Every Musical Ever

June 19, 2022 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | MUSIC, THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Adelaide Cabaret Festival, 18 June 2022)

Two Disclaimers: (1) The Varnished Culture is not really that much into musicals (bad music, good acting), preferring opera (bad acting, good music). We couldn’t fit a musical in our list of the 20 finest films. However it is a great genre we suppose, and we have previously commented on some of the outstanding examples: Singin’ in the Rain, Cabaret, The Umbrellas of CherbourgWe have also expressed our disdain for the more toxic entries, such as Cats and The Sound of Music. (2) Musical theatre is exempt from consumer law, so no producer can be criticized for not sinking his own money in the show, or for staging “Springtime for Hitler,” or for claiming to cover ‘every musical ever’.

Which last claim forms the basis, the structure, and much of the hectic (sometimes arch) humour of this show, as 4 dreamers from off-Broadway give their all, over 80 minutes, in an ‘official’ attempt to break a Guinness record of presenting every musical ever. As it becomes clear to impresario Hayden Tee, as would be clear to anyone who Googled ‘List of Musicals’ (carried over two posts, A-L and M-Z), this is a daunting task, so devices are extemporized to bring concision to the mad venture, such as a frantic Andrew Lloyd Webber medley, a draw-from-the-hat staging of world musicals, and abandonment of all plot (except Cats, which has no plot) and all but the most minimal props. Props were simple, and inspirational: we particularly liked the broom, useful to sweep away a surfeit of glitter, wielded as an oar in the Phantom boat scene.

‘Props Ahoy!’

In the end, they get through 52 – no mean feat – and along the way, via a combination of impressive (miked) singing, frenzied costume changes, repartee and directorial invention, they slayed the packed crowd at the Dunstan Playhouse who were clapping, swaying, standing and waving glo-stix thoughtfully distributed by the players. This creation is by Richard Carroll, a director, writer and producer who has a podcast called ‘Every Musical Ever,’ who clearly doesn’t really go along with this show’s conceit that they’ve seen every musical so you don’t have to, and Gillian Cosgriff, a multi-faceted performer and writer.

We will attempt to outline below some of the fare presented – we couldn’t keep up with it all – but now for the participants. Hayden Tee, notionally in charge of the omni-shambles, is adept at farce with a strong voice and sense of timing. We particularly liked his frequent appearances to speed up proceedings, such as when Josie Lane ploughed ponderously through her solo song, “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” He also scrubs up well as Dorothy. Josie was also wonderful and distinctly startling as a guttersnipe Annie. Georgina Hopson made much of her Xanadu skate prop, and Dash Kruck evoked much pathos with his Oliver! begging bowl. The four were, pardon the phrase, “Fab” and made the evening great fun. They were ably wrangled by musical & creative director Zara Stanton, on piano.

No prizes for guessing this one…

[Now, for our hastily (and in the dark) assembled list (so I may have got one or two wrong):

Annie Get Your Gun (opening song, “There’s No Business Like Show Business”) / The Wizard of OzWicked / West Side Story / Chicago (“W[h]e Had it Coming”) / Les Misérables / The Sound of Music / Lion King / Fiddler on the Roof / Hairspray / Hamilton / Grease (see above) //The ‘Andrew Lloyd Wedley’ – CatsPhantom of the OperaJesus Christ SuperstarStarlight ExpressEvitaSunset BlvdJoseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat // Miss Saigon (using Dash Kruck’s toy helicopter) / Xanadu (using Georgina Hopson’s skate) / Singin’ in the Rain (Tee’s umbrella with rain sparkles), culminating in “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” from Gypsy / Oklahoma / A Little Night Music / Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street / The Boy From Oz (“I Go to Rio”) / South Pacific / Billy Elliot / Brigadoon / Cabaret / Company / My Fair Lady (“I Could Have Danced All Night”, a solo by Hopson, whose hand once touched that of Julie Andrews – respect!) / A Chorus Line / Hello, Dolly! / Annie / Oliver! / Mamma Mia! / Charlie and the Chocolate Factory / and the time-warp whirlwind wrapped up with The Rocky Horror Show.  That’s only 40. We missed 12 at least. Sorry] Continue Reading →

The Shanghai Mimi Band

June 18, 2022 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | HISTORY, MUSIC, THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Adelaide Cabaret Festival, 17 June, 2022)

Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s was “The Paris of the East, the New York of the West,” at least in popular myth, and in old Hollywood films: where elegance rubbed shoulders with depravity but always in a well-dressed way: glittering gowns, elegant cheongsams, dinner suits and white mess jackets, accompanied by a range of recreational poisons. And the night clubs along the Bund (the Shanghai waterfront) provided the venue, salted with the haute and the louche, and sugared by the Chinese chanteuses and hot bands playing French torch songs and shidaiqu (時代曲), a mix of Chinese folk and American jazz.

