Tuesday 9 March 2010

Hamlet without the prince

No idea, 12.0 units. If there is one thing I like, it is a Handel opera. I have at least one recording of nearly all 40-odd of them. I usually go to see the better stage productions several times – or at any rate I did, before I became poor and acquired a baby (the two being coincidental, but unrelated). One of the few major Handel works I had never seen, until last night, was Tamerlano. But he wrote it in 1724, the same year as the delightfully tune-packed Guilio Cesare and Rodelinda, so how could it fail to inspire? Covent Garden were mounting a new production, which is always a risk, but it had been seen before in Florence and Madrid without angry mobs burning down the theatres, which provided a fair degree of reassurance. Best of all, it featured Placido Domingo in his first Handel role. Well that, of course, was a clincher. I not only booked to see it as soon as I could; I booked a package including two other operas I did not particularly want to see, just to ensure that I got a couple of good seats for this one.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, Placido cancelled for a start. Then I realized, listening to my CDs as I drove from Northumberland to Cheshire last week, that Handel had actually packed pretty much all his memorable tunes of 1724 into the other operas above-mentioned. Still, at least we had not read any of the reviews when we pitched up at the Royal Opera House for last night’s 6.30 kick-off, and our spirits were raised by the young woman wandering hopelessly around in the row behind us, staring at her ticket. Finally she asked “Excuse me, is this the balcony?” and a grande dame took much pleasure in saying “No, this is the orchestra stalls” before sweeping her arm in the general direction of the impossibly distant eyrie where the younger woman was actually supposed to be perched. I have a friend who reckons, after a lifetime of similar experiences, that opera audiences in particular are terminally stupid (“Row H comes behind row G and seat 22 is between 21 and 23 – how f***ing hard can it be?”) and I cherished this as a particularly fine example of the genre. But later I read just how much Covent Garden had charged for those lousy balcony seats, on the strength of Domingo’s alleged participation, and began to feel some sympathy for the directionally challenged ticket-holder.

At any rate, the orchestra played, the curtain went up … and pretty much nothing happened. For four and a half hours. The brilliant insight of director Graham Vick was to take an opera that is slow and lacking in action (and over-long, even for a dedicated Handel fan like myself) and actually accentuate those characteristics by bleeding it of all colour and life. Set and costumes followed a palette that ran through the full gamut from white to very light grey. The principals stood still and sang, while the supporting actors moved unbelievably slowly, like Chinese centenarians performing their morning tai chi. By the time a vast blue elephant was winched ever so gradually onto the stage, bearing the princess of Trebizond, I and the rest of the audience were ready to weep with the sheer relief of seeing something new.

To be fair, Kurt Streit, standing in for Placido, was not at all bad, and the lady taking the part of Andronico could also sing. You might think that that could be taken as read in an internationally renowned opera house, but it ain’t necessarily so. In particular, Christianne Stotijn, in the ever so slightly key role of Tamerlano, showed few signs of being able to do so, and even fewer signs of being able to act. I presume she was obeying the orders of the director in portraying this determined male tyrant as flirtatious and playful, with a keen eye for fashion and much larger breasts than are usual on a bloke. For the finale she donned a wig and coat that made her a dead ringer for Hugh Laurie as the Prince Regent in the third series of Blackadder, which at least made me smile.

Positives: well, the interval drinks were good, and we enjoyed a steadily improving view of the stage as vast swathes of the audience sneaked off home at each of the two intervals. And we had a very jolly supper at our hotel afterwards, and a very jolly lunch with friends at my club before we set off. It must have been those which left me, at the end of the day, in much better spirits than I had been in 24 hours earlier. That and the knowledge that hell would freeze over before I would sit through this particular Handel production ever again. After due consideration, Mrs H concluded that time might even have moved slightly more quickly during her recent Speed Awareness Course, which hitherto held an apparently unchallengeable world record for mind-numbing boredom.

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