1919. In the wake of Christendom’s most painful human tragedy, Giacomo Puccini composed three operas of a single act each – dark with the brooding of revolution and loss.
James, my old schoolfriend, is one of the Royal Opera House’s 106 uniformed ushers. James called me at an hour’s notice and secured me a seat in the director’s box, just behind the Uruguayan ambassador, his beautiful daughter, and his entourage of tasteless government officials.
“Remember,” he warned me, as he showed me to the box “this is an arts institution – you know what to expect.”
The curtain went up on the first act – a tale of adultery and jealousy between freighters on the Seine whose baby had just died. It was staged, not inappropriately, as a comment on capitalist exploitation, with coolies shuffling along a Parisian wharf with sacks on their backs.
“He thinks it is better to be master in a hovel than a servant in a palace,” shouts the adulterous wife of her husband, before attempting to elope with an even grottier man in a string vest.
I brooded on this infernal idea during the first interval, because I assist Nuryev’s ex-manager and his wife in the day to day running of their small Opera company in Italy – a dinky job which involves a bit of chatter with American tourists and access to the fridge where we keep the Prosecco. From the heavies on the ground floor (James obtained my seat as a favour from a more senior usher who is the son of the director at La Scala in Milan), to the bombshells who mix cocktails in conservatory cocktail bar – London’s booming opera house incorporates a vast nexus of business, personal and cultural dynamics on both sides of the curtain.
Like Verger in Dante’s Divine Comedy – on which Il Trittico is based – James led me trough the building during the first interval; through a world where he silently waits on people whose million-dollar patronages are part of a life and death effort to obtain favour visas and stay out of Siberia. And don’t think that they’re just paying off the British.
“Most of our patrons are disposable,” he said, waving a hand across the red carpeted dining room on the first floor. “We give them a free Rhubarb and custard pie with a glass of half-decent Champagne – not that they’d know the difference – once in a while.” Some of them you have to be a bit careful about, though. Look – ” he said, pointing to a patron’s name in my brochure, “that fellow there was providing Putin with weapons for the invasion of the Ukraine.”
If he took a bit more interest in the internationalist audience, someone like James could be getting a second wages from MI6 and the FSB – but it would have been pointless to suggest this to him. James is a man who listened to Wagner’s Ring Cycle when we were revising for our GCSEs. He was also the first to alert me to the fact that the most contemptible people in the high-culture biz – the most unworthy of the artists’ attention – are the audience.
I only really grasped what he meant by this when I started going to operas in central Europe. OK, the Vienna Staatsoper had a stage which creaked and the blackened facade of the Budapest Operaház was constantly obscured by dilapidated wooden scaffolding, but thank God at least one knew that these places would sooner hold human hostages to fund their own cultural agenda than to appease package-tour demographics with performances by Andre Rieu. Covent Garden is no different, and has a good horse in every race: acoustics, orchestra, artistic directors and – of course – a PA team who are quietly confident that the seller is always right.
“We know we’re doing a good job when the old ladies walk out angrily and the Americans look confused,” said James.
Even Tony Blair and his wife – Mrs. Tony Blair – know their place in here. So, back to Puccini and an early 20th Century Europe’s take on masters and servants in hovels and palaces…
I decided to view the second opera, Suor Angelica, dead on from the back of the stalls – where I had to sand with people. It represented Il purgatorio with a particularly Catholic type of female on female psychological violence, and was absolutely astounding. James had shown me the scene behind the stage a week beforehand (to save time and space, The Royal Opera House actually construct their scenes somewhere out in Kent and send them in by lorry – but there is space behind the stage to store half a dozen fully constructed stage sets simultaneously). This opera is set in a convent hospital (rows of white iron beds, gas lights, children in nightshirts, pastel colours, white head dresses etc. The nuns are speculating that Sister Angelica is pining for news from her wealthy family. Eventually, Sister Angelica’s wealthy aunt, the Princess, arrives to inform her niece that her younger (sibling) sister is getting married, and the family’s wealth is to be divided. Sister Angelica expresses great emotion about events in her family outside the convent, and we discover that the reason she is in the convent is that she had a baby out of wedlock. The stern maiden aunt won’t let Sister Angelica forget this, telling her how lucky her younger sibling was to have found a husband in spite of the family’s shame. Overcome with grief, Sister Angelica promises that she is repentant of her wickedness, but asks about the welfare of her child (‘that face I kissed just once’). The grand old aunt then drops the final bombshell: the child, alas, recently died.
