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Puccini for pensioners


I should have realised why there aren’t any arias from Manon Lescaut on any of our Puccini anthologies. It’s short on killer tunes and the one recurring theme has only four chords. The RoH performance beamed to cinemas was a weird experience. By half time I was seething and wondering how on earth the state could justify supporting such a venture: it really was porn for pensioners. It may have been fine from a safe distance in the opera house, but the Act 2 close ups were excruciating. The chat in the cinema interval divided on gender lines – the old ladies thought that Manon was a trollop and the whole thing was disgusting, but the old blokes enjoyed it a lot except when their glasses steamed up and they couldn’t see interesting bits (Manon’s that is). The RoH’s periodic invitations to Tweet were completely lost on us, and the banal examples that appeared on screen certainly wouldn’t have encouraged the old folk to explore the new technology – we’ve only just learned to turn our phone off in concerts (Hello from various holiday destinations? It made it feel even more like a Saga outing).

But something magical happened in the interval. Pappano was doing one of his pieces to camera, trying to explain how the intermezzo before Act 3 works. He was playing away and was so moved by the music that he couldn’t speak. This was real emotion – Pappano playing the piano and singing the cello solo was as close to getting inside Puccini’s head as you could possibly get. As Jonas Kaufmann told us, he lives the music, and this obviously inspired the RoH band to play out of its skin. The few shots of Pappano conducting showed him reflecting every nuance the players created. It was a very sophisticated thing – them leading him almost – his real work having been done well before in rehearsals. All he had to do was reap the rewards of performance. It was stunning, sumptuous playing.

There was some wonderful singing too from the whole cast, and even the acting was passable. Christopher Maltman was especially successful at making the almost unactable seem convincing. The principals both suffered from Andy Murray syndrome (which involves opening the mouth unfeasibly wide at moments of high emotion (or pitch). I did wonder when the mega-jaw-dropping events reached double figures whether it might actually have been an ironic Wimbledon reference. Like the porn sequences it may have been fine in the theatre, but it was grotesque in tele-visual close-up. It’s hard enough to accept that people wearing more or less modern dress would behave in such a peculiar way, but when the visual dimension is reduced to tongue and tonsils all the emotion the singers are trying to generate is absurdly compromised. Both stars can sing stunningly (Kaufmann is one of my favourite tenors and he’s also one of the most articulate and intelligent of the breed) but too often they went for pointless power over vocal subtlety for me. Interestingly Benjamin Hulett summoned up a charismatic Edmondo without us  needing to examine his pharynx in any detail.

Both the RoH and the cinema need to think ahead a bit. I’m guessing the average age in my cinema was close to 80 (it’s not often I find myself among the youngest in the audience). It may be that it’s like early music – perhaps when people retire they start going to concerts – so they won’t all necessarily be dead within a decade, just replaced by more octogenarians. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but it’s a very expensive way of keeping pensioners  entertained. And then there’s the white middle class thing – made even more obvious by shots of a very similar demographic in the actual theatre. Again, one feels uncomfortable about the state contributing to this – if people want to pay several hundred pounds a ticket or enjoy corporate hospitality fine – but save the state’s cash for something more inclusive. The cinema was just as blinkered – they’d canvassed their audience about the drinks and nibbles in the interval and made appropriate adjustments. Wrong questions: it’s not the existing audience you need to pander to – how about some curry or bangers or even hamburgers to attract a slightly broader and younger audience? Three sandwich triangles are never going to be cool – it’s not even a whole slice of bread. It was the smallest screen in the multiplex and it wasn’t full, so something somewhere isn’t working.

I was glad I didn’t leave at half time as the Pappano moment was well worth staying for. But if you have the choice of paying a lot of money to see bizarre plot lines ‘acted out’ in very loud in yer face singing –  or watching a half decent tv drama at home, what do you do? TV drama, especially the Scandinavian imports, has all the ingredients of opera bar the singing, and it does all of them (except the singing, obviously) better than opera. I suspect the audience the RoH really wants to reach will take a lot of persuading to get off their sofas and swop Wallander for La Wally.

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