Friday 4 June 2010

Come friendly bombs

No idea, 13.5 units (well, it was my birthday). Rather a Second World War theme prevails at The Grange this year, since last night’s Tosca had been updated from the Napoleonic wars to the fascist era, perhaps to make life a bit easier for the costume department, and we returned tonight for Strauss’s Capriccio to find it set in 1942, the year it had its premiere in Munich. No doubt it did a great job of raising the spirits of that first audience still further, even allowing for their elation over the successful capture of Stalingrad. But I am enough of a Philistine to confess that I occasionally yearned for the wail of an air raid siren and the drone of bombers’ engines to precipitate an evacuation of the theatre and allow me to go for a nice lie-down in an Anderson shelter. When something is billed by the composer as a “conversation piece”, why stage it in a language most of the audience cannot understand? We were too far forward to read the surtitles in comfort, and I confess that I occasionally nodded off under the influence of the hot weather and the pre-performance champagne (the two friends we were staying with had elected to accompany us tonight rather than to Tosca, a misjudgement pretty much on a par with Stalingrad if truth be told, so it had seemed worth investing in a bottle). In my defence, at least eight minutes of lovely but soporific music pass by at the start of the piece before anyone even attempts to sing, and not too much actually happens at any point in the course of the opera.

Still, at least I was not as monumentally bored as the contingent of Winchester College boys occupying most of the front row, where the surtitles would most definitely have been completely invisible. They were all in their early to mid-teens, I would guess, and impeccably turned out in the dinner jacket and black tie I would not acquire for myself until I was over 30 (and I was past 40 by the time I learned to tie the bloody tie myself, despite the repeated, allegedly witty enquiries from public-school-educated City chaps as to whether my clip-on version also revolved, lit up or squirted water).

If a party from my old school had been subjected to an evening like this, a medium-sized riot would have broken out, probably requiring the use of water cannon to break it up. But these boys went no further than putting their heads in their hands and sobbing silently to themselves. Manners makyth man, indeed, making the place worth every penny of its fees. Which is handy since I learn that one of my godsons has just won a place there.

Perhaps one or two of the young men will give opera another try, given another 20 or 30 years to get over this one.

On the whole, the highlight of the evening for me was when Lord Ashburton doddered on to the stage at the beginning with his bitch (Labrador, that is, most definitely not a reference to the lady in his life or the estimable organizer of Grange Park Opera), proudly introducing himself as the owner of the property and strangely not mentioning that he was only prevented from razing the place with dynamite in the early 1970s by the intervention of the Government – one of the very few good things to come out of the ghastly Edward Heath’s brief spell in Downing Street. He went on to explain why the surrounding Capability Brown landscape was covered in polythene (fully biodegradable, apparently, and doing a marvellous job of protecting his crop of maize destined for animal feed) and concluded with some self-deprecating remarks about his caddish white dinner jacket. In some ways rather dull, given that we had heard him deliver precisely the same speech the previous evening. But at least tonight’s was enlivened by a member of the audience, egged on by opera supremo Wasfi Kani, shouting that the polythene was ghastly. This allowed His Lordship to come back with the fine ad lib, “Of course it’s ghastly. Why the hell do you think we are talking about it?”

Now I come to think about, it would only be fair to add that the low point of the evening was not the opera at all, but watching with interest as a fast car screeched around a traffic island on the wrong side of the road as we approached a junction on our drive to The Grange. Then having another car, presumably in pursuit of the first, perform precisely the same manoeuvre just as we reached said junction on the right side of the road. Luckily my friend in the driving seat has far keener reactions than mine, and a potentially fatal head-on collision was narrowly averted. More interesting was the reaction of the other driver, who sat grinning as though he had done something frightfully clever before he drove off. We were too shocked even to give him the verbal abuse he so richly deserved. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the best explanation must surely be that he was out of his mind on drink, drugs or both, and we clearly failed in our duty as citizens by allowing him to escape, failing to take a note of his registration number and making no attempt to contact the police.

Still, at least I did not soil my trousers during the incident. While our interval dinner was excellent, and unaccompanied by judicial ramblings. So, on the whole, like a great many things in this life, it could all have been a great deal worse.

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