chekhov. And the writers included such improbable talents as Marieke Hardy – whom you might more readily associate with the fiction of David Foster Wallace or Zadie Smith – as well as the directorial skills of Kate Kendall (who, as an actress, once did a country and western Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing in the Melbourne Botanical Gardens which was about as good as you could dream of).
Anyone who has had a gig as a TV critic watched a couple of hours of Neighbours at a stretch, at regular intervals, and it was hard not to admire.
There are always intimate connections between the popular and the high artistic. Some years ago, it was marvellous to see Noni Hazelhurst and Michala Banas – best known to a mass audience from their TV work – do one of the great recent dramatic cycles, Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Martin MacDonagh is also the writer director of that staggeringly brilliant black comedy In Bruges which includes a performance of some grandeur by Ralph Fiennes as a Cockney hard man as well as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. His brother John Michael McDonagh also writes and directs kinky Irish masterpieces such as The Guard and Calvary for that lion of an actor Brendan Gleeson who plays the soft gangster of In Bruges.
His new film The Forgiven sees him directing Ralph Fiennes as a doctor in Morocco who finds himself in a tortuous situation in a cast which includes Jessica Chastain, who won the Best Actress Oscar, and Caleb Landry Jones, who gave such a flawless imitation of an Australian in Nitram.
It’s worth remembering that long before Justin Kurzel filmed Peter Carey’s The Kelly Gang there was Ned Kelly (from Rob Drewe’s Our Sunshine) and that the script for that film about the helmeted bushranger Sidney Nolan took as his icon and Heath Ledger essayed with a greater dramatic power than any actor before or since was by John Michael McDonagh.
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