Shanghai Mimi started artistic life as a full production of music, dancing and acrobatics but on this night we had a slimmed version, more apt for the night club that is the Spiegeltent on the Adelaide ‘bund’ – Sophie Koh and her band led us through an hour of old standards (not all from the 1920s or 1930s but who cares), with the odd new bauble (Sophie sang a moving song, “Olive Tree,” for her grandmother, and a 1970s Chinese pop song) thrown in.

Sophie first appeared in a shimmering gold gown and later had a costume change, appearing in an attractive cheongsam with a fur stole that any bien-pensants present doubtless hoped was artificial. Ms. Koh looked just right, and her walk-ons and walk-offs, including sashaying among the crowd, felt authentic. She handled songs in English, French and Mandarin impressively, and had many in the crowd swaying, even singing along, open-mike / karaoke style, to a number from the old country (those that knew it). The lighting was just right, and the only things needed to complete the atmosphere were a bowl of opium and Mr. Peter Lorre.  We were not familiar with some of the numbers, but they moved from French and Chinese torch songs to classics from the American songbook; fare including “Perhaps,” “Someone to Watch over Me,” “I Want Your Love” and “Miss Shanghai.”

We did fear for Sophie’s voice at times. There was the odd vocal strain/struggle (perhaps the cold weather hadn’t helped?), and the band’s volume mix and enthusiasm swamped the singing a bit too often. But overall, the warmth, feeling and effect of the show were not dimmed.

The Shanghai Mimi Band was excellent. John McAll, the musical director, was consummate on piano. And in the highlight for this reviewer, in a stomping rendition of the Benny Goodman classic “Sing Sing Sing,” Aaron McCoullough on drums (worthy of Gene Krupa, albeit looking too respectable) and Brennan Hamilton Smith on clarinet, were on fire. The whole band was impeccable.

As Sophie stated at the conclusion, all good things must come to an end. While Shanghai style even survived the tender mercies of Japanese occupation during WWII, it couldn’t breathe once Chairman Mao banned fun. However, Music and Theatre serve to remind us of the good things that pass. Sophie Koh and the Shanghai Mimi Band delivered on that.


Even golf was stylish in Old Shanghai

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Il Bacaro

June 13, 2022 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | FOOD, Restaurants, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, TRAVEL |

(168-170 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, 20 May 2022)

A Homage to Bacchus

This lively, lovely little joint

Has been going strong since ’95,

It’s tiny, dark and crowded space

Is always filled, and comes alive.

So you should always be prepared

To book, and get there right on time;

You may cool heels at the well-stocked bar,

But the drinks there are sublime.

And after a grand snort or two,

You’re deftly guided to your seat:

An expert waiter, with no airs,

Will help you work out what to eat.



Ostriche al naturale (6 oysters, with white wine vinegar, shallots);

Quail, gorgonzola semifreddo, figs, fig leaf snow;

Spaghettini, Moreton Bay bug, “olio visadi”, garlic, chilli, rocket;

Cocoa Pappardelle, venison ragu, fermented rapini, pecorino,

With a dry Lombardy white wine.


Il Bacaro , Victoria , Australia

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Davina and the Vagabonds

June 12, 2022 | Posted by Guest Reviewer | Modern Music, MUSIC, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Adelaide Cabaret Festival, 11 June, 2022)

[Davina and the Vagabonds, late to town thanks to post-Covid chaos in international flights, appeared at the Cabaret Festival on Saturday night, drawing from the past 100 years of American music, from Fats Domino and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to Aretha Franklin and Tom Waits. Reportedly, Davina has been compared to Etta James, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday and Betty Boop, but in order to verify, The Varnished Culture had 2 guest reviewers in attendance who know a thing or three about past and contemporary music in this Dawning Age of Aquarius. Their keen impressions, in two separate pieces, appear below.]

