There I was on the road to Edinburgh, whiling away the journey by trying to explain to my companion, Jenny, the complexities of the political situation in Rome in 1800. We were travelling north to catch Tosca at the Festival Theatre and I thought that a little background information might prove helpful. As things turned out, I was wasting my time but more about that later.
Jenny and I are both new to the delights of opera but we are as different in our approach to these new experiences as chalk is to cheese. I like to do a bit of homework. Jenny likes surprises. I tend to try and familiarise myself with the work for weeks beforehand, as I feel it helps me to get the most out of the performance in the theatre. I listen to recordings of the music, read a synopsis, if not a libretto, and generally try and find out as much as I can about the work. Jenny likes me to give her a bit of background to the story and a tape of musical highlights. On the night, she gets a great deal of pleasure out of watching the story unfold and discovering where the songs she has been enjoying on the tape fit into the overall performance. It is a joy to me each time one of these tunes slips into place and she squeezes my hand with delight.
If the plot is particularly complex, I might give her a rundown of the first Act but if I go any further than that she will stop me with a 'No, no, no, I don't want to know!' Woe betide me if I ever let slip 'The soprano gets it in the last Act'!!!!
In fact, Jenny likes surprises so much that, up until the moment of departure, she had no idea where we were headed. For weeks beforehand, I had teased her about the little surprise trip I was planning. On the morning of the trip, as we filled the car's tank, she said, 'OK. You can tell me now. Where are we going?' The look on her face when I replied, 'To a football match', will stay with me for life - which is a helluva sight longer than Jenny was thinking of staying with me at that particular moment.
'Well, it is Manchester United', I explained, trying to get a little more mileage out of the joke as we drove northwards out of Newcastle. 'Isn't Manchester to the south of Newcastle?' she asked pointedly. 'It is. I'm taking the ring-road.'
So there we were, risking life and limb on one of the UK's most notorious killer roads, the A1. My advice to anyone approaching Edinburgh from the south is, take the train. From Durham northwards, the scenery is lovely. You can sit back and enjoy the Northumberland coastline, the Border Regions, the fabulous views from the viaducts at Durham and Berwick and the hills of Bonnie Scotland along the Firth of Forth.
The A1, on the other hand, is a national disgrace. North of Newcastle, the London to Edinburgh motorway system disappears and thousands upon thousands of fast-moving vehicles are poured into a single-carriageway road which was designed to cope with a fraction of the traffic. Year after year the politicians and bureaucrats way down south in London come up with excuses for not upgrading it to motorway status and year after year more people get killed and maimed in the pile-ups. Local folks who use the road regularly are understandably cynical, believing as they do that if the road were not at the opposite end of the country from the capital, the money to upgrade it would have been found a couple of decades ago. The debate rages on…..
Jenny and I are fast becoming opera devotees but we are not wealthy people - at least not in the financial sense. The richness that opera brings to our lives is another matter. We are, I think, fairly typical members of that 'wider public' to whose attention L. Pavarotti and others are keen to bring the joys of the opera world. So our opera trips have to be achieved on a limited budget. Not for us the best seats in the house, the fancy hotels and the air travel. Yet we still manage to have ourselves a pretty wonderful time.
For accommodation in the UK we tend to use travel lodges. These would seem to be on a par with motels in the US, except that they are owned and run by large business corporations rather than individual family enterprises. From around £30 a head they will give you a room that is clean and comfortable (if sometimes a little basic), with en suite facilities and often with a breakfast of fried cholesterol in heart-stopping portions thrown in…..(or up!)
Arriving in Edinburgh about midday, we checked into the travel lodge in the Grassmarket and lunched at the White Hart, a pub nearby which boasts that it once played host to Rabbie Burns on one of his visits to the city. This is an old style pub with bare floors and rafters, probably best described as 'cheap and cheerful.'
Having discovered the whereabouts of the Festival Theatre, which was a ten-minute walk away, we spent the afternoon acquainting ourselves with the city, particularly the shops on Princes Street. These provided us not only with souvenirs but with welcome shelter, as we dodged the rain showers. (This is Scotland, after all!) We did our exploring on foot, leaving the car parked in the Grassmarket for a very modest fee. Edinburgh's main attractions were all within walking distance of our accommodation.
And so, to the opera. Walking into the Festival Hall involves an element of time travel. The front of the building is ultra-modern, being constructed entirely of glass. The foyer and the bars are all done out in glass and stainless steel. But entering the auditorium is like stepping back in time. It's as if the modern frontage had been grafted on to an old Victorian theatre. Yet the newness of the stonework on the sides of the building would suggest that this has not been the case.
It wasn't until we were standing in the foyer, enjoying a pre-performance drink and reading the programme that we realised that we were about to see an updated version of Tosca. Time for a quick change of tack: 'OK. Forget about Napoleon. What do you know about Mussolini?'
