When I retired I told people who asked how I was going to spend my time that I would start living in Melbourne by which I meant, really throw myself into the cultural life of the city. And this I have been doing with great enthusiasm and enjoyment. Melbourne has so much to offer; why travel the world! Opera, concerts, literary events, gastronomic experiences, exhibitions. We have it all on our doorstep. Here’s an overview of the whole year.
I’ve re-discovered Melbourne’s rich opera scene. Two productions from Melbourne Opera and Victorian Opera were my highlights of the year. Melbourne Opera’s Tristan and Isolde with the wonderful Melbourne soprano Lee Abrahmsen was a revelation. Pared back to it’s essence made this opera more accessible than more expensively produced versions I’ve seen in the past. It was my favourite opera of the year. I’ve written about it here.
Followed closely by Victorian Opera’s Lorelei; a new Australian work described as an operatic cabaret. The libretto was written by Casey Bennetto and Gillian Cosgriff and music by those two and Julian Langdon. It was performed at the Malthouse with the Victorian Chamber Orchestra and three singers; Dimity Shepherd, Ali McGregor and Antoinette Halloran. Fantastic costumes and staging and performances. It was a feminist take on the Lorelei legend with the three women imprisoned in separate spaces wearing extravagant costumes – dresses, hats and shoes – that severely curtail any freedom of movement. Their job is to sing and lure sailors to their deaths on the famous rock overlookin gthe Rhine. Over the course of the show they shed costumes and illusions about their assigned role. Only to reluctantly take it up again by production’s end. Fantastic lyrics, fantastic performances. Here’s a review by blogger Simon Parris whose reviews I find very illuminating. It includes photos showing the wonderful costumes.
I was really pleased to get the opportunity to see Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg which was brought to Melbourne by Opera Australia later in the year. Wonderful music and all of the performances were good although I felt Stefan Vinke playing Walther was channelling his interpretation of Siegfried from the Melbourne Ring (which was wonderful); but here this interpretation, and his costume, made Walther look like a tramp. One of Melbourne, and my, favourite baritones, Warwick Fyfe as Beckmesser was terrific; just this side of slapstick. And Michael Kupfer-Radecky, who came in at relatively short notice, was also great a Frans Sachs. He looked the part – dignified and impressive – and in my view sang beautifully. But the production left me cold – too fussy, too busy, too many people running around on stage especially in the first Act. I wish modern opera directors had more faith in the music and were more willing to leave the stage unencumbered while it was performed. And I thought messing around with the ending was silly and undermined the whole message of the opera. Anyway, here’s a review. I enjoy Simon Parris’ reviews even when his opinion differs markedly from my own. They are always informative. And he always includes photographs. These ones show the very crowded stage!
I saw Layla and Majnum as part of the Melbourne Festival. Mostly because the music was being performed by the Silkroad Ensemble. It also included the American Mark Morris Dance Group and two traditional Azerbaijan singers; Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana Qasimova. It’s described as the first mugham opera and the story of Layla and Majnum is an ancient one predating Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by more than a thousand years. They are ill fated lovers kept apart by their families. I loved the whole experience; evocative music, modern dance and the eerie, traditional Azerbaijan vocals. Here’s a review. And here’s another. I agree that it was a shame the venue was not full, but it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the performance.
I was interested in a second Opera Australia production, Don Quichotte because it is rarely performed and also because the star of the show, Ferruchio Furlanetto was said to have made the role of the ill-fated knight, his own. He certainly looked the part and sang beautifully. And Warwick Fyfe as Pancho gave another strong performance. Once again staying just this side of pastiche. The final scenes between the old man and his side-kick were poignant. I was disappointed that the character of Dulcinea was so changed – from maidservant to something akin to a courtesan. Here’s my earlier blog about it.