Raymond G, the Accidental Reviewer

It’s mid-June; 12 degrees C, it’s dark; it’s drizzling; and so it is that we escape from over two years of COVID captivity and venture forth into the night to catch the free bus to culture (Seniors’ Card; didn’t have one of them pre-COVID!).  Upon arrival at the Speigeltent Plaza, it became clear that pandemic paranoia had indeed changed the concert going world; $12 for a plastic thimble of seriously average wine; “open” fires enclosed by security fences; and two commando-like security guards to add the logs (we thought we were in the Ukraine; have another thimble!). But stay calm and think of Shanghai, we are here to see Davina and her Vagabonds.

Let us try and paint the musical picture; there is, of course, Davina, spangling from the piano; a skilled drummer who is on occasion permitted to sing (very well); a double bassist who is not permitted to sing! and two excellent brass players; trombone and trumpet. But be under no illusion, Davina is in control; don’t get it wrong!  And so it’s game on and they don’t. With an early and magnificent rendition of Commander Cody’s Four or Five Times, the crowd was electrified. The performance and production is joyous. And it doesn’t stop. Another highlight is the channelling by Davina of the late, great, Etta James which was inspired. The show was 75 minutes of musical happiness and joy. Not only for the audience but, we apprehend, also for the super slick band and Davina. So good, I couldn’t leave my seat to secure another thimble ($12 saved!)

Perhaps the best illustration of how good the performance was, is to reveal that, so overwhelmed were we by positivity oozing from the experience, that we lashed out and caught a taxi home (no Senior’s Card discount!).

The Critical Critic

Firstly, I must confess, I’ve lost some of my mojo when it comes to attending Adelaide’s many festivals. It just seems to me that over the years they have become more about the Artistic Directors, their egos and their PR machines, ticket sales and revenue (don’t get me started on the cost of tickets and booking fees), and the ‘big names’ rather than providing an opportunity for the average punter to take a risk and see an ‘unknown’ act and simply go along for the ride. Heavens, I remember when you could afford to see several such acts in one night and still have change for a late night snack at the pie cart.

Given all the above, I was somewhat reluctant to leave the warmth of home on a cold winters’ night but it wasn’t long before my somewhat cynical pre-judgement was called into question and my thoughts on the whole festival experience may have changed…

I know a review should be about the artistes involved, but I also believe the atmosphere plays a part in whether your experience is memorable or not. So here goes.
On arriving at the Festival Plaza (will the construction ever end), we were warmly welcomed, literally, by several fire pits well ablaze and smoking hot. We quickly found seats by the fire and enjoyed the cosy company of locals and interstate visitors who were not seeing a show but were there to soak up said atmosphere. And it set the scene perfectly. A few jokes concerning the ‘big brother’ drone overhead, the security guards turned stokers (we reckoned they must have done the fire-making course 101 at TAFE and were clearly enjoying their new authority), and it was time to enter the Speigeltent.

As usual, the audience was crammed in like sardines and there seemed to be an abundance of smoke/dry ice (clearly smoke is a theme at this year’s Cabaret Festival). We found two seats together, introduced ourselves to our ‘close’ neighbours, and prepared ourselves to be entertained.  And entertained we were. Davina and the Vagabonds were a sleek operation. The quintet of lead vocalist, (Davina Sowers), trumpet player and occasional vocalist Zack Lozier, trombonist Steve Rogers, double bassist Andrew Foreman and drummer Connor “Chops” McRae Hammerson) were definitely a winning combo. Their musicianship was faultless, the ‘adlibs’/’patter’ well-rehearsed and ‘looks to the audience’ carefully choreographed, resulting in an hour and a quarter of sheer pleasure.

Working their way through a repertoire of golden oldies including fabulous ditties from Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald intertwined with witty originals written by Davina herself, the time sped by far too quickly. A whirlwind journey through blues, jazz, and a whole lot more, and with Davina’s voice sounding like Ella meets Etta meets Amy meets Judy meets that wild girl who’s always the life and soul of every party, you couldn’t help but whoop it up whenever the opportunity arose.

Davina herself is pure sass, ably supported by the swagger of her vagabonds. She is Minnesota sunshine personified; She is a party girl, and her vibrant vagabonds were individually and collectively guests you’d insist come to the party too. I’d sure like to ‘partay’ with her. And I didn’t expect to be saying that as I opened my front door to head out.

