Thurifer goes to the opera
“Je ne regrette rien,” memorably sang iconic French chanteuse, Edith Piaf. That is not, however, a sentiment I share. I regret many lapses of judgement, taste, action. High among those regrets is deficiency in a foreign language. Very little of my French A Level survives. I can just about navigate my way through a French menu and I once hired and cancelled a car with about six words of French. Of my German O Level, I can remember the first words I learned, “Welche faber hat die See? Die See ist blau”. Also the first compound noun I was taught, in which the German language excels, Ein Sonntagnachmittagsspaziergang (a Sunday afternoon walk). This lacuna was brought forcibly to light recently when reading “The Divine Comedy” in translation. I read two Cantos a day as an adjunct to Morning and Evening Prayer. I read it in the very fine, satisfactorily tactile Everyman Edition. The translation was by Allan Mandelbaum. It was not so much the American spelling and locutions that irked, nor occasional neologisms, but some of the knotty constructions, obscurities and passages with lack of fluidity and some where the meaning was obscure. How far that can be attributed to the translator or Dante, I am, annoyingly, not competent to judge. There are two other translations that appeal and may serve me better, those of Dorothy L. Sayers and the recently departed, Clive James. Or, perhaps, I could bite the bullet and learn Italian, a language I have always loved, if not understood, in the opera house.
The first opera I saw live was Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana. The first Italian opera was Verdi’s La Traviata, it has retained a place in my affections even though my favourite is Un Ballo in Mascera. Yet it has often been Puccini’s Tosca that has most moved and excited me. I have seen several fine productions and performances not least one by Scottish Opera in the early 1980s, revived last year. Yet the two most thrilling, dramatic and gripping performances that I know I did not see or hear live. One seen only on video (now online) and one heard only on CD. In 1964 the BBC televised live Act 2 of Tosca from Covent Garden. Renato Cioni was Cavaradossi, Tito Gobbi, Scarpia and Maria Callas the eponymous heroine. Even in grainy black and white with, by today’s standards, indifferent sound quality, this was, and is still, a visceral, gripping. intense performance. Cioni, ardent, Gobbi, Iago-like in cruelty and malignity, Callas, a compelling amalgam of the leonine and the vulpine, savage and vulnerable. Even more involving and immediate is a live recording of a performance in Parma (21 January 1967). The great Italian tenor, and a heart-throb in his day, Franco Corelli was Cavaradossi. He described this performance as his best in the rôle. His ardent, ringing voice is thrilling. He holds the note when he sings “Vittoria” for twelve seconds and his rendition of E lucevan le stelle in the final act is spellbinding in its floating delicacy. The audience is as important as the performers. Their reactions, gasps, applause, shouts of bis (encore) ism fully engaged and does not detract from the impact of the performance. It makes it more involving and emotional. One track on the CD is five minutes of applause. There is heroic conducting by Giuseppe Morelli who holds everything together (almost) amidst the fervour. The success is not entirely due to Corelli. The other admirable principals, Virginia Gordon as Tosca and Attilio D’Orazi as Scarpia more than hold their own. Available from the Bel Canto Society: www.belcantosociety.org
A recent weekend trip to the West Country found me in Wells, Somerset. It is a (small) city of immense charm that I had visited last some thirty years ago. I had forgotten how pleasant is its centre and how beautiful is the Cathedral. An imposing, yet almost domestic, west front promises much. The interior is dominated by the remarkable Scissor Arches, rare, if not unique in church architecture. Although authentically original and integral to the medieval design, they still strike a note of modernity and retain the capacity to take away the breath. The nave is also strikingly free of funerary monuments and architectural clutter. This allows the grace of the building to be admired and to engage the senses. In the North Transept there is a beautifully decorated working medieval clock. The original works were made circa 1390. It chimes the quarter hours. Jousting knights circulate. Everyone smiles. The 14th century Jesse Window of 1340 is a little older than the clock and, having remarkably survived the protestant Reformation, the Civil War, World War II and the effluxions of time and weather has been sensitively conserved, restored and protected for the future. And the music at that Saturday well-attended Evensong was outstanding.
Sunday morning saw me in the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul, Clifton to hear Mass. My host that weekend was the exemplary Deacon of the Mass. To go from the medieval splendour of Wells to the 20th century Brutalism of Clifton is to experience the alpha and omega of sensibility and taste. The modern liturgy was seemly and unfussy. There was an excellent homily by the Dean, Canon Bosco MacDonald. The amateur volunteer choir sang beautifully a polyphonic setting of the Mass. Two days, two traditions and the trains were on time.