Articles by Andrew Miller

New York Arts in Australia

Haydn the Philosopher…at the Pinchgut Opera, Sydney

The Orpheus and Eurydice tale never really spoke to me, as it is now accepted in Ovid's version. I was fed it over and over again through school, but always felt manipulated by Eurydice's double death, which the storyteller designed to be super affective by describing their ardent love with so much intensity. It is really a quadruple death since the two lovers become so absorbed into one another, one's death is the other's; all pathos is destroyed in the end and the story goes beyond mere tragedy. The pivotal twist caused by Hades' rule forbidding Orpheus to look back at Eurydice as they leave the underworld is arbitrary and puritanical; placing such negative importance and obsessively focussing on a simple and natural physical movement is a hallmark of Puritanism and conservative Catholicism. Also, the Eurydice in Ovid's myth is a very weak character, only existing to be a victim. In fact, according to Robert Grave (The Greek Myths, 1960), Eurydice's death and the the lovers' rendez-vous in the underworld is a late addition to the myth of Orpheus, priest of Dionysus, resulting from misinterpretations of paintings depicting Dionysus' harrowing of the underworld to rescue his mother Semele, a journey on which Orpheus accompanied him to charm Hecate and the spirits of the dead. Eurydice herself is a literary descendant of the more ancient queens, whose sacrifices were sometimes poisoned with snake venom. The barbaric Dorians who invaded Greece from the north several centuries after the fall of Knossus may have made many brutal additions to myths, like the double death. They imposed their patrilineal customs and changed the native myths to suit by depreciating women. The more ancient version does end with Orpheus' death by Maenads tearing him limb from limb, but this somehow makes more sense, like Le sacre du printemps, on a mystical level, something which attracted Yeats, whose plays A Full Moon in March and The King of the Great Clock Tower were based on Orpheus' Irish counterpart King Bran.

Dance

It’s Twilight Time With the Australian Ballet

The Australian Ballet presents three short recent ballets which would seem at the surface to have nothing in common. In At the Edge of Night, first performed in 1997, but last performed 11 years ago, Stephen Baynes sets an impressionist ballet to seven preludes by Rachmaninov. The choreography, set design and costumes share the sensibility of the music, rolling subtly between nostalgia, longing, pining, contemplation, mild remorse, occasionally melancholy, ambivalence, poignant joy and other emotions only the piano can give a name. The brand new ballet, Halcyon by Tim Harbour, sets the Greek myth of Halcyon and Ceyx to dance with original music by Gerard Brophy. It is a particularly relevant myth about love oppressed by religion. The last ballet is Molto Vivace again by Stephen Baynes, first performed in 2003, but completely different in tone. It sets a light-hearted rococo comedy to Handel. All three are liminal, either touching, delving or diving into where phases change. We meet frontiers either as precise as the sea's surface, or as blurred as half conscious memories, or as completely black and mysterious as that between life and death and the other.

New York Arts in Australia

Fellini and Rigoletto

In a way this production is better Fellini than Fellini. Allowing influence from his films without being overly enamoured of them, Director Elijah Moshinsky manages to draw the opera into the modern era while intensifying Verdi's tight drama. It would have been easy to let the great filmmaker's sardonic sense of humour to infiltrate the opera and mock or belittle the characters to avoid falling too deeply into them, but on the contrary, the company seemed almost always to be sensitive to the characters. Verdi's creation is remarkable how it holds such an intense dramatic tension for so long and with a story which could easily seem an uphill slog. He also manages somehow to keep some sympathy for Rigoletto and ambiguity for the Duke despite their despicable actions. As for the curse, though it is Monterone who first vocalises it, it is really Rigoletto who brings it down on himself.