[Editor’s note: Thanks RG and CC – looks like this show is a hit. My own impression is that the Festival security, whilst plentiful, was unobtrusive and respectful, and personally, I’d pay extra to a man serving drinks in the Festival Plaza Garden, out in the winter cold!!!] Continue Reading →

‘Nothing Better than the First Attempt’: Cabaret Life Drawing

June 11, 2022 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | ART, AUSTRALIANIA, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Cabaret Life Drawing, Adelaide Cabaret Festival, 11 June 2022)

A very pleasant hour passed in the Cabaret Festival’s Spiegeltent on the Festival Centre Plaza. This was a life drawing session (not really a lesson, more like a brief taste with a light touch). The assembled throng, their creative impulses enlivened by a glass of wine and some piano and bass versions of songs such as Puttin’ on the Ritz, Tea for Two and All of Me, attempted to depict model Letitia, striking various classy poses in an elegant gown (see below).

It was conducted by Adelaide Central School of Art graduate Ruby Chew (below) [BA Visual Arts Hons. at Adelaide Central School of Art (2010), along with further study at Central Saint Martins, London and the Florence Academy of Art, Florence]. Ruby’s work has been accepted into the prestigious Helpmann Academy Graduate Exhibition, where she was awarded the SALA Prize, part funding her first solo exhibition, and the Hill Smith Gallery/Helpmann Academy Travel Prize, funding a 3-month artistic development trip around the UK and Europe.

Ruby Chew (photo by Claudio Raschella)

Ruby has exhibited, taught and held residency positions interstate and overseas. She has had numerous solo exhibitions, notably Portraits at Magazine Gallery (2011), Spitting Image at Hill Smith Gallery (2012) and The Difference Between Things at Floating Goose Studios (2021).  Her website is: http://www.rubychew.com/

Ruby ran us through a number of exercises designed to afford amateurs an entrée into the creation of charcoal drawings of the model and her surrounding artefacts. It mattered not that the overall feel was more salon than cabaret club: using charcoal, tissue for shading and a portable board standing-in for an easel, we attempted continuous line drawing, drawing “blind” and using the non-dominant hand (we suppose a property lawyer would call it the ‘servient hand’) to draw, or try to draw, in a fun and relaxed atmosphere.

Letitia models fans

Near the end of the session, Rosie Russell joined Letitia as an additional model, while she belted out an impressive version of “At Last” with the support of the two excellent musicians.

Rosie Russell

We can’t say our efforts will be hung in any gallery walls, but this no-pressure workshop was a playful gift and for us, a gentle opener to the Cabaret Festival.

Your reporter’s modest effort:
“Lady on chaise lounge with nearby cello”

As that talented rogue, Picasso, said, “In drawing, nothing is better than the first attempt.”

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Afternoon of an Autocrat (Norah Lofts)

Norah Lofts (1904 to 1983), mostly forgotten in this twilight of the gods, was a popular English novelist.  Afternoon of an Autocrat *(1956) is set in Suffolk, in the fictitious village of Clevely at the time of its ‘enclosure’.  In Britain, thousands of ‘Acts of Enclosure’ were passed between 1604 and 1914.  A passel of commissioners, (susceptible to good hospitality, spite and whim) would descend upon a village and delineate how fields and  hitherto common lands were to be parcelled out to those with claims evidenced by writing, social superiority, ancient usage or bribery.^

Part One, (“Afternoon of an Autocrat”) makes short work of the stolid squire of Clevely. “On the third Saturday afternoon of October, in the year 1795, Sir Charles Augustus Shelmadine set out on what – though he naturally had no notion of it – was to be his last ride.”  When Sir Charles dies, so does the village’s bulwark against enclosure.

Sir Charles’ cold and debauched heir, Richard, succeeds him and in Part Three – “High Noon of a Changeling” – is persuaded by the ‘lisping’ Mr. Montague Ryde Montague to petition for enclosure. “‘I  cannot, of course, guawantee that you will do as well out of your enclosure as I did at Gweston,’ he warned.  ‘I was deucedly lucky in my commissioners and in the number of fellows who either had no claim to show or couldn’t pay their share of the expenses. Now there is a hint!  Don’t twy to keep down expenses.’..”

