Thursday, July 10, 2008

Mermaids and The Aristocrockery

I guess that last weekend I should have had an identity crisis. But I didn’t. It’s probably because I’m getting older and wiser and because the older you get the less you care what people think about you.

To find myself at one of the more elitist events that the summer ‘season’ has to offer and to find myself loving just about every minute of it was a pleasant surprise. It’s not that I have lost my social conscience, it’s just that there are some experiences that transcend guilt.

The Grange is a faded, Greek-revival country pile in Hampshire belonging to Lord Ashburton. It has been restored, very creatively, to house a summer opera festival. It’s Glynebourne-esque. You arrive at 5, watch a bit of opera, have dinner, watch a bit more opera, then desert. The fat lady sings the big finale … back on the road by 10.

The tickets are eye-wateringly expensive, as is dinner. The theatre seats about 560 and is sold out months in advance. The clientele is well heeled. Some, like my Mum and Dad (whose guests we were) are opera enthusiasts too. A lot of the people there would be dead if they weren’t so wealthy; money has kept them alive beyond their allotted time.

I was along for the ride. I thought that if I affected a sort of benign, moral superiority it would protect me from the insidious charms of luxury. It didn’t work.

The aristocracy know how to choose their spots for their country piles and as we rolled down the drive to the car park you couldn’t help but think ‘fuck me, that‘s beautiful‘.

The ’pile’ itself is extraordinary. Allowed to go to ruin during and after the second world war, they have done the absolute minimum to the main house to make it safe for dining. So in the room that we ate in there was no ceiling, you could see straight through to the roof, the plaster had been hacked off the walls and the bricks barely disguised by diaphanous hanging drapes. As you wander round before the show you can hear the singers warming up on the other side of decrepit walls. It makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

The theatre is the completely rebuilt Orangery. It’s gorgeous inside with a very unfinished- finish which adds to the laid back feel to the place.

And then to the business of the day, the opera. Opera is such a bizarre art form and when it misses the mark it can be truly awful. Absurd stories, terrible acting, impossible-to-believe-in-singers playing characters a third of their age and supposedly beguilingly beautiful even if they look like the side of barn. There are 4 settings on the emotional dial of your average operatic performance:

I love you so much I could die
I hate you, I will have my revenge and kill you
I am so happy I am going to sing my heart out
I am so unhappy I am going to eat my own head

Plus, to get the most of their voices, the singers have to adopt a stance that makes them look like they have just consumed a pint of gassy lager and need to belch violently without puking. It’s the elongation of the neck, the raising of the shoulders and the downward and slightly right tilting movement of the chin. Try it.

As the curtain rose on ‘Rusalka‘, I thought to myself ‘Here we go, I wonder if I’ll nod off in the first act’.

Not a bit of it. The set, costume and make-up design was like a slap around the face; it stunned you to attention. The lead soprano’s voice went through your body like an electrified, vibrating bread knife … (not sure if that simile works but you know what I mean).

Yes, the story was ridiculous - some twaddle about mermaids and nymphs and a poor sap who married one that wouldn’t put out for him. But it mattered not. I was swept along with the emotion of the whole thing, even if it was 4 carat toff. Lucky there wasn’t a general election the next day or I might have voted Tory.

I guess the thing is, it was a privilege to be there and in the end I accepted it as such. If you don’t take luxury for granted does that stop you being an arse?

No wonder live performance is making us minor media moguls look like idiots. Nothing that we do will ever affect people the way that a proper live performance can. Even if it is a fat bird in a mermaid costume bewitching some ‘prince’ who looks like a gay prop forward.

Things are not what they seem.