Two more Victorian Opera productions were interesting. Again, they are rarely performed operas. The first was William Tell which featured a great performance by Armando Noguero as our hero. But I found the whole opera; which was cut down from the original five hours, a bit underwhelming. This wasn’t the consensus amongst the reviewers as seen here in another review from Simon Parris (my go to reviewer!) He liked it. And whilst Pelleas and Melisande was recommended as one not to be missed, I found the storyline too opaque to be interesting. And this despite reading about it beforehand. It’a all symbolism you see. I need greater clarity in my operas (says someone who loves Wagner!). The sets and costumes were terrific and the singing was great. Again my negative view was not the dominant one. Here’s another review from Simon.
We saw some great concerts this year. My favourite was an MSO concert performance of Act One of Die Walkure. Sir Andrew Davis conducting; Dutch singers Eva-Maria Westbroek as Seiglinde and Frank Van Aken as Siegmund and our very own Daniel Sumegi as Hunding. The singers were all fantastic – both in terms of singing and in acting out their parts. They brought the action alive even when surrounded by the players in the orchestra. As usual, the MSO was terrific. The audience rose as one to give them all a standing ovation at the end. Really thrilling.
We travelled down to Geelong to hear the MSO accompany the American Thomas Hampson Sing Mahler. We’d managed to miss his Melbourne concert. Still, it was fun going to Geelong. We were going to take the train, but there was a drivers strike – unbeknownst to us; remember the good old days when it would have been front page news on the Herald Sun to beat a Labor Government around the head!!. Times have changed. I secretly cheered. It did put paid to our public transpor though. We raced back and got our car. While we liked Thomas; what a presence! He looked fantastic; Bob Hawke hair, expensive suit and bespoke white shirt. What really grabbed me though, was the orchestra’s playing of two pieces after the interval. They were Messiaen, ‘Le Tombeau Resplendissant ‘ and R. Strauss ‘Tod und Verklarung’. The players all embraced each other when they finished. It was thrilling music.
MSO Season Finale – Maxim Vengerov, (Rites Of Spring)
Having seen a movie about Yo-Yo Ma’s creation of the Silk Road Ensemble some years ago at MIFF I was pleased to have the opportunity to see some of the players in person at the Melbourne Festival this year. There were ten musicians; the same ones who performed the Layla and Majnun opera; There were some very exotic instruments. Wu Man on the Pipa, who was featured quite a lot in the movie, was amazing on the Chinese Pipa. An incredible instrument. As was the amazing looking Shacuhachi played by Kojiro Umezaki and Suona played by Wu Tong who also sang. As well there were the more traditional instruments, violin ( Johny Gandelsman), amazing percussion on a range of instruments, some looking improvised, (Joseph Gramley and Mark Suter), violins (Jessie Montgomery and Michi Wiancko), viola (Mario Gotoh), bass (Shawn Conley) and beautifully played cello (Karen Ouzounian). They produced very different sounds; exuberant dance numbers and mournful elegies. Very interesting and very stimulating. Also very short! A good night though. Here’s a review from The Age.
We also saw Sumi Jo & Jose Cabone In Concert ; virtuoso singing but I found it lacking in emotional depth and so wasn’t greatly impressed. There were lots of costume changes by Sumi Jo to keep us interested as well. And she has an amazing voice; tripping up and down the scales effortlessly. But I wasn’t moved! It was the same with the renowned pianist Paul Lewis from the UK who is apparently a regular visitor to Melbourne. Great playing but I wasn’t very taken with his choice of material. Bagatelles by Beethoven, a couple of sonatas by Hayden and last piano works by Brahms. I liked the latter best, but overall the concert left me cold. Nor was I particularly taken with the avant-garde Icelander Olafur Arnalds playing his multiple pianos. Which was disappointing because I love his The Chopin Project.
We saw Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night early this year; so long ago I thought it was last year! I’d read the book years ago and loved it but couldn’t remember much about it at all, so I re-read it in preparation for the play which was put on by the MTC. It was a London production that had received rave reviews both in England and here. It was certainly very true to the book and full of energy and innovative production ideas. But it left me strangely unmoved. Great performances and really good direction. Perhaps it was the pace – very fast – that put me off a little. Still I was pleased to have seen it. It’s a great book and worth a read if you haven’t already.
