This week I was invited to attend the opera. This is not something that happens to me a lot. In fact, I think I have been to an opera only once before in my life – a powerful rendition of Carmen in a beautifully frescoed church in Florence. It was quite a magical experience, so when I was offered tickets to see La Traviata at the English National Opera, I leapt at the chance.
I was genuinely surprised at the reaction of some of my friends when I told them: “Opera? No way”, “You’d have to actually pay me to go”. When I asked why, they all said they hadn’t been, but wouldn’t want to because it’s boring, you can’t understand what’s going on, it’s expensive, the costumes are all outdated, and so on. Basically, it’s not really for our generation. When I stopped to think about it, I realised those thoughts had all probably entered my mind on the subject of opera in the past. I certainly didn’t understand an awful lot of Carmen sung in Italian, but it was so theatrical you kind of get it.
So it was with all this in mind that my lovely friend Andrea and I headed to the famous London Coliseum, tickets in hand. I’d actually started to worry about whether I knew the correct opera etiquette, and spent some time googling what happens, and then made myself even more nervous, worrying about when to applaud and what to shout at the end (apparently it should be gender-correct, so bravo for gents, brava for ladies, and bravi for everyone). The theatre is easy to find – you can spot the twinkly, rotating marquee high above the roof from anywhere on St Martin’s Lane, and although I’ve lived in London on and off for over ten years, it was my first visit.
We headed straight for the Veuve Clicquot bar outside the Stalls for a glass of champagne before finding our seats in the beautiful baroque auditorium. My fears about the audience age range may have been a little reinforced by the seemingly septuagenarian gents on either side of us, though their very smart appearance at least made me realise we were in the ‘good’ seats, i.e. the ones which cost around £100 each. As the lights went down I fervently hoped they would not be wasted on us.
I needn’t have worried. From the moment the huge red curtains opened to reveal Violetta, resplendent in a Dior-esque ball gown in the middle of a raucous party, to the moment they closed an hour and fifty minutes later, I was totally absorbed. The English National Opera perform in English, so we were easily able to understand what was happening, but because the vocal style and rhythm sometimes obscures the words, there is also a scrolling subtitle above the stage (supratitle?). So much for worries about not knowing what was going on!
The costume was distinctly modern, Violetta even appearing in a rather odd lumberjack shirt and tracky bottoms combo in the second act when she is being the good country wife. No over the top 19th century dress in sight. Alfredo Germont in fact looked rather like a bumbling university professor in his big baggy cardigan. The staging too was unlike anything I would have pictured when thinking of the opera. It was sparse and minimalistic – merely several sets of huge red curtains, a chair, and in the country scene, a pile of books that Alfredo uses as a chair (probably where my university professor image came from). The curtains worked really well at times, functioning as wings from which the chorus could enter and exit, and lending a brilliant red hue to the exuberant beginning scenes, and a bleaker, dark one to the final scenes of Violetta’s death, but they were also somewhat distracting. In one party scene they are all ripped down by the chorus for no apparent reason (not entirely effectively – one was left hanging half up which had to be removed), and in other scenes the characters gradually open or close them as they sing an aria, culminating in a very strange scene where Violetta and Alfredo pretend to open and close curtains which are not even there! Some reading of online reviews of the performance suggest this modern staging didn’t impress some opera-buffs (who no doubt prefer traditionalism) but I certainly think it increases the appeal of Peter Konwitschny’s version of La Traviata to younger generations. That and the fact that it has it’s own Twitter hashtag, #ENOtraviata, giving the distinct impression that this may be one of their aims.
The performance flew by and over and over again I experienced the frisson of goosebumps at particularly impressive vocals, and was pulled along on the emotional journey of the protagonists. At times it did feel as though there had been insufficient build-up to the climaxes, but this was possibly due to the fact that the performance was heavily condensed to fit into such a short timeframe. When the dramatic end came, all I could hear were shouts of “Bravo”, regardless of who was taking a bow, so it appears you don’t need to know Italian gender endings to roar your approval. The elderly chap to Andrea’s right was particularly appreciative. I’ve not heard such shouting and excitement from so many old men since I saw Fiorentina play Juventus at the football stadium in Florence. Eavesdropping on some of the comments of our fellow patrons as we left the theatre, it was clear they had all enjoyed the performance as much as us.
So – are the operatic stereotypes true? Is the opera not for the likes of me? After this experience I would say no, and not at all! I had an amazing evening and enjoyed every minute of it, and left checking the posters to see what is coming up next at the ENO. When I got home, a bit of research showed that there are numerous ways you can attend without having to take out a second mortgage. The ENO has some great offers for younger people (nice to be considered a young’un again, if only in the context of opera-goers!), including the Access All Arias scheme where the cheapest tickets start at £10, secret seats for £20, and a fabulous-sounding evening sponsored by Sipsmith Gin and Fever Tree with a pre-performance talk and outline of the story, one of the best seats in the house, and a post-performance G&T with the cast of the show, all for £25 (Opera Undressed). I am definitely booking myself and some friends in for the next one of those.
There are still tickets available for the last three performances of La Traviata on 5th, 11th and 13th March, through the schemes above (except Opera Undressed), and I would highly recommend that you go. Yes, I got my tickets for free in the hope I would write a review, but even if I’d paid full price for them, I’d still be encouraging you to go. It’s taken me several hundred words to do so though, whereas my friend Andrea’s immediate reaction on Facebook was a far more eloquent and informative review: