Last Saturday I went to the opera for only the second time in my life. It was at the invitation of David Ross, my former boss of the New Schools Network, who organizes an arts festival every summer called Nevill Holt Opera at his home in Leicestershire. Launched in 2013, it is now a staple of the summer season, with the festival continuing until the end of June. The two operas this year are Bohemian and The Barber of Seville.
Caroline and I were there to see the Puccini, but as anyone who has attended a country house opera will tell you, the production itself is only part of the appeal. Guests are encouraged to arrive early so they can explore the gardens, and the painting that greeted us when we arrived around 4:15 p.m. looked like a scene from Four weddings and a funeral. Men and women in formal attire lounge on picnic rugs sipping champagne as the afternoon sun bathes the surrounding countryside in an amber glow. I half expected a band to pop up and start playing ‘There Will Always Be an England’.
The main event began at 5 p.m. in a stable block that has been converted into a 400-seat opera house, including an orchestra pit. In preparation, I had read Caroline a synopsis of the story of Bohemian on the way, but it had left us both a bit disappointed. Opera in four acts, it begins as a fairly broad comedy, with a romantic plot and sub-plot, then, in Act III, with a lot of cogs, it switches into a tragedy in its own right. Almost all of the characters are penniless artists living in Paris in the 1830s – hence the title – and the theme, as far as I can tell, is that the course of true love never runs smoothly.
“That sounds silly,” Caroline said, and it is indeed. As Sylvia Fine Kaye pointed out, if you don’t speak Italian, you’ll think opera is something important. But when the story was told in song, accompanied by the Manchester Camerata Orchestra, the base metal of the libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica turned into something magical. The cast was uniformly excellent, especially the two leads, Peter Scott Drackley as Rodolfo and Francesca Chiejina as Mimi. I expected it to have a slightly am-dram feel, having never been to a country opera before, but the whole production was dripping with professionalism. It was really something.
As a novice, I initially struggled to understand the grammar of what was happening on stage. During each scene, the performers constantly moved from telling each other how they felt to expressing their deepest feelings, with the two narratives often at odds. I imagine more seasoned opera-goers can tell right away which feeling is supposed to be public and which is supposed to be private, but I kept thinking, “Wait a minute.” Aren’t you a wee bit worried that when you sang that you were secretly in love with the person standing a few feet away, they might have heard you? But gradually I understood. The clue, as far as I can tell, is that if the characters look into each other’s eyes with a hand on their heart, they are engaged in public declarations of love, but if they’ve turned away and a hand is resting on their head, they are confessing a terrible secret that the other person is not supposed to be able to hear.
One of the best things about the evening was that the intermission lasted over an hour, giving the audience time to consume a three-course meal before the start of the second half. During my five-year tenure as The spectatorI never got used to having to wait for the end of the play before having supper and often found myself gobbling down chips in the meantime.
No need for that here. All over the garden, couples and groups of friends picnicked on the lawn or sat around tables under miniature marquees. It felt less like a night at the theater than a 50th birthday party for 400 people.
In the car on the way back to London, Caroline said she thought she had left her too late in life to become an opera lover, but I felt I had glimpsed why the people loved him so much. I’m not just talking about the social hype that accompanies it, but about the thing itself. I can see that getting to grips with the art form will take a fair amount of work and mean less time spent watching stranger things and You better call Saul. But I think it might be worth it.