These kinds of arbitrary land allotment practices led in part to the Torrens Title System of Land Registration which was developed in The Varnished Culture‘s home state of South Australia. It grew out of the confusion and inequity of the recording of land rights in a long and dodgy system of Deeds or scratches on a village milestone. The poor men of Clevely generally cannot prove their claims. “‘Matt Juby dug up a paper, and Amos Greenway…[did spell]…it out for him; and that told how way back his careful old great-great-grandad did get leave from the Squire to build a cottage and graze his beasts…Maybe we all had papers in the past; but you know how it is, sir – folks that can’t read or write don’t set such store by papers as them that can.  And there ain’t much space for hoarding such things.'”  “‘One chap’d even got his paper – little old black scrap of stuff that was too, and nobody could read it…”  “the sort of thing we all had, no doubt, till some silly young bitch used ’em as hair curlers...”

Any lucky villager allotted land must pay a fee and fence the land at his or her cost within a certain period of time, or forfeit the land. Those who thus acquired a landholding which had previously been divided into a number of small pieces of land usually prospered. Others, such as the paupers in the ‘hovels’ of Clevely, now denied the use of ‘The Waste’, were left with the use of the land between the highway adjacent to their dilapidated cottages and the fence immediately behind them, making the tilling of land for potatoes or the feeding of livestock impossible. So they left and sought work, or fell upon the miserable charity of the parish.

Lofts has an acute psychological sense and an unsparing eye which she uses to create demented rich woman, ill-used wife and religious maniac alike. There is an unnecessary supernatural overlay concerning a young woman, Damask Greenway, who takes revenge upon the young man who jilted her, Mithraic rites and a man who (through a Faustian bargain) can neither divest himself of good luck, or die.  “‘But to return to Mundford, the sight of him makes me expectorate – he must be hard on eighty; and yet he doesn’t look it, does he?’ ‘So perhaps the rumours are right.  He always wins; he does not grow old…'”

The interest in this story lies in the individual villagers, who are (until perhaps a final soft landing) spared none of Loft’s unsentimental assessment or the indifference of fate while stumbling through the desperate issues of poverty and the interplay across generations of meanness, generosity, misunderstanding, old loves and enmities.**

Norah Lofts

Norah Lofts

[*This is also the title of the first and final Part of the novel, (the intervening Parts being “Sunset of a Philanderer”, “High Noon of A Changeling” and “Night of a Necromancer”).  The book has also been published as “The Deadly Gift” and “The Devil in Clevely“.  Guess which we prefer?] [^ It sounds like a far right version of Castro’s National Institute for Agrarian ReformEd.] [**Our 1956 copy from the publisher Michael Joseph, bought at a wonderful library sale in Kew, Victoria, (May 2022) is housed in an evocative dust-wrapper map of Clevely and surrounds.]

Afternoon of an Autocrat by Norah Lofts - First Edition - from Burton Lysecki Books, ABAC/ILAB (SKU: 148382)

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Six the Musical

(Her Majesty’s Theatre, 27 May 2022)

Six the Musical, a pop music retelling of the story of the wives of Henry the Eighth of England was royally received in London, New York and Sydney.  We are pleased to say that the Adelaide audience loved it just as much as Henry VIII adored Anne Boleyn, and not just at the beginning of it all. The capacity crowd cheered when the six wives appeared in a London pea-souper of dry ice mist and they were on their feet dancing when the queens gloriously asserted their individuality and agency at the end of the 75 minute feminist joy fest. 

Wisely, the obvious comparison to Tudor Spice Girls and the old mnemonic “Divorced, beheaded, died…divorced, beheaded, survived,” were got out of the way early on. Each of the unfortunate women sang a solo number – unapologetic in the case of the famously ambitious Anne Boleyn and melancholy in the case of the softer Jane Seymour who died in childbirth.  Best though were the numbers when all six joined in – exuberant, on-key and energetic.

The small stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre (or should that be Her Majesties’ Theatre?) – closed for years in order to be renovated to look exactly the same, right down to the inconvenient foyer – was adorned only with with cathedral shaped “windows”, thus putting all the emphasis on the performers and their costumes. These Tudor-meets-jazz-ballet costumes were, in part, perhaps a letdown. The skirts worn by Anne Boleyn (Kala Gare) and in particular, Jane Seymour (Loren Hunter) were oddly proportioned and unflattering. Katherine Howard (Chelsea Dawson) though, all in pink, was appropriately sexy as she reminded us that  Anne Boleyn was not the only one who lost her head due to (apparent) adultery.

