A scowling Magic Pudding puppet (looking to this columnist eerily like John Howard) will be having his strings pulled at this Sunday's Great Performances in the Albert Hall – The Second 25 Years in, of course, the Albert Hall.
The Howard-like puppet gets a guernsey this Sunday because Tobias Cole, the Canberra Choral Society and soloists are recalling and celebrating wonderful performances given in the dear old hall between 1954 and 1979 and because The Magic Pudding was staged there in August 1960 (adults 8/- children 4/-) by the Elizabethan Theatre Trust. Norman Lindsay's fabled yarn was performed by Peter Scriven's puppets.
The Times' critic enjoyed it very much.
"There was colour in abundance," they wrote. "There is the wonderful notion of a cut-and-come-again pudding which can be steak and kidney, or plum duff or any kind you mention, just by whistling and turning it around twice."
Puppeteer Joy McDonald will be manipulating the Howard lookalike on Sunday. She tells us that it was made in 1970 (uncannily, this was at the very time that the real, ambitious Howard began his rise and rise) and that it lives in a puppet archive in Sydney. A well-travelled marionette, it performed at Expo '70 in Osaka, Japan.
On Sunday, there will be light, puddingy items like an excerpt from The Magic Pudding but there will profound things as well because, of course, with Llewellyn Hall not yet invented, between 1954 and 1979 the Albert Hall was the venue for major works of great musical consequence. And so, on Sunday, there will be excerpts from Mozart's Requiem and, of course, as inevitable as death and taxes, Handel's bewhiskered Messiah.
Cole, the society's choral director, has done a lot of research, using the priceless resource of the contemporary journal of record, The Canberra Times, to find what was staged and when it was staged in the quarter century under review. There was a lot of cross-dressing in Canberra last year (it was our centenary year and there was lots of loosening of corsets) but the most memorable example of it was in last year's corresponding concert of the hall's musical career in the 25 years up to 1954. Cole suddenly emerged down the hall's centre aisle, dressed as Queen Elizabeth I and singing in his unique counter-tenor an item from Edward German's Merrie England. We're assured Cole is going to do something surprising this Sunday but it will struggle to be as startling as the androgynous surprise sprung on that day.
Great Performances in the Albert Hall – The Second 25 Years is this Sunday at 2pm, featuring Louise Page, Christopher Lincoln Bogg, Anthony Smith, the CCS Chorus and others. Tickets: trybooking.com/87258. Information: canberrachoralsociety.org.
Mention above of the Llewellyn Hall reminds one of the widespread disappointment felt there on Saturday night when the Canberra Symphony Orchestra's performance with the CCS of the grand triumphal march from Verdi's Aida was delivered without the on-stage presence of a live elephant.
Productions of Aida are often elephant-enriched and some of us lucky enough to attend an elephant-enriched production of Aida in Canberra at the 4000-seat AIS arena in December 1981 have an expectation, now, of an elephant to go with the march. When there isn't one, there is, for us, an existential elephantless void.
The 1981 Aida, pluckily staged by Opera Canberra, was a colossal event in the city's history. It was so logistically vast (400 performers, 150 singers, a 75-piece orchestra, 10 horses and an elephant) and so breathtakingly lavish and expensive ($110,000) that everything about it was newsworthy. The Canberra Times was all over it (opera on the front page!) and so, of course, when the two soloists jetted in, Rome-based husband and wife Angelo Marenzi (Radames) and Lorraine Nawa Jones (Aida), the Times interviewed them.
They arrived a fortnight before the performance, perhaps so that Marenzi would have time to bond with show's elephant. Some bonding was called for because, Marenzi explained, he had sung Radames many times but had never ridden an elephant in Aida. What was more (giving this production a Canberra "first"), he was sure he was the first Radames ever to ride an elephant in the 110 years of the opera's history.
There were two performances and governor-general Sir Zelman Cowen was among the 4000 of us there on the first night. The following morning (opera on the front page, again!) the Times had a photograph of the climax of the grand triumphal march with Marenzi looking at ease atop his big-eared mount.
Inevitably, for this is Canberra after all, whingers whinged about the imperfection of their seats. The Times' usually mild-mannered music critic. the late W. L. "Bill" Hoffmann, socked it to 'em.
Pointing out that the AIS arena was bigger than any purpose-built opera house in the world and that a grand scale performance of this grandest of grand opera simply wouldn't fit into a perfect venue, he wrote: "And those disgruntled members of the audience who complained, in Letters to the Editor, of bad sightlines ard poor sound can take consolation that there, whether in the Hartford Coliseum, the Baths of Caracalla, the arena at Verona, or in the Bruce Stadium in Canberra, it is the spectacle which is the attraction, and the opera purist who wants a perfect performance had best stay away. I still think the Aida here was one of the most exciting nights of music I have ever experienced."