Monthly Archives: March 2010

Lebensraum (Israel Horovitz)




Downstairs at the Maj

reviewed by Neville Cohn


It’s a preposterous notion, a gratuitous awarding of German citizenship with all rights and entitlements to six million Jews from around the world to somehow assuage the limitless grief and pain that the Holocaust caused. It is a thought-provoking “what if…….”

   photo: Belinda Dunbar



One of the nazis’ most odious policies was that of ‘lebensraum’, a ferociously violent and cruel colonisation of vast areas of conquered lands to enable the German people to have as much territory as needed for the expansion of the so-called master race. In putting this into practice, millions of innocents, primarily but not exclusively Jews, were butchered on an industrial scale.  


Three actors, portraying literally dozens of people, provide an absorbing theatre experience on this most unusual theme. I cannot readily recall a play that makes such extraordinary demands on its players, not least because the characters are of all ages and backgrounds coming from a wide range of countries necessitating the use of numbers of linguistic accents. And apart from the opening moments of the play when the German accent adopted was quite unconvincing, the players delivered impressively on this count through a lengthy work. True, there were some minor fluffs – but in the wider context, this gave an added dimension of reality to the proceedings.


All three actors – Vivienne Garrett, Brendan Hanson and Craig Williams – delivered remarkably credible impersonations of a daunting number of characters. On this level, the production was a tour de force.


I particularly admired the skill with which animated conversations between two people were held –  but featuring only a single actor. Craig Williams was impressive in this, with a rapid exchange of hats the only prop in a hugely skilled episode, an animated conversation between two people, courtesy of one actor. 


An American couple with a son take up the offer as does an outrageously camp gay pair from France. There’s also a very old Holocaust survivor living out his last days in a remote spot in Australia. He, too, turns up. He finds himself a job in Charlottenburg (whence he fled years earlier) as carer for a very old, bed-ridden and now-helpless former piano teacher, the very person who dobbed his family in to the Nazis because he and his siblings ‘wore pretty clothes’. He was the sole survivor. He exacts an unusual revenge.


Back to the Americans: the man of the house finds a place in the work force quickly as a wharfie – he’s a hard worker, impresses his boss and is soon offered a promotion. Then his boss gives him a supervisory role. There’s growing resentment from German-born workers as more hardworking Jews from abroad are welcomed to the country and given jobs. There are ugly scenes. As this happens, I dare say that the notion of a 21st-century revisiting of the Holocaust takes up a lot of wishful thinking  on the part of displaced German workers.


There’s also young love between a young American fellow with a German lass.


Horovitz’s play consist of many, often very brief, scenes that call for considerable skill on the part of the actors to ensure a smoothly unfolding play.  And that was gratifyingly apparent, so ensuring that the impact of the play as a whole was greater than the sum of its constituent scenes, directed with gratifying attention to detail by Lawrie Cullen-Tait.



The Bear (William Walton)

Angelique (Jacques Ibert)

Victorian Opera, Melbourne

Ollivier-Philippe Cuneo, conductor

Talya Masels, director

reviewed by Neville Cohn

In the minds of most opera-goers, mention of a double bill of one acters, calls I Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana instantly to mind. Opera Victoria, however, has put on a double bill that might well be completely new to many: William Walton’s The Bear and Jacques Ibert’s Angelique.

In brief, this is the plot of The Bear: A widow (Popova) is in deepest mourning for her  serial adulterer husband. She has become a recluse. Her butler Luka urges her to come out of seclusion. There is a visitor: Smirnov, a debtor who demands immediate payment of a loan to avoid his financial ruin. A fierce argument ensues, with a duel narrowly averted. Improbably, widow and debtor fall in love.

John Bolton Wood and Jessica Aszodi

Lavish laurels to John Bolton Wood who was a frankly marvellous Smirnov. His diction had a level of clarity that critics dream about but seldom encounter in reality, his stage presence a model of its kind.  And his face mirrored a myriad subtle emotions. Jessica Aszodi, too, could hardly be faulted as Popova – and Andrew Collis’ facial expressions and body language were comic inspirations.

Ibert’s Angelique, unlike The Bear, has very much less singing; a good deal of the script is spoken dialogue. A crucial character – Boniface – was to have been played by Samuel Dundas but illness compelled withdrawal. So, at very short notice, the role was taken over by not one player but two – James Payne and Adam Murphy.

Payne, clad entirely in black, stepped onstage from the wings to sing his lines and then silently withdrew. Adam Murphy, though, tackling the spoken word with a script gripped tightly in the hand, (there was no time to memorise it) brought the house down again and again. I cannot praise his characterisation too highly; I savoured its every ridiculous moment. As the hapless husband of a woman who is the ultimate harridan, physically violent and verbally abusive, his frantic desire to get her off his hands was a comic delight. For much of the time, Murphy had the audience in stitches of laughter.

Theresa Borg gave a bravura performance as Angelique. And no less satisfying a characterisation is that of Charlot by Gary Rowley. As the marriage broker trying to offload his dangerous client onto some unsuspecting victim, he rose to comic heights. No fewer than four husbands would return her in short order:

A capacity audience fell about as a weirdly garbed pageant of gentlemen proposed marriage to a human hand grenade.