Catherine of Aragorn (Phoenix Jackson Mendoza) was the most Tudor, pearl-studded and glamorous as befits perhaps the only legitimate queen. Anne of Cleves (Kiane Daniele) was made to look peculiar and unattractive in accordance with her reputation. Catherine Parr (Vidya Makan) (the survivor) was decked in an oddly modern jumpsuit and virtually crownless.


Henry VIII wives: facts for kids | National Geographic Kids

This show is not for those wishing to perfect their knowledge of English history: it reinforces the clichés in an anachronistically and manipulative modern light, but it does enliven our understanding of these 16th century historical figures as real people. In an imaginative coda the women talk about what they might have been, had they not caught the cruel eye of a lascivious and inconstant monarch. No man appears on stage to dim their light – no Henry, no Wolseley, no Cromwell, no Pope.  The most excellent band is all female. 

SIX THE MUSICAL Will Stop in Canberra and Adelaide on 2022 Tour

[Great stuff. Perhaps the show could be expanded (and the ladies afforded a short break) by a solo sad-funny number where Cardinal Wolsey, at Hampton Court, laments that whilst females are, after all, just chattels, they are harder the herd than cats…Ed.] Continue Reading →

Flower Drum Endures – Thank God

May 29, 2022 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | FOOD, Restaurants, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(17 Market Lane, Melbourne) May, 2022

Mrs. Appleyard says to Mademoiselle in Picnic at Hanging Rock that Bournemouth was “a delightful place. Nothing changed…ever!”

The Varnished Culture says the same for Flower Drum, tucked away in the heart of Melbourne, just off Bourke Street. We have been coming here for years, whenever commitments bring us to Melbourne. Melbourne has become problematic. Its great high style now looks like Srebrenica after the Serbs finished with it, or Paris churches after the Jacobins. A smoking ruin of a one-party state, where everyone is tolerant of lies, the citizenry does not expect government corruption but demands it, tribalism spills out far beyond the MCG, and totalitarian rule advances with a smiley face, it is ironic that a Chinese institution stands firm, and almost alone, against the barbarians. Indeed, the Chief Barbarian is said to do many of his deals here.

The atmosphere is impeccable. The waiting staff, better dressed than most customers, are magnificent. The food and cellar are superb. We add a star from our last review, recognising that quality and consistency in these troubled times is to be cherished.


We had, after some champagne to whet the appetite:

A Sauté Crayfish Omelette that was divinely fluffy; a lovely Quail Sang Choi Bao with Chinese pork sausage, onions, spring onion, water chestnut and bamboo shoots (iceberg lettuce cup, thank heavens); a Seafood Dumpling Soup; and of course, the classic Peking Duck, each pancake individually wrapped for the diner and served with an artistically arranged plum sauce (see below). Some home made ice cream to share for dessert. All washed down with a couple of bottles of Petaluma Riesling.

The staff do not regard the menu as sacrosanct – special requests are no problem. The wine list is dazzling but there are bargains to be found.

Make sure you book, because the place fills up fast. We arrived early for Monday lunch service but were soon joined by a large cohort of diners, including some very impressively attired Chinese-Australians, obviously regulars.

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May 26, 2022 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | MUSIC, Opera, OPERA, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Melbourne Arts Theatre, 21 May 2022)

Lohengrin marked the end of Wagner’s ‘first phase’ and remains one of his loveliest operas, in musical terms (the overture alone is a gorgeous amuse-bouche)*. The story is, of course, very silly: Elsa (Emily Magee) is accused of doing away with her brother, heir to the Throne of Brabant, the charges levelled by nasty Telramund and his ‘handler,’ Ortrud (the very fine and sexy Simon Meadows and Elena Gabouri). King Heinrich (Daniel Sumegi) calls for divine intervention, and after some nervous foot-shuffling by the assembled knights, there, in a puff of swan feathers, is “X” (Jonas Kaufmann) to engage in battle with Telramund to answer the charge.

After that, it is a matter of the thwarted villains’ plan to disrupt the nuptials and jump the inheritance queue to the throne.  Meanwhile, the marriage between X and Elsa is imperilled by X’s Michael Corleone-like refusal to have Elsa ask him about his business, or even his name, which seems to us somewhat arch – even Kaufmann has objected that “Elsa’s not ready to go to bed with a guy whose name she doesn’t even know!” In the event, the hero triumphs, but at the last, curiosity kills the cat.