I was really taken with Flight which was presented as part of the Melbourne Festival. It was another English production and very innovative and well done. A revolving series of small dioramas; the sort that art students might make. You were taken to individual cubicles, given headphones and told to watch and listen to a story about two Afghan boys seeking refuge. Very timely and very well done. Very moving. We also saw Neil Coles second play about
Nina Simone; this one called Nina Simone: Liberian Days. I loved it and it made me wish I’d seen his first one. Here’s my earlier blog about both of these two plays.
Having seen the movie last year at MIFF I was keen to see Good Muslim Boy which was put on at the Malthouse during the year. I quite enjoyed it. I think it helped having the full back story. It continues from where the film left off. Great set and great performances. The trouble was that Ali was a less sympathetic character than in the book. Still, I’m pleased I saw it. I agree with the comments made in this review.
Having been reading Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs I was quite keen to see the play Destroyed put on by 45 Downstairs, a venue I hope to see more of in 2019. Their plays are ver contemporary, innovative and interesting. This was a one woman show and unfortunately I didn’t like it at all. It presented a very critical look at Simone to which I wasn’t very sympathetic. So I sort of tuned out. It was the content I didn’t like. The staging and performance were first rate. It’s a great little theatrical space. Very intimate.
I went to a few exhibitions this year both in Melbourne and in Bendigo and Ballarat. I’ve included the flower show here; is that an exhibition? Sort of I think. I went to an exhibition about movie costumes in Bendigo and five art shows; two in Ballarat. As well as the big Triennial and MOMA shows here in Melbourne. I’ve blogged about most of them, so won’t say any more about them here.
My blog about the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show is here.
I really enjoyed the Edith Head exhibition; The Costume Designer: Edith Head & Hollywood. It was in Bendigo in January. I have blogged about it here. A lot of the dresses and gowns you could wear today. Beautiful creations. And the exhibition was really informative about the whole process of film costume design and about Edith’s life as well.
I did two blogs about the NGV Triennial because I went to it twice; it was so big! The second time was largely to see the amazing dresses created by Guo Pei. I’m glad I made the effort because I saw a film about her at this year’s MIFF and it featured these very creations. Here’s the blog about my first visit And here’s the blog after my second. And here is my blog about the movie Yellow Is Forbidden, which I awarded four stars – a bit mean really, it could have had five.
I enjoyed the student work exhibited at the Ian Potter Centre in the Top Art exhibition. It was quirky and inventive in equal measure, and to my relatively untutored eye, of a very high quality. Here’s my blog which only skims over the surface of what was shown.
Here’s my blog about the big blockbuster MOMA at NGV exhibition. As I indicate, I really value the curators talks about these big exhibitions. They really help one appreciate what is on offer. I flagged towards the end and intended to go a second time but didn’t manage it. I also couldn’t photograph the many statues that were included and which were very striking. So modern, even now.
I really enjoyed the Art Gallery of Ballarat’s Into The Light exhibition. I wondered about putting this in my Living In Melbourne blog category but figured if I was advising tourists in Melbourne what to do, a visit to Ballarat, and it’s art gallery would be one of my recommendations. AS would Bendigo. Exhibitions in these regional cities are very accessible and also very interesting. Here’s my blog about it.
The BOAA: Biennale of Australian Art exhibition held in Ballarat from September to November 2018 was an enormous undertaking and well worth a two day visit. I did five blogs about it. Mostly photos of the works with which I was most impressed. I really look forward to the next Biennale which is planned for 2020. Here’s my first blog about it. And my second. And my third. And my fourth And my fifth.