Benjamin Namdarian was hilarious as The Italian, nursing a broken leg courtesy of the charmless Angelique; Paul Biencourt was a no less funny as a concussed Englishman – and Pelham Andrews, sporting a turban like some monstrous white onion, brought the house down as the King of Bambaras.. Even the Devil (Jacob Caine), in a demonic outfit, returned the goods complaining that Hell had been turned upside down by the appalling, vomitous Angelique.

Director Talya Masel’s directorial touch was everywhere apparent: an arm gesture here, an inclination of a head there, a sudden sideway glance; it added up to theatrical magic and I savoured every second of it. Certainly, the whole of this carefully considered production was significantly greater than the sum of its constituent parts.

This was an evening of utterly diverting silliness that would surely have melted the heart of the most curmudgeonly of opera goers.

Ollivier-Philippe Cuneo presided over events to excellent effect, extracting a consistently stylish response from his players both on stage and in the pit.

Harriet Oxley’s costume designs for Angelique were wondrously over the top.

This double bill had the stamp of distinction. It thoroughly deserves a long run and full houses. Bravo!

The Mikado (Gilbert and Sullivan)

W.A. Opera Company and Chorus

W.A.Symphony Orchestra

Supreme Court Gardens

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Over the years, Perth City Council’s operatic gift to the people has become a much anticipated annual event. Thousands turn out for the production including many children, for many of whom it would have been a very first encounter with  live opera – and in a most agreeable environment, too. Invariably, it’s a happy night out with most patrons arriving carrying picnic hampers for dining under the stars.


As a rule, the works presented fall under the banner of ‘grand opera’ – Madame Butterfly and La Traviata, for instance.


This year, for the first time, it was Gilbert & Sullivan on offer. I wondered how attractive this very idiosyncratic type of operetta would prove to be in the open air. I need not have been concerned: I cannot readily recall a bigger turn out for such an event nor such warm applause.


Diction is absolutely crucial here; without the clearest enunciation of words, the entire enterprise can collapse in an embarrassing heap. As a backup – and not really needed because diction for the most part was exemplary – there were excellent English subtitles flashed on to screens on either side of the stage as well as to the sides of the main audience area.


There were no weak links in the cast which, I am sure, would have won the approval of both the creative geniuses who brought this tieless comic romp into being.


I was particularly impressed by Andrew Foote. I cannot readily recall hearing this fine musician to better effect, producing, as he did, an unfailingly mellow stream of finely phrased tone. And Sarah-Janet Dougiamas was vocally in fine fettle as the vinegary Katisha, coming across as the ultimate scold, wagging her finger indignantly at whoever happened to be the focus of her grumpiness.  Robert Hofmann, too, quite rightly earned warm applause for his amusing presentation of the famous Little List aria. It was one of the comic highlights of the evening, not least for its up-to-the-minute arrows aimed at Perth institutions which elicited delighted chuckles.


Amanda Barrett Hayes, as director, did much to ensure a production that was as agreeable on the eye as the ear. Her deployment of a large cast was consistently imaginative. Bouquets to the W.A. Opera Chorus for consistently disciplined singing. This was a highlight. As well, the W.A.Symphony Orchestra responded in the most disciplined way to David Wickham’s direction, resulting in constantly workable tempi and a most agreeable buoyancy of both momentum and mood. Bravo!

The Essential Piano

40 Popular Classics

Various pianists

ABC 476 3383 (2-CD pack)

TPT: 77’18”/ 76’16”

reviewed by Neville Cohn

This would be ideal as a gift for young people who might just have begun piano lessons and wanting to sample the repertoire. The vast majority of these are keyboard evergreens, pieces that will be instantly recognised by anyone even remotely interested in piano music: Beethoven’s Fur Elise, Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, Sinding’s Rustle of Spring, Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Schumann’s Traumerei.

It was the invention of the radio and its universal presence in millions of homes that put paid to the until-then very widespread practice during social visits of bringing piano sheet music to play after tea time. The writer recalls how, as a child, he would accompany his parents on visits to elderly relatives where, invariably after afternoon tea, one or other of those present would play piano favourites such as Debussy’s Girl with the Flaxen Hair, the adagio from Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata and, for players with a more robust technique than usual, pieces such as Grieg’s Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, Chopin’s ‘Military’ Polonaise, the timeless Liebestraum in A flat by Liszt and Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring in Myra Hess’ famous but maddeningly elusive arrangement. All these much loved pieces are included in this compilation.

As well, there is the Prelude in C sharp minor from Rachmaninov’s opus 3, the universal popularity of which drove the composer to despair as audiences simply would not let the great man go after piano recitals unless he offered as encore a piece he came to loathe. (It earned him a fortune which may have soothed his exasperation).

ABC Classics has drawn on the recordings of some of Australia’s most prominent pianists for this collection, among them Roger Woodward, Donna Coleman, Stephanie McCallum and Gerard Willems. For many listeners, one or more of these pieces will trigger feelings of nostalgia.

A thoroughly rcommended compilation.