In my limited experience, updated versions of operas have been hit-or-miss affairs, depending on the particular production. I have been both pleasantly surprised and bitterly disappointed by them. Being new to opera, I am experiencing many of these works for the first time and would prefer to see each opera as the composer originally intended before sampling someone else's more modern interpretation of it. At least, that was my opinion until now.
Scottish Opera's 1940's version of 'Puccini's nasty little shocker', as it was once famously described, was superb. Director, Anthony Besch, used Mussolini's Fascisti to provide the political menace (so understated in the original version) which brought the stage to life. Scarpia in jackboots was a sinister figure indeed, portrayed with gusto by Terje Stensvold, who hails from the Norwegian Fjords (and can be heard in Scotland). The firing squad scene in Act 3 was disturbingly realistic, invoking as it did images of a more recent and chilling history.
Having begun our interest in opera by attending our local theatres in Newcastle and Sunderland, travelling to see an opera company in its 'home base' - this production was going no further afield than Glasgow and Edinburgh - was, quite literally, a new departure for us. Being used to seeing operas on tour, I was a little taken aback by the lavishness of designer Peter Rice's stage sets. When the curtain opened, the inside of the Church of Sant' Andrea della Valle looked so real that it was difficult to keep from crossing myself and blurting out a confession of all the sins I've committed since I was last in church. Impossible? Well, yes, I suppose so - I mean, Tosca is only three hours long.
Conductor Richard Farnes kept the band firing on all cylinders while Nina Rautio gave an impressive performance as Floria Tosca. An accomplished singer with a fine voice and a resume that includes lead roles at Covent Garden and La Scala as well as appearances at the Met, she acted the part passionately. So, although British audiences have a reputation for being a bit stiff and reserved - no curtain calls between acts and they don't necessarily applaud big arias - it was no surprise when Vissi d'arte brought the house down (and a lump to our throats).
David Rendall as Cavaradossi was…..um…..how shall I describe him…..er…..small?.....rotund? OK, let's tell it like it is here - fat man, thin voice. He had neither the power nor the tone for such a dramatic role and made Cavaradossi sound more like a wimp than a hero.
But, such criticisms aside, this was a marvellous production by Scottish Opera. Despite behind-the-scenes financial difficulties - and, let's face it, which opera company in the world doesn't have those? - they continue to stage high quality and ambitious projects. It was a well satisfied audience which made its way toward the exits, many of us still clutching our handkerchiefs and tissues.
The citizens of Edinburgh and its environs turned out in large numbers to fill the Festival Theatre for this performance. In addition to the usual mixture of formal evening wear and student-ish attire, there was a sprinkling of kilts (ever seen a Scotsman sprinkling his kilt? - not a pretty sight) and an assortment of tartans. I only hope that all these good people were familiar with the plot, because the opera was sung in Italian and the supertitles were in English - both foreign languages to the Scots.
One woman in the foyer demanded our full attention. Now, I firmly believe we should all have the freedom to express ourselves in whatever way we choose, so long as it's not hurting anybody else. But this lady was so sartorially challenged it was painful. Call me old-fashioned but, if you feel the need to dress mutton up as lamb, my advice is, stick to mint sauce. She was wearing a taffeta suit, with a puff-ball skirt and matching shoes and hand-bag. From top to toe she was covered in candy-pink and white diagonal stripes. She looked like a walking packet of marshmallows. I tried keeping my dark glasses on but, even in the darkened theatre, she shone out like a beacon of bad taste.
She must have been wearing the outfit for a bet. Jenny, who knows about these things, told me to my astonishment that the whole ensemble would have cost an absolute fortune. The woman should have consulted me first. I could have made her look just as silly for free!
OK, give me a saucer of milk. But people-watching is all part of the fun of going to the opera. It is one of the few media which can draw Toffs and Plebs together and the results can be fascinating - for both sides, no doubt.
The Festival Theatre is absolutely surrounded by restaurants. Take your pick. After the performance we opted for an Italian across the street, Chiao Roma, with good food at sensible prices.
The Grassmarket is an urban neighbourhood in transition. Its regeneration, if not gentrification, as a trendy, semi-bohemian enclave - from a former life as the habitat of down-and-outs - is almost, but not quite, complete. Situated on the other side of Edinburgh Castle from Princes Street, it is frequented by a curious mixture of students, tourists, yuppies and hippies. After dark it is transformed into a sea of revellers. In daylight we failed to notice the nightclubs. By night, these establishments could not, would not, be ignored. The party went on long into the night but since we are both pushing fifty (one of us from the wrong side) we went to bed.
Next morning we did the tourist thing and visited Edinburgh Castle in the wind and rain. On a better day we would have found it most interesting and enjoyable but we just couldn't wait to get down off that rock and warm our bones indoors. It simply wasn't the weather for ambling around the sights so we curtailed our stay and pointed the car in a southerly direction.
Well done, Scottish Opera. I have no doubt we will be back.
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