At which point, Sister Angelica takes poison and, suddenly terrified by her mortal sin (suicide), implores heaven’s forgiveness, before dying in the arms of one of the children in her care – not, as Puccini originally intended, before a vision of Our Lady and her dead child in heaven.
During the second interval, we headed up to the stone colonnades of the roof terrace, where Michael Portillo, Rod Liddle and, needless to say, Cusack and his Order of Malta friends were among the crowd. Looking out over the lights of Covent Garden – some of the older guests started to reminisce about the times when it was still a vegetable market. We talked about the psychology behind the musically unremarkable Suor Angelica a great deal – because psycho-babbling seems to be the force which is entering into the cultural vacuum which has been formed by the last Century’s abandonment of the Christian cultural point of reference across Europe. In the near-Century since Suor Angelica was written, our perception of the story has shifted from one of the Christian redemption of a sinner trying to find God’s grace to one of a futile struggle between two individuals, powerless in their particular social traps of jealously and abandonment. At this point I’m fairly certain the aunt must have been a spinster, luxuriating in every warm drop of grief she can squeeze from her niece in remuneration for her own childlessness.
“You missed quite a treat,” said the ambassador, when I returned to the director’s box for the third act (I didn’t tell him that the stage – as well as his daughter’s cleavage – was more visible from the back of the stalls than from where I was positioned in the box).
The third opera in Il Trittico – Gianni Schicchi – contains The Bit. The Bit is the bit that the unwashed masses secretly endure four-and-a-half hours of tonally and rhythmically shambling mediocre melodrama to hear. Representing Il Paradiso, Gianni Schicchi is a comedy about a group of people from Dante’s native Florence who discover that their recently deceased friend has left his entire estate to the Church. Furious, they rant and argue about all the things they could have bought with the dead man’s money. The Urugyayan ambassador was scanning the front row of the dress circle with his stage glasses. A blonde gazelle-like girl in his entourage was beginning to doze on her boyfriend’s (or father’s?), shoulder and I was musing that directors who sat here could probably spit into the orchestra pit but not hit the first row of the stalls. Then, from the morass of chaotic sound on stage, the The Bit hit us, hard and fast – like diarrhoea on Boxing day. In an aria which concert companies the world over omit from their programmes, but perform anyway (amazingly, the artist’s copyright hasn’t expired on it), the peasent Character – Lauretta – pleads with her father that she wants to marry a boy from the grand, squabbling, family, who will hear nothing of the young lovers’ relationship.
The best thing about The Bit was that the enjoyment of it was marred for everyone in my earshot by an old Frenchman in the ambassador’s entourage who suddenly awoke from his coma and hummed along like a tone-deaf Wildebeest in estrus – everyone glaring at him furiously – before emitting a long, crapulent, ‘uuuuhhhhhhrrrrrh! Magnifique!” when it ended.
I took great delight in this spectacle of emotional incontinence.
Then everyone went back to dozing for the rest of the opera. Lauretta’s peasant father, Gianni Schicchi, tells the family that he will pretend to be their dead patriarch and recite a new will to a lawyer in which he leaves the money to them – but instead leaves all the money to himself and offers it back to them as a dowry for his daughter. The young couple are delighted. Il Trittico concludes with Gianni Schicchi putting his flat-cap on a bust of Dante and proclaiming some ridiculously obsolete platitude about – ‘if the money can’t be for their happiness, then what better use for it?’
Well, I can think of several better uses, actually – like oppressing the poor, donating to the Church and donating to Russian NGOs registered with Panama law firms. But the audience did not share my outrage and, as they broke into applause and the lights faded on the white bust of Dante and it’s worker’s cap, I picked upon an aesthetic vibe which I don’t think was intended on either side of the curtain – Socialist popularism. Even Leninism.
I would argue that we are still suffering greatly from the promotion of people like Gianni Schicchi and their fraudulent misappropriation of happiness from its rightful owners.
But enough of that. We then proceeded to a wine bar, where Cusack attempted to appropriate James as his own free-ticket resource. Everyone got a bit drunk – I probably said something offensive and then we all went home.
All in all, a great evening. Thank you, James!
all images © Royal Opera House Covent Garden Ltd. (Il Trittico, 2015/2016)