It is a great cast. We found Gabouri and Meadows fashionable jet-black yet oddly sympathetic bad guys, in great voice and cutting a fine dash; Magee’s Elsa was terrific; though Sumegi, and Warwick Fyfe as the Herald (see below), have little to do, they were suitably magisterial with their booming bass voices. The Opera Australia chorus were in peak form, somehow managing to finesse the clichéd wedding march into a thing of beauty. The Orchestra Victoria (including some impressive heraldic brass in the theatre boxes) under a relatively inexperienced Tahu Matheson, were impeccable. In particular, he and they generously made way for the star of the show, Kaufmann, to soar above the pit without forcing his voice on us – thus managing to retain the precious harmonies of the score by signing pianissimo in extended fashion. It was a real treat to see this Opera Rock Star in a full opera finally, after his wonderful concertized Parsifal in Sydney previously.

As usual, and increasingly these days, The Varnished Culture had quibbles with the mise en scène. Much of the time this managed to keep out of the way, yet it intruded jarringly at times. It was a Regietheater conceit of Olivier Py, originated at the Théâtre Royal De La Monnaie in Brussels, and featured some harmless anachronisms: the sets were to represent ruined post WWII Berlin, including a stopped clock set at five past twelve (‘Zero Hour’ in 1945). The three-tiered wall of bric-a-brac (see top image above) was meant to convey German cultural heritage** – including signage bearing such names as Goethe, C.D. Friedrich, Hegel, Schiller, Heine etc., perhaps a deliberate contrast to the anonymity of the protagonist. During the extended Act III tête-à-tête between Lohengrin and Elsa, the pair wended their way up the stairs of this structure, singing sweetly to each other. All very well to this correspondent, sitting smugly in the first row of the Circle, but a friend with a much better eye and ear in the top tier reports that their voices were muffled and their bodies virtually invisible, drowned in the glare of the surtitles board and Opera Australia electronic badging. Shows that you must rehearse properly. Especially at these prices.

Moreover, there were the usual grab-bag of dopey flourishes. A small boy wandered around, toying with a crown seemingly made of brown butcher’s paper (that’ll be Gottfried, we guess). Lohengrin formally appears, on Shanks’ pony, fiddling with a small mound of ‘swan’ down. Why the Herald lollygags about, taking camera snaps, is beyond us. The duel to clear Elsa’s name is rendered by a chess game and some calisthenics at the rear (we would have preferred an old-fashioned sword-fight, even with clock hands). Similarly, we could have done without the gymnastic Chippendale showing off his pecs in Act III.

“Be All That As It May,” Lohengrin was still a treat. The matinee we attended was highly and deservedly enthusiastic at curtain.

Opera Australia: Lohengrin review [Melbourne 2022] – Man in Chair

[* Wagner himself modestly considered that his musical works in this piece were “streams of gold, ravishing the senses of the beholder.”] [** As we have written elsewhere: “It’s not easy being a Kraut. Hitler saw to that. He took more than two thousand years of German contributions to the world – legacies from sources such as Beethoven, Bonhoeffer, Brahms, Charlemagne, Marlene Dietrich, DürerEinsteinFriedrichGoetheHesse, Hoffmann, Kant, Kleist, Liebniz, Luther, MannMozart, Schiller, Schubert, and yes, Wagner (especially Wagner) – and sullied them, perhaps for ever.”]

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The Dying Citizen

(By Victor Davis Hanson) (2021)

This is a thought-provoking argument that the classical concept of citizenship (the essence of a democratic nation) as developed and refined from the Greeks, Romans, and ‘aristocratic’ revolutionaries, is becoming denuded of meaning or relevance, and that a new tribalism (subject to a new “balkanized spoils system“) is fast replacing it, per the convenience of the governing elites (on the divide-and-rule paradigm). The author ranges wide but without attenuation, contrasting citizens with peasants (we prefer the more colouful term ‘peons’), residents and tribes, and then showing how the very concept of American citizenship – necessary in a diverse nation of 350 million people – is fast fraying; due to the permanent state of unelected bureaucrats, governing elites that treat the citizenry as roadkill on the golden highway to utopia, and, on a higher and more abstract level, the rise of (in practice, totalitarian) globalisation.  As Lionel Shriver, with reference to this book, put it*; “Globalisation, mass unassimilated immigration and the left’s cultivation of self-disgust have steadily turned us into mere residents, with no fervent commitment to a shared culture and past.”

