Wednesday 11 June 2008

Mistaken assertions and upsetting immolations

13st 7lb, according to my aunt’s famously defective scales; 3.6 units of alcohol yesterday (so still over the Government’s measly limit on just two cans of John Smith’s); 1,333; Marylebone, Fontainebleau, Saint-Just, Valladolid and Madrid.

Today I went to sixteenth century Spain via 1970s London. The latter was represented by a restaurant just off Marylebone High Street, which had hitherto escaped my attention entirely, to which an old friend had kindly invited me for lunch. Arriving a little early, I paused at a completely deserted Greene King a few doors along the street for a refreshing pint of IPA and a small bowl of rather nasty cashew nuts, which I consumed in the sunshine outside. I texted my friend to advise him of my whereabouts and he duly joined me a few minutes later, thanking me for saving him some money by diverting him from his intended destination of The Conran Shop. We debated whether the shop was still owned by the eponymous Sir Terence. My friend, who is a famous retail guru, thought that it probably was; but then he went on to assert that the restaurant to which we were heading was owned by Peter Langan. This rather undermined my confidence in his grasp of the facts, since Langan famously set fire to himself in a fatal sort of way many years ago. My friend conceded that he did remember hearing something of the sort.

Just after one we made our way along the street to an old fashioned dining room, heavy on mahogany, silver and impeccably white napery, with the walls hung with much Art. It reminded me of the perhaps even more famous old fashioned establishment in St James’s where we had a pretty dreadful and ruinously expensive lunch to mark my birthday in 2006. I can’t remember when I was last in a restaurant containing so many men wearing dark suits and ties, and I wondered what trade or profession they were in. The one person I actually recognized was a major property magnate. The heavily suntanned and balding bloke who had been sitting opposite us approached this expert in a nauseatingly ‘umble sort of way at the end of his own meal, and asked if he might trouble him for some advice on investing in property. At least he got a civil response – and quite a long one, vastly exceeding the bleeding obvious “Don’t!” Perhaps the magnate had a few doomed developments he was eager to offload.

I made what I thought was a healthy choice of a wild mushroom salad, which was delicious, but only because the mushrooms were swimming in the lashings of butter in which they had been fried. Then there was something billed as veal escalope stuffed with chicken livers: not very nice, certainly not an escalope, and not readily recognizable as veal. But excellent apart from that. I rounded off with an Eton mess, which came in a sundae glass and was rather long on cream and short on meringue. After that, there was nothing for it but to lie down and hope that one might eventually wake up.

Late this afternoon I roused myself from my indigestion-ravaged slumber to walk to the Royal Opera House for a keenly anticipated performance of Don Carlos, Verdi’s longest and grandest opera. It got off to a very promising start in a Narnia-like, white forest of Fontainebleau, though it was not immediately obvious to me why this new production was considered necessary to replace the very memorable one I saw in the mid-1990s, with Karita Mattila as Elizabeth de Valois. The star tenor Rolando Villazon certainly had a very fine voice, but he looked like a buffoon, with a shock of curly black hair and a highly mobile clown’s face. One of my companions pointed out at the interval that he bore an uncanny resemblance to Rowan Atkinson, and after that I struggled to take him seriously, focusing all my energies on trying at least to picture him as Blackadder rather than Mr Bean.

Also among our party was a man billed as a big shot classical musical producer, who asserted that Villazon had trained professionally as a clown before he took up singing. This made perfect sense, but he then destroyed my confidence by going on to assert how odd it was that we referred to Don Carlos’s father as King Philip II when was also Holy Roman Emperor in succession to his father, Charles V. I said that I was pretty sure that this was not the case, and that the Habsburg Austrian and Spanish possessions went their separate ways after Charles retired to his monastery.

“No, that was much later, the War of the Spanish Succession”, the big shot producer asserted. I said that I thought not, and may have mentioned that I did have a degree in history, at which point he came out with the clinching assertion that he had visited the tomb of Philip II at the Escorial and he was definitely the Emperor, so there. Total bollocks, of course. I wonder whether I would have got further in this world if I had been a bit firmer with people who insist on talking bollocks? The trouble is that I can’t really bring myself to care that much one way or the other, so anyone who presses the wrong case with sufficient passion will always get the better of me.

The auto-da-fé in the short second act sounded splendid, though a rather unconvincing burning of the heretics behind a curtain did nothing for me, though it upset my lady guest. The entry of the Grand Inquisitor at the start of the third act gripped me as it always does, and the appearance of the spectral Charles V at the end sent shivers down my spine. Interestingly, at the final curtain virtually everyone got a bigger ovation than the “star”, whose voice did seem to have faded in the course of the performance. Or maybe, like me, everyone was holding a little something back for the expected entry of Baldrick to present his traditional cunning plan.

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