I went to lots of lectures over the year, mostly literary and mostly hosted by our very own wonderful Wheeler Centre (a Bracks Government initiative, enhanced by funding from the generous Wheelers). The exception was An Evening with Hillary Rodham Clinton that Eleanor and I attended in May. It was a mega affair at the Melbourne Convention Centre, organised by a strange outfit called The Growth Faculty. Some tickets were very expensive ($500) but we paid only $100 each for ours. Which I suppose is expensive enough. Still, the venue was full, some thousands of people; mostly women, both young and old. A fair few mothers and daughters like Eleanor and me I reckon. Took a terrible time to get into the hall as we all had to go through security scanners. Annabelle Crabb was MC and did a reasonable job. Hillary gave a speech, all very polished and familiar and then she was interviewed by Julia Gillard. The crowd wildly enthusiastic but I felt that it was all old news if you had followed Hillary’s speaking engagements. But I was pleased to have seen her in the flesh; even if it was from a long way away. Eleanor laughed at me when, in response to a wave to the crowd from Hillary as she left, I waved back! I did find it all quite emotional at the end. What courage she had – has!
My first two Wheeler Centre Events were talks by Emily Wilson about her Odyssey translation and Jennifer Egan about her latest novel. I managed a blog about both of these events, which I enjoyed hugely. I loved Emily’s translation – a revelation after the turgid ones that have preceded it. I should have put it on my best books of 2018 list. But it seems such a long time ago that I read it. Anyway it is sui generis.
Then over the course of the year I saw, either with Eleanor or Joe or with friends, the following seven authors, all of whom I enjoyed:
Anne Summers; I have her memoir, Unfettered And Alive to read and am looking forward to it having loved her Ducks On The Pond
Ronan Farrow; talking about his #metoo reporting with which I’m very familiar so he didn’t say much that was new except to reveal how personally difficult he found it We bought his book about America’s diplomatic service for Joe as it was Father’s Day; he asked us who it was for and he asked Eleanor whether Joe was a good father and look at what he wrote in the book
Eric Idle; who was very funny but old stories and slickly told. He played Look On The Bright Side Of Life on his ukelele and we all sang along;
And Liane Moriarty, Fran Lebowitz, Teju Cole and Emily Nussbaum
I went with Joe to a whole week of real lectures in June. His idea, of course, but I did love studying Sartre at Melbourne Uni all those years ago, so I was a willing student again. I loved the five lectures that constituted the course A Show About Nothingness: Episodes From Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and ….Nothingness. Here’s my very comprehensive blog about the whole week.
Here’s my blog about three dinners we had during the 2018 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival at the Grand Dining Room in Richmond and at Ides in Smith Street and Tony An at the Flower Drum. All of which were terrific.
And later this year we had a really memorable dinner with our friends Chris and Jen out West at a restaurant called Navi. Here’s my blog about this wonderful meal.
Finally here are my Best Of lists for the year.
The Trauma Cleaner, Sarah Krasnostein
Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng
Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck
West, Carys Davies
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones Of the Dead, Olga Tokarczuk
The Friend, Sigrid Nunez
The Accident On The A35, Graeme Macrae Burnet
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
Roads To Freedom, JP Sartre
The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
As I said I forgot about Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey when compiling this list. It really was a stand-out.
Sweet Country (General release)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing (General release)
The Shape of Water (General release)
Here’s a blog I did about those four films.
Love And Bullets (Italian Film Festival)
Aurore (French Film Festival)
Ice Mother (ACMI)
A Brighter Summer Day (Cinematique)
Wings of Desire (German Film Festival)
Those are the ones outside the Melbourne International Film Festival. My ten best MIFF films are:
An Elephant Sitting Still, Hu Bo
Wild Pear Tree, Nuri Bilge Ceylan
The Third Murder, Hirokazu Kore-Eda
Burning, Lee Chang-Don
Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-Eda
The Eulogy, Janine Hosking
Chris The Swiss, Anja Kofmel
The Other Side of Everything, Mila Turajlic
Jirga, Benjamin Gilmour
Capharnaum, Nadine Labaki
And by the by I received Life Membership of the Victorian Branch of the ALP, from Premier Daniel Andrews. And Dan went on to win the State election in a Danslide reminiscent of the Brackslide. And Richard retained Richmond. Happy days indeed.