“In The Dying Citizen, Hanson outlines the historical forces that led to this crisis. The evisceration of the middle class and the rise of inequality have made many Americans dependent on the federal government…open borders and the elite concept of “global citizenship” have rendered meaningless the idea of allegiance to a particular place…identity politics have eradicated the idea of a collective civic sense of self. A vastly expanded bureaucracy has overwhelmed the power of elected officials, thereby destroying the sovereign power of the citizen.”**

Some examples from the book:

Simply put, corporate America wanted cheap imported labor without the bother of unionization. Hand in glove with business, the progressive Left agreed with virtual open borders. Progressives assumed either that massive influxes from an impoverished Mexico and Central America would eventually lead to a politically useful new demography or that the United States should use its resources to help the foreign poor by inviting them to enter America.”

How odd that America’s current progressive turn to tribalism and primary self-identification by race and gender is reactionary to the core…identity politics is at its essence precivilizational…Once tribalism takes hold, it is almost impossible to thwart this ancient narcotic or to prevent it from destroying the centuries-long and much harder work of establishing multiracial nationhood and citizenship.”

“…the charge that…'”systemic racism,” permeates all of American society is rarely demonstrated. Still, the charge is put to good use by the industry of diversity that must find ever-subtler ways of tracking down biases by employing terms like “microaggressions” and “implicit bias” that reveal by their very qualifiers a poverty of such overt pathologies.”

The ‘deep state’ emerged howling from the swamp when Donald Trump was elected President. A cabal of forces – the bureaucracy, the arms of government, corporate America, including Big Tech, State houses, and, critically, the Fourth Estate – allied in an effort to sweep him away, in Wotan fashion.  It worked. But what of the cost? As the author observes: “…when journalistic bias is institutionalized and serves the state with the speed and electronic massaging of the internet, the citizen becomes orphaned from the world around him.”

Of the absurd aspects of globalisation, Hanson is particularly on song: preening Davos hypocrites; virtue-signalling, treacherous billionaires and academic groves both extolling the humanity of their commercial overlords, the Chinese Communist Party; jet-setting warmists; the deeply woke deep state; traitorous ‘citizens of the world’ who deprecate border walls whilst building them around their residences, for whom a national constitution is but a guideline. Referring to governance in California, where he lives, Hanson notes the global symposia held there where handwringing over foreign poverty and destitution occurs, while that great state degenerates into a basket case, where the fabulously rich and the most wretched untermensch live almost side by side, akin to the stark divide one sees in places such as Rio.  His take:

In sum, globalization rests on  few poorly examined laws…Discussions of abstract cosmic challenges – achieving world peace, cooling the planet, lowering the seas, dismantling secure borders – are psychological ways to square the circle of failure to solve concrete problems at home from war to poverty.”

Hanson ends the book with a comment on the rise of a nationalist (Donald Trump) and how his somewhat inchoate attempts to revive American citizenry were done down by the very forces now hell-bent on turning the idea of America into an irrelevant and irrational confusion, as seen in that wrought by the puppeteers of the current administration. Under President Biden, the southern U.S. border is a porous catastrophe, with some 2 or more million undocumented and un-vetted illegals entering and at large, along with hefty supplies of Chinese-supplied fentanyl and Covid-19; An emotive and brain-addled foreign policy conducted by officials who seemingly can’t read a map or have never won a war; An education establishment bent on Marxist indoctrination, gender propaganda and racked by anti-Americanism; Soaring inflation higher than any in the last two or three generations, amounting to a new payroll tax; Burgeoning crime left undisturbed by law enforcement and prosecution; Mass confusion over which tribe is in the ascendant at any time and tribal identifiers drawn from wish and affect rather than logic and fact; An Executive that flouts Court Orders and carries little weight with the Legislature, and two people occupying the highest positions and authority in the U.S. who are manifestly unequipped for the role.

One wonders if American citizenship is dead, or just coughing up blood. Truly, there are signs of a re-set. One can but hope.

The Dying Citizen : How Progressive Elites, Tribalism, and Globalization Are Destroying the Idea of America - Victor D Hanson

[* The Spectator, 19/3/22.] [** From the blurb.] Continue Reading →

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