Tuesday 10 June 2008

From the sublime to the ridiculous

Opera, according to Moliere, is the most expensive noise known to man. For others it is the highest pinnacle of the arts, capable of engaging and moving them like nothing else.

I fall into the latter camp, as you might deduce from the fact that I spent five nights last week at operas. It would have been six, but I prudently concluded that asking my new partner to hang around at Alnmouth station for an hour was too high price a pay even to catch Opera North’s Romeo et Juliette.

I did see their excellent Macbeth, in which the dour Scottish plotter duly got his bloody come-uppance in the final scene. That had an entirely predictable contemporary resonance. Much more surprising were those in the superb Opera North production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As the “rude mechanicals” stumbled around the stage in the funniest interpretation of their play that I have ever seen, I was irresistibly reminded of the present Government’s apparent inability to get anything right. Truly, Gordon Brown is one of nature’s Bottoms.

I also took a trip south, primarily to see The Coronation of Poppea at Glyndebourne, where people don evening dress in the middle of the afternoon to eat picnics in a long interval which is, for a fair chunk of the audience, the whole point of the performance. The plotting and sexual shenanigans on stage evoked memories of both the Major and Blair eras, with the former perhaps having the edge despite John Prescott’s valiant efforts to keep Labour’s end up.

Poppea has the great virtue of building steadily to its concluding love duet, perhaps the most gorgeous ever written. Its defect is as a morality tale, since the deranged tyrant Nero and the scheming Poppea are united in loving bliss, and it is left to the audience to discover that, in real life, he went on to murder her. It would be a fine thing for this Government if they could drop the curtain at a similarly happy high point, but I fear that the plot has progressed well beyond that.

Having a free evening before Poppea, on which I hoped to meet some Geordie exiles now living near the south coast, I rashly accepted an invitation to join them at a performance of La Boheme by one of those obscure foreign opera companies which tour Britain giving performances of the popular classics.

Although the soprano playing Mimi had a passable voice, she laboured under the considerable handicap of having clearly qualified for her old age pension some years ago. So in the tragic final scene, instead of the customary sobs, one heard whispers of “Well, at least she’s had a good innings.”

However, this was nothing compared with the miscasting of the principal tenor. Apart from the fact that he was far too old and fat to play the ardent poet Rodolfo, he bore a truly staggering resemblance to our beleaguered Prime Minister, only without Gordon Brown’s range of facial expressions or charisma. I know from overheard interval conversations that this was a general perception, and not the result of some peculiar obsession of my own.

He also had a pretty fundamental defect in an opera singer: he could not sing a note. The best moment for me in the whole sorry evening was when we stupidly returned for the second act and the old chap sitting next to me turned to his wife and said, “Well, at least it can’t get any worse.” Whereupon the woman sitting behind him accidentally tipped a full glass of pomegranate juice all over his beautifully laundered white shirt.

Perfectly illustrating the fact that, when you pin your hopes on people who are patently in the wrong jobs, things can always get worse. And, that being the case, they almost certainly will.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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