La tenner e mobile
Curiously enough, 10p is the amount of change one receives from a tenner when buying the smallest possible glass of the cheapest available champagne from the Champagne Bar in the Royal Opera House: an experience I underwent on Friday night prior to watching a performance of Rigoletto. The ten pence piece comes back on a small tray, rather smaller than a silver salver yet slightly more substantial than a disposable ashtray. It occurred to me later on in the evening that if I had purchased a dozen glasses of champagne, it would have provided me with enough change to pay for the bus fare home.
I purchased just the one and drank it at the bar. It was a very small glass: by the time I had found a chair, it would have been time to leave it and take the empty glass back to the bar. There were, anyway, very few chairs in the bar, placed round the edges of the room and permitting only standing in most of the room, which thus took on the aspect of a "vertical drinking" establishment, albeit with the bar in the middle - thus curiously anticipating the circular, revolving set that would host the production later in the evening. (Not that the bar, itself, revolved at any point - I couldn't have afforded it.) One assumes that the idea was to have clean, architecturally pleasing space, rather than to give the impression that one was drinking in a Yates' Wine Lodge.
The production itself had its moments, most of them in the second scene, which several times was interrupted by applause. This was more than could be set of the opening scene, which was lucky to receive any applause at all when it mercifully finished. It is not a strong scene anyway, introduced by an unimpressive Overture and, for my money, orchestrally weak in its opening bars. Besides, the scene, an orgiastic evening at the Court, reminds one, and unfavourably by comparison, with the scene that dominates Roger Corman's Masque Of The Red Death. I've even wondered once or twice whether it might be the other way around, and Corman may have based his production on the opening scene of Rigoletto.
But lacking, as it does, quite the shocking brilliance of the film - one thinks, for instance, of the man burned to death in the gorilla suit by the jester dwarf, another echo of Rigoletto - the comparison renders it permanently unsatisfactory, in the same way, perhaps, as Brave New World or Darkness At Noon are always in the shadow of NineteenEightyFour, or Love On The Dole can never be read without reminding one of the superiority of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
Anyway, with the second scene, the shambles was over, the comparisons forgotten, and the interaction of Paolo Galvanelli's Rigoletto with Anna Netrebko's Gilda was as moving as the previous scene had been tiresome. Moving enough for me to catch my breath at the point where the conspirators appear behind Rigoletto's house with the intention of capturing and destroying Gilda just at the point of her greatest happiness.
Here, too, was an echo of the cinema, as the masks, round and whitened, brought to mind the ones that are worn in Brazil. But this time the comparison served to enhance the drama that the singing, and the staging, had produced. They appeared so suddenly, and it was the unexpectedness that held the key. I remembered my previous visit to the Royal Opera House, to see Madama Butterfly, when I had forgotten that prior to her suicide, Cio-Cio San blindfolds her child so that he will not see her die. Shock lies both in the direct effect of an event and in its unexpectedness: this was therefore doubly shocking and I had to bite down on my hand to stop myself reacting. Nothing in Rigoletto was quite that affecting, but it was affecting nonetheless, and all the more affecting for taking me by surprise.
Which, in turn, reminds me of my favourite moment of recorded Shakespeare, which comes not directly from any production of a play, but from the film Withnail and I, which until the final scene, I never enjoyed all that much. I admired its wit, its script, its originality, its humour, but, like This Life or Sex And the City, all the characters in it were too vile or too tiresome to inspire any empathy. Until, that is, the final scene in which Withnail, having been caught drink-driving on top of many other well-deserved misfortunes, and surely on his way to prison, walks through Regent's Park Zoo and is moved, suddenly, unexpectedly, to recite one of Hamlet's soliloquys.
In doing so, he gives life both to himself and the soliloquy, makes of the latter not a recitation but a lamentation, and makes us care for the first time about him, and also, possibly for the first time, about Shakespeare, who is unexpectedly real, unexpectedly the expression of anguish. The first and third acts of Rigoletto end with cries of pain from the jester, bewailing the fate of his daughter and the curse that brought that fate upon her: but for my money, Hamlet's, Withnail's lamentation is the greater, more convincing, more traumatically the cry of the permanently wounded.
I have of late - but wherefore I know not - lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me: no, nor woman neither. Nor woman neither.