So, then to a busy weekend (or a busy Sunday, to be more precise). A matinee of Arne’s Artaxerxes and an evening in Greenwich with the wonderful Fascinating Aida.
We hadn’t booked for the Arne, but a friend couldn’t make it and offered us the tickets. I’m so glad she did. It was a joy. Whilst it’s not my usual period, I thought is stood up very well indeed for English opera of the period. Oh, if only we had a tradition of standing up for our artforms, and especially our music, as is evident in France or Germany.
The production (in the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House) was a luminous, vividly-lit blue box, with three ‘stations’ behind which different groupings of characters or set pieces took place. The costumes were a marvellously sumptuous affair: a combination of Tudorbethan crinolin and cullottes in the manner of the Persia of the setting. And I was rather transfixed at moments by the shoes: fabulous heels for both men and women, everything conjuring up the stage idiom of the 18th century, but with a very modern flair. In the front-centre a sunken pit, vividly lit in a contrasting white, housed the orchestra. The Classical Opera Company were the people behind the endeavour and I will certainly be looking them up again.
The story can be found elsewhere and is an endearingly baffling affair at first reading, which is not actually that complicated but made more so by everyone appearing to have the same name: Xerxes, Artaxerxes, Arbaces, Artabanes, Mandanes… you get the picture. We have roles for two sopranos, one castrato (performed by mezzo in travesti), two countertenors and two tenors. Countertenor is not a voice type I rush to, as I’ve observed on Handel, but I have to report being quite taken with these performances. The whole thing had a spirit and clarity that made it a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon. Hoorah for its dusting off and re-presentation. It was also difficult (as a lay person) to work out where Arne stopped and the necessary reconstruction (of the finale) began. The recitatives were also reconstructed, which may have assisted with the feeling of seamlessness in the finale. I enjoyed all vocal performances, Elizabeth Watts being notable for finishing us all off with a fabulous vocal display, and Rebecca Bottone being her incisively-sung sometime-friend and sometime-nemesis.
The evening was a very different affair, somewhat smutty, but nonetheless incisive in its satire. Fascinating Aida are an utter wonder. Having negotiated London transport in all its typical mediocrity to get there, satire was desperately called for. I won’t labour the point, but if you are a tourist planning to come to London any time soon, DON’T BOTHER. You will doubtless visit at a weekend, so half of London Transport will not be functioning. You will be passed from pillar to post, offered pointless alternative routes and methods for the journey you want to do and when you give up and hail a cab, as inevitably you will, you will be stuck in traffic and a journey from the City to Greenwich will set you back £20. Bloody hopeless. Why do we all bother?
Anyway, having got that out of my system, back to FA. Dillie Keane, Adele Anderson and Liza Pullman are the performers and they bring a manic comic delivery to some very clever writing in the best tradition of the legacy left by Gilbert & Sullivan, Noël Coward, Flanders & Swann, Tom Lehrer et al. The songs are all available on the album ‘Silver Jubilee’ so I won’t rehearse them, other than to recommend ‘The Markets’ (an exposition of the financial instruments behind the world economic crisis: “it takes a lot of skill, to make your lifetime savings, worth absolutely nil.”) and their satire on the dominance of Tesco in the song ‘Tesco Saves’: “Tesco saves, Tesco saves, Oh, Jesus saves but Tesco saves you mooorrre…” A couple of quite poignant songs complete the mix and you have a remarkable evening in the theatre. The run finishes, I think, in the next week or so, but I do so hope that they will be back. We need them, especially in what Tom Lehrer referred to as “these trying times of crisis and universal brouhaha”. OK, so he was thinking of different brouhaha, but potential nuclear disaster and economic crisis doesn’t sound so very far from the home life of our own dear Queen, now does it?