One’s first opera

January 27, 2011

I took a late train up to London today to see the ENO perform La Boheme in a revival of Jonathan Miller’s staging. More on the performance itself later for the moment I want to talk about the audience and some memories evoked. I’d settled into my aisle seat in the upper circle (when you live in the country the ability to make the last train is critical, so sometimes a fast get away is necessary) when my row and those above and below suddenly flooded with a pack of female sixth formers, with all the noise of conversation and mobile phones that accompanies such a group. I was I admit nervous but I shouldn’t have been. From the moment the curtain was raised they were silent, unlike the couple across the aisle and behind who should have been garroted for both conversation and extended manipulation of sweet papers. They were also engaged, Act I and II have comedy and beauty in equal proportions and they understood both, it helped of course that it was sung in English, and with a very witty translation.

At the interval I suddenly found myself being interrogated; they had no teacher and they had questions. It turned out it was their first opera and they had no idea what to expect. I helped as I could, talking about the different productions I had seen and giving a potted history of where Boheme stands in the history of Opera. For me its a transitionary opera, post Wagner (but not as some very foolish critics suggest anti-Wagner) but firmly within the Italian tradition. The influence of both Verdi and Wagner is evident in all of Puccini’s works. I may have triggered a demand for a school trip to Verona in the summer with my description of the Slaves Chorus from Verdi’s Nabucco under the stars in the Amphitheater with costumes in the vivd style of the Venetian festival. Now some of the girls were indifferent, but most of the group around me were bubbling not only with enthusiasm, but with the relevance of the themes for their own lives. Their naiveté was refreshing and I haven’t enjoyed an interval so much for years. At the end of Act IV I was rewarded by a sudden multiple hug from a new audience also moved to tears by the tragedy of Mimi’s death.

As I headed for home by way of the Bakerloo Line, Paddington and Didcot stations and the A34/A4 I was thinking of the difference between their first experience of opera and my own. Boheme is a perfect starter, wonderful music, a simple and eternally relevant plot and four compact acts, easily combined to allow one interval. It is emotionally laden at multiple levels and commands empathy in anyone with an ounce of humanity in them. My own induction into what was to become a life long passion was a children’s performance of the Marriage of Figaro in a school hall in Wrexham back in the 60s. I remember it to this day, but with horror. The acoustics were terrible and the performance was constantly stopped to allow a pretentious critic speaking upperclass received english to explain to what he clearly regarded as a provincial audience what was going on.

Now Mozart to my mind is too clever to produce great opera, there are too many intellectual games in his music, no raw emotion, no narrative development. I’ve seen all of his operas over the years mostly as collector’s items. Only Don Juan and The Magic Flute have ever enticed me to go back for a second performance, other than when them came packaged with the old ROH season ticket, sadly abandoned after the rebuild. Even as a complete performance it would not appeal to other than the cognoscenti, interrupted with patronising commentary it was a nightmare. In the modern day I might never have gone again, but back when I was a child if your parents booked something you went to it, and my love for the most complete of artistic experiences was kindled by the Welsh and Scottish operas on tour to the Liverpool Empire Theatre.

Back to the performance. In production terms it’s one of the most economical and intimate stagings I have seen. Two units rotated without drama or stoppage between scenes create a wonderfully intimate garret, the bustle of Christmas Eve and the stark lines of the city gates. I don’t often miss a Boheme, one of the most perfectly formed of operas that never fails to leave me in tears from the start of Sono andati to Rodolfo’s anguished cry of Mimi. I made a point of this particular date to hear Alfie Boe who won a Tony for the part in New York and Elizabeth Llewellyn who won the first Voice of Black Opera competition. Boe sang the part of Rodolfo for three performances with Gwyn Hughes Jones the rest. I have heard the latter many times and consider him one of the best of the second rank, he will never be a Carreras or Domengo but he can be very good; Boe I had not heard before and he was competent, but outshone by rest of the cast.

At the end of the day Roland Wood as Marcello stole the show, his baritone carrying both tenor and soprano in their duets. Llewellyn’s opening chord at the start of Donde lleta usci in Act III was chilling in its perfection and its penetration, but overall she seemed to be conserving a voice that I really want to hear in its maturity. So it wasn’t the best of the performances I have seen, but neither was it the worse. My next two operas are again at the ENO, one a rare production of Donizetti’s Bel Canto Lucrezia Borgia which I never seen. Then on St David’s Day, also anniversary of my mother’s death I have the revival of one of the great Wagnerian productions of modern times, Lehnhoff’s staging of Parsifal. Not as good as Goodhall’s WNO production with Warren Ellsworth (now sadly departed) in the lede, but up there in my top five. A friend from San Francisco is over and will come, it is his first time for Wagner and while The Dutchman is often a safer introduction Parsifal is a close second.

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