Is it entirely coincidental that, at a time when I’m working on ‘Opera’, the next novel in the Cassandra Fortune series, I’m going to more opera than usual? No, of course not. The opera in ‘Opera’ is Tosca, Puccini’s ‘shabby little shocker’ (according to musicologist Joseph Kerman) set in Rome on 17th and 18th June 1800. The dating is precise because the plot is impacted by specific events, in particular the outcome, for some time in doubt, of the Battle of Marengo then taking place far to the north. The date of events in ‘Opera’ is precise too, though opera and novel have more in common than that. Both have a political backdrop of democracy under siege by the forces of repression and wealth, both have an arch-villain and a courageous heroine. I’m off to see ENO present this later in the summer.
It was a very different Puccini work which I went to see last Friday. Gianni Schicchi is a comedy, though its central character appears in Dante, the eponymous 13th century nouveau riche nobleman who is condemned to Hell for impersonating a dead man in order to acquire his property (including an ass). The company, St Paul’s Opera, is based at a Clapham church. It was set up by Patrician Ninian and others (who have since moved on) with the specific aim of offering accessible opera while encouraging and supporting aspiring young professional singers. Some of the finest were singing last week. It was, as it always is, a sell-out.
Friday evening was perfect, sunny and warm. The gates opened at a quarter to six and we sat, sipping wine and chatting before a pied piper, Musical Director Panaretos Kyriatzidis, appeared walked through the gardens to summon us to the first musical performance. This was of sacred music in the Eden Gardens, sung by many of the company who were to appear later in the opera.
We returned to our food and wine and, unfortunately, missed the second small performance, a string quartet playing, among other things, an old favourite of mine Night Music from the Streets of Madrid by Boccherini. So we were determined to hear the third, a selection of aria from Puccini, Donizetti and Verdi, sung by some of that evening’s principals. Then it was everyone to the grassy area behind the church where the main event was to happen. Every part of the evening had, so far, been a delight and so was the buzz as folk drank up, gathered their jackets and walked down to the amphitheatre. What a joy it was to be part of a happy crowd of people again, all anticipating more fun to come.
The seating was in small blocks, with gaps between, just as the tables in the picnic area had been. The evening took place entirely outside, but social distancing was still in evidence. Not in the production, where the newly cold body of Buoso is surrounded by his grieving (and greedy) relatives, who, when the will is discovered, are forced to turn to the wily parvenu, Gianni Schicchi, to retrieve the situation. As the sun set and the strains of ‘O mio babbino caro’ rang around the hushed churchyard, for a short time everything was right with the world. Here’s Kiri Te Kanawa singng the same.