New York Arts in Australia

Opera Australia’s Der Rosenkavalier

Though one hundred years old and a comedy set in 1740's Vienna, Der Rosenkavalier is still fresh. This is partly because the opera is timeless because, as Robert Gibson and Andrew Riemer's interesting program notes point out, it is an anachronistic mixture of different bits of Viennese cultural. For instance one can nitpick the fact the romantic waltzes Richard Strauss incorporated into the opera's music and plot wouldn't exist until the 19th Century (they were barely dancing l'Allemande with linked hands in the mid 18th Century). Thus the opera is about as logical and historically accurate as a myth is -- it is a rich Dobos torte (whose recipe Dobos donated to the Budapest Pastry and Honey-bread Makers' Guild five years before the opera's première, for what it's worth) of many integrated layers, some chocolate, some nutty, some sugary, and some disturbing, ashy and mawkish. Present also is something of Sigmund Freud's contemporaneous Vienna, not just in the way we see how his patients' inherited neuroses manifested themselves some generations prior, but also as psychology as one of the last frontiers of the enlightenment. The famous final duet is to be sung "träumerisch": the young hero Octavian sings "Ist ein Traum..." just as the "secret of his dream is revealed" (see photo of tablet below). He wakes up from the intense love affair with the Marschallin and realises the true nature of his feelings. This happens only after he has convinced his rival the Baron Ochs of his insanity by simulating hallucinations in a kind of upside down abreaction in the form of a Viennese masked ball. Octavian awakens to the realisation that his love for the Marschallin is "mere" warm friendship and discovers true love for the young Sophie who is fresh from the convent. He had refused to face the dawn in Act I, but by Act III he comes to act on the dreams, or at least the strange events, of the intervening scenes in which he undergoes two transformations to the opposite sex, encounters a symbolic silver rose, tries to duel Ochs and sets up said masked ball, before fixing his and Sophie's lives. Octavian, knightly and hot headed though he is, has a manly grace. He forsakes brute force in the end to find a third alternative to his problems, which should be relevant today when the beastly Baron Ochs' style of greed of is often valued over character, civility and proper thinking. Or at least relevant to those who more reasonably mistake romantic love for friendship or believe one necessarily precludes the other for all time.

New York Arts in Australia

Le Nozze di Figaro in Sydney

I usually don't like to pick favourites, but of the Mozart operas it's hard to deny Le Nozze di Figaro. As such it has become familiar without become at all tired, and has probably sublimated a rather particular image of itself in my mind's eye and ear. The story of love giving way to jealousy, and then despair, and finally forgiveness, under the roof of an aristo ripe for Revolution, is bound to develop a thin farcical crust, but it never seemed a straight comedy, let alone a farce, to me. The characters are so genuine, even the myriad of supporting roles are so strong, that it's easy to sympathise with their harrowing trials. I see the opera more as the Orpheus and Eurydice story with a happy ending which makes sense. It also lovingly portrays the noble and logical humanist belief that (to paraphrase John F. Kennedy) it is not impossible for human beings to solve problems that they themselves created. No parts for any God or gods nor even Cupid here. This production, directed by Neil Armfield perhaps wasn't exactly my idea of Figaro or quite sat on my sense of humour, but it did try some new things. Armfield does try to play it for laughs by filling the opera with over-the-top physical comedy, but he often risks hamminess. It is hard to keep up that kind of farce for over three hours and he doesn't always succeed in creating dark comedy in putting a fluff of laughter on violent, frightening or dark situations. He never ruins the comedy intrinsic to the libretto or the music, in fact at his best moments he even compliments this by adding detail to the scene with subtler acting in the background.

Dance

Roland Petit with the Paris Opera Ballet

In the decade after the second world war, Paris and London, in addition to the big national companies, supported a myriad of small and prolific ballet companies. One of these was Boris Kochno's Ballets des Champs-Elysées. Kochno had been Serge Diaghelev's secretary in the Ballets Russes days, so in a way it was he who inherited the Ballets Russes tradition in Europe while Colonel de Basil and Serge Denham's two respective Ballets Russes spin-offs were still touring the US and Australia. Kochno, as artistic director, founded the company with writer Jean Cocteau, and dancer and choreographer Roland Petit, who had trained in the Paris Opera Ballet School and danced in the corps de ballet until the Liberation. In 1948 Petit started his own small company, the Ballets de Paris, which only lasted a few years, but managed to cause great excitement in Paris and travelled well to London. Indeed, he worked with Margot Fontaine several times. We don't often get to see his ballets nowadays (though there are also a great many other modern ballets from those years, even some of Michel Fokine's, that don't get much air either), but the Paris Opera Ballet is currently showing three of Petit's short pieces, Le Rendez-vous (1945), Le Loup (1953) and Le Jeune Homme et La Mort (1946) which have been in the national company's repertoire since 1992, 1975 and 1990 respectively.
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