The Belvoir St Theatre is undergoing renovations — there is a hole in the outside wall over the sidewalk (walking past which an hour so before a performance you can hear rehearsals floating out, or are they angry builders?) with a scaffold around it covered in green mesh and playbills. A sign claims that their fascia needs repair, but it works all a bit to well with this their current production. I suspect they punched a hole in the wall for added realism — perhaps a sort of Method for set design? Either way, the play’s set inside is a very realistic construction site: a climbable scaffold covers the back walls of the theatre, opening seamlessly onto the real scaffold outside which is used for as a backstage. The “wing” leading to the back stage is merely the hole in the wall opening out over the street. Loudspeakers play traffic noises inside the theater as the audience comes in to find their seats, continuing over the beginning of the play proper. Dust and detritus spread across the stage with beer and liquor bottles and milk crates, and there is a little tin site office behind the audience with a light on and a security guard inside. Besides that we are outdoors but there are no trees or vegetation to speak of. The only bit of nature is the real sunset pouring in from outside (the “curtain” rises at 8pm but it is summer — Sydney Festival time), coinciding with nightfall in the play; was that currowong singing bedtime outside for real or did it come from the speakers? The only other half way natural thing on the stage is a water tap, which becomes useful later on, like the fountain in a rustic village, the characters go to it to dunk their heads to sober up, fill water pipes for hashish, or just to fill bottles or kettles.
Unlike movies or the performing arts, architecture is not seasonal. There is no year end rush in which all the Gehrys and Koolhaases are “released,” no popcorn summer in which the Barangaroos and Ground Zeros of this world try to blow out our eye sockets with their empty spectacle. Cities just go on and on; one must make an effort to pick a moment and look back if we are ever to figure out just what on earth is going on.
Inviting guest musicians Osmo Vänskä and Alisa Weilerstein to the Sydney Symphony makes an artistic match the muses approved of, not to mention the heavens. They only came for three performances in Sydney, and how they found time to rehearse this dense program thoroughly is a mystery to me, though a shared musical spirit and understanding seemed to be on their side in this performance. It was a rare conjunction of various uncontrollable elements. The program too is very interesting. The Sydney Symphony has found a ‘new’ Tchaikovsky piece, apparently never having played Voyevoda before, and has not played the Prokofiev sinfonia concertante for 40 years. Beethoven is always interesting (at the very least), but here we have a unique interpreter of his symphonies in Vänskä, who seemed even to find in Beethoven hitherto unheard connections to Prokofiev.
“Modernized Opera” can sound a little scary, especially if implicitly (mis-)associated with the term “upgrade” which came out of Hollywood and Silicon Valley almost simultaneously in the last several years. Perhaps this is why some people are so against it: it sounds as if their changing the notes to modern notes! Or completely reversing the tone of the opera in some sardonic way. Operas should not be modernized because they are old but because it makes sense to do so. The two terms in quotes shouldn’t be associated at all: the former is a style, the latter a consumerist slogan and a euphemism for dumbing-down. Bringing the action of the opera into the present either explicitly or in some less realistic or even abstracted way, where there is a motivation, can be a wonderful thing and be high art. When the imagery the designer and director create make poetical and musical sense in the way it unfolds through the piece, with its own internal logic compatible with that of the music, it is a wonderful thing and there is no reason modern images are necessarily excluded from this (there is the problem of literal contradictions in the libretto, references to “pastorella” or “boschi” or “selva” in an opera taken to the modern inner city, but those are a separate matter).
Amidst recent debate over whether the “blockbuster” art show is dead, alive, dying, waning or mutating, it takes a blockbuster to appreciate the value of a blockbuster. This is especially so in Australia, whose several fine museums all started collecting way too late to acumulate many of the great masters. As Edmund Capon said in a recent interview, the quirky array of names along the sandstone frieze of the Art Gallery of New South Wales — Raphael, Michael Angelo (sic), Bellini, Titian — are aspirational, a list of all the artists whose works “we don’t have.” He didn’t add that we never will have them, but there is a poignance to that list of names in bronze, a reminder of one “tyranny of distance” which was untraversable at the time of the gallery’s construction and remains so. Whether or not one of Australia’s mining billionaires ever finds the taste and generosity to buy one of our public galleries some minor Titian, Capon, retiring after thirty very successful years as director of the Gallery, can now justifiably brag that he leaves it “full of Picassos.”
The results of the “short, sharp” review into Sydney’s Barangaroo development project have been released in the form of an 87 page report in which the word “outcome” appears 88 times. Though all sides have declared some version of victory in its wake, it is hard to see the report as anything other than a final rubber stamp for the developer Lend Lease. Whatever its misgivings, the report requires no modifications to the current plans. Any critique is blunted by a salad of weasel words and praise for the “world class people working on Barangaroo.” Whether or not anyone has the power to undo this mess, it’s clear no one has the guts.
No matter how many corners they cut, cities find it hard to outrun their pasts. Early decisions, however casual, however pragmatic, have a way of getting written in stone so that even long after these stones have tumbled, their consequences remain in the correspondence between certain cardinal directions and certain values. However subtle the reality on the ground, north, south east and west take on indelible local meanings. If you stand on George Street and look east down Bridge Street in downtown Sydney, it is easy to perceive the original topography of Sydney Cove, or Warrane as it was known to the Gadigal people. Bridge Street dips down toward Pitt Street and then rises up more steeply toward the Botanical Gardens at the top of the ridge. Along the low point ran the Tank Stream, now covered over, Sydney Colony’s first supply of fresh water and the reason why the city is where it is.
The saga of Sydney’s Barangaroo has finally reached the point where its twists and turns are no longer predictable. The developer Lend Lease and its resolutely faux design, once paced to a seemingly unassailable lead by a compliant government and a shameless PR operation, has punctured a tire. Without a spare tube or pump, they wait by the side of the road for a team car which itself has been totaled. Meanwhile “sandal-wearing, muesli-chewing, bike-riding pedestrians” are gaining fast. No one knows how many kilometres there are to go. Consider recent events: