I go to the OPERA

June 18, 2014 at 9:09 pm | Posted in music, reviews, tv & film | 4 Comments
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I’m an opera newbie. My Dad was obsessed with Verdi and Puccini, but I never paid much attention (though I realised halfway through a school trip to La Bohème that I knew all the words to Che Gelida Manina from hearing him singing it in the bath).

But it’s sucking me in. As usual, I blame twitter: in my new experiment with classical music fandom, I’m following a gaggle of writers, performers and enthusiasts, and they’re all obsessed with it. They’re being terribly nice to me, sending me YouTube clips and reviews and blogposts, and being lovely about the fact I don’t know my arias from my Elgar. And the excitement is catching.

So. Benvenuto Cellini! Directed by Terry Gilliam! Everyone was in a flap about this. No chance of going to London to see it, but happily it’s part of the ENO Screen season, and was broadcast live in cinemas last night. Now, I was a bit nervous about this. I remember watching televised dance, and being wound up that the cameras never seemed to be where I wanted, and I couldn’t get the perspective I needed. But the trailer looked stunning, and it was the ideal excuse for a night out with a good mate. We got our gladrags on and downed a glass or two of prosecco (just to get in the Glyndebourne spirit, you know).

As we wandered in, the audience on screen were finding their seats too, standing on each other’s feet, sitting on their bags by mistake and offering each other Murray Mints. One portly chap stood and wearily hitched up his trousers (I wonder if that’ll make it onto the DVD). The cameras squinted over people’s shoulders at their programmes while we listened to the strange meanderings of the orchestra warming up. I tried to spot @joshspero, who was on the balcony somewhere.

josh conv re celliniThe lights dimmed, and we were off.

The opera, like all good operas, contained a number of essential elements: 1) star-crossed lovers; 2) rowdy drinking scenes; 3) women in elaborate underwear. I liked the staging very much: the space was used cleverly, the crowd-scene choreography was great, and there were lots of visual gags. The script’s a daft romp, with lots of implausible events, wild emoting, railing against fate and so on; the principals played along with unironic gusto and almost managed to make the story credible. Minor characters tended towards Coarse Acting hamminess, but once I’d reminded myself the scenes were designed to be peered at from the back of the upper circle, this bothered me less. I wasn’t too thrilled by the music: I’d expected some memorable, sing-this-in-the-shower type arias, but nothing stuck with me (except, perhaps, the one where the dissolute sculptor yearns for a pure life among goats, which probably sounds a bit more solemn in French). But the singing was truly marvellous; I’d convinced myself years ago I didn’t like operatic voices, all silly vibrato and peculiar pronunciation, but things have changed – or I have – and I was swept away by some performances. Willard White’s bass-baritone Pope was mesmerising, like watching a limbo dancer (lower… lower…), Michael Spyres was a clear-voiced and almost loveable Cellini, and Paula Murrihy stole the show in that other operatic staple, a chick playing a chap (this is called a ‘trouser role’, which just makes me giggle like a loon).

cellini

Well. It made me really, really wish I’d been there to experience it in person. I hate you, people who live in London. But I got a lot out of watching on the screen: in many ways it was better than being there. Somehow, seeing it all up close brought home the mad, bizarre brilliance of opera as an art form: not just the artistic vision and the organisation and the hard work, but the sheer astonishing fact of people, up there, making this extraordinary, beautiful noise, perfectly, live. Add to that the detail of faces, costumes and sets; the sweat running from the conductor’s sideburns; the glint in an oboist’s eye. Even opera glasses don’t get you that.

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