And so was I taken away by the irresistible twister of a last minute invitation to Covent Garden. Yes, nothing’s good enough to resist cancellation for a seat at the Royal Opera House.
I had no idea what the programme could in fact exactly be, nor did I know about the cast either. But some say the secret makes it better, especially when it’s sung in a beautiful language (my native one), along with good friends resting their arms next to yours.
Thursday 6th March cast was once again outstanding, full and bursting with fitted and veteran singers in the main roles, such as famous Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez, interpreting Tonio, Patrizia Ciofi being Marie, Ewa Podle? and Kiri Te Kanawa mirroring each other to laughtering perfection in the ghastly/haughty/funny Berkenfield and Crackentorp. Not to be forgotten as well must be mentioned a Pietro Spagnoli in the boots of Sulpice, reminiscent of Zorro’s Sergeant Garcia, plus Donald Maxwell’s Hortensius in a Tintin-like Nestor at the Moulinsart castle.
The first act opened on a ragtag defensive position of Tyrolean peasants, trembling and fearing under the French threat. A tension quickly counterbalanced by the arrival improvised military equipment and protections: sieves, pans and pots acting as helmets, and rakes, forks and sticks in lieu of weapons. The visual oxymoron peaked as territorial pride got solemnly chanted by peasant-warriors carrying their hearts high, but panicking as soon as the French are recalled… the latter in fact retreating, leading everyone to celebrate freedom… A joyful mess to giggle to!
The time got right, amidst a pack of coarse farmers, for fur-covered, exhausted and bad-tempered Berkenfield marquess to throw her tantrum: every old rich lady must always be the centre of the attention! (Pour une femme de mon nom) Launching everyone on their amusement rails, Ewa Poldes’ first aria of the night was a moment of pure exhilaration, just because every single Londoner can relate to at least one unbearable grand-bourgeois old bird. Berkenfield may well portray the French soldier as a licentious pig, she won’t be bothered to ask them for a wagon and an escort back home as soon as the war ends… At the French camp, a boyish Marie and a tubby Pingot recounted their tale and ties in the regiment (Au bruit de la guerre, j’ai reçu le jour), ultimately bestowing the young girl as their one and only vivandière under the benevolent look of a choir of soldiers (Nommée à l’unanimité). The mishmash resumed with Tonio’s intrusion, culminating to Florez’s flawless high-Cs (Militaire et mari), for a warm row of acclamations.
Act I and II sceneries were refined and modern in elegance, sporting military mapped carpets making up for mountain peaks, a canopy bed on wheels and house furniture fortifications, pots and potatoes jolly rolling on the floor in the French garrison, and a left-bound diagonal, wooden-tiled varnished castle reception marking the zone of predation for Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s majestically haughty character. It was an absolute delight to watch the duchess literally standing over the mélée, freewheeling with English pedantries surtitled in French! Transvestites cleaner pleased a few in the female audience, sniggers alerting, as the clumsy handymen stopped the music to, oh!, in cleverly staged confusion, bring a lost sheet of music from the stage to the conductor!
Through this fantastically entertaining night, under the benevolent look of, one the one side, a horde of centenary aristocrats on the verge of the heart attack and, on the other side, assaulting foot soldiers supported by a tank, we applauded to the crowning grace Ciofi and Florez, whose hard and demanding arias superbly blended together. Happy wedding to their characters! Could they only kiss a little more realistically? Past our ovation, we stayed on a little more to wish Kiri Te Kanawa a very happy birthday.
Personalities such as Placido Domingo or Jackie Stewart gave, by the magic of screen retransmission, their most heartfelt tributes. It was a touching reflection on merit and the reward to lifelong stance of professionalism. Seventy candles for a succulent cake on a tray over a floor of daffodils, yet Dame Te Kanawa still shone beautifully, closing the night with a few words about her association, helping young singers to succeed the way she did : “Kicking their ass, and we must, just like I got mine kicked, back in the days.”
Nice bow-tie hat, they say!