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  • Operatic times

    It's been an operatic sort of month. First a highly ritzy and very gay take on Mozart's Don Giovanni at the nightclub Heaven and then the pick of the crop at Garsington Opera's pre-opening show. And sandwiched in between, my own moment under the lights, lip-syncing incompetently along to scenes from pieces including the Marriage of Figaro for a very brief video insert into be show during the Garsington production.

    To begin, the Don's trip to Heaven. First performed in 1787 with the subtitle 'the rake punished' Don Giovanni is ranked the seventh most popular opera in the world, with any number of productions running concurrently, each with their own light to shed on this sleazy tale of a sexually rapcious man-about-town.

    A little gender-bending did the Don no harm at all. At Heaven all his conquests were male, and the set-piece catalogue aria chronicled his victories not around Europe but in the gay cruising grounds of London of the 1980s.

    The lyrics by Ranjit Bolt were scatalogically hilarious, and economical too, what with the cuts that pared the opera down from almost 3 hours to 90 minutes:

    Listen Eddie, I have drawn up this list here -
    And I’m not talking merely the gist here -
    Not a shag he has had has been missed here –

    ...Bankers, beggars, losers, winnners
    All supply this prince of sinners
    He has no time for the ladies
    Takes the back door into Hades
    Any size or shape of sha-ade
    Indiscriminately laid!

    He needs a lock
    Put on his cock!

    ...People fall for this seducer
    Just like fruit into a juicer
    Those who call upon this lecher
    Will be brought out on a stretcher 


    As the lead, the improbably named Australian Duncan Rock held the show together, with a powerful baritone voice shaped by his experience at ENO and Glyndebourne. His enviable physique was more than enough distraction for at least half of the grinning audience of around 400, which had to cope with poor acoustics and a slightly disorganised promenade performance. Also outstanding was Mark Dugdale as 'Zac'.

    The orchestra of 10 were crisp and elegantly communicative. Even the Village People and Maggie herself put in a (distinctly dubious) appearance.

    What then would all this have in common with a top flight production at Garsington Opera, in its second year at the Getty's Wormsley Park, just off the M40 near Watlington and what was your correspondent doing making a video for the show?


    The trite answer is cocaine, since both shows featured enthusiastic use of the drug. With its achingly trendy set and snappy modern dress, Garsington's production is almost as far from 'straight' as was the Stephen Fry and Paul Gambaccini sponsored production at Heaven. Both feature imaginative takes on the catalogue aria, with a printer at Garsington spewing out an improbable 50' of conquests' names.


    The auditorium at Wormsley is a wonderfully contemporary-looking semi-permanent structure by Snell Associates with completely clear sides and a back wall of exposed timber. It is set at the foot of the estate's home farm, close to a lake, and reached by a two and a half mile drive through private parkland.

    The singing in this wonderfully upbeat and elegant show never wavered, with some magnificent performances in a room with a terrific acoustic (even if at this final rehearsal it occasionally got ahead of the energetic orchestra). Grant Doyle was a convincing and wittily engaging Don, with particularly noteworthy singing by Callum Thorpe as Masetto and Sophie Bevan as Donna Elvira.
    The murdered Commendatore is usually depicted as a menacing statue that returns from the dead to drag Don Giovanni down to hell. In this show he is a corpse that walks from a hospital mortuary, with the same marble white skin and ice cold touch. He also appeared from a hospital bed positioned in a niche set high in the back wall, which had a bizzarely misbehaving sliding door the night we saw the show.
    The final moments of the opera became a grimly menacing scene from Bedlam, with the wicked Don injected into a comatose state by some of his gloating victims, dressed as masked-up nurses. A terrific show, enthusiastically appreciated by a foot-stamping audience of 600.

    So just what were a bunch of amateurs doing contributing to this glittering evening? Thankfully little more than a couple of minutes of footage was shown on of us on a TV screen, as Don Givanni channel-hopped by iPad through opera videos, whilst waiting for his dinner.

    The joke in the opera is that a snatch of Mozart's own Marriage of Figaro is played by the orchestra. The joke in the filming is that he catches glimpses of a series of extremely varied takes on opera production, from a creaky Dröttnignholm style full-wig 'Cosa Rara', to a completely deconstructed and very grimy 'regietheater' modern dress interpretation of the Marriage of Figaro, complete with vodka bottle, pills and porn magazine.

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    We got to work for a whole day with the full show's director, Daniel Slater and its designer, Leslie Travers, and they proved to be models of patience in spite of being confronted with complete amateurs. Several of my fellow cast members shone, and I lost count of the number of times I slid my hand up the thigh of my unfortunate victim, and had a gun thrust into my mouth by her jealous boyfriend. That particular moment thankfully ended up on the cutting room floor.

    All three experiences proved the ability of outstanding art to withstand almost any treatment, and taken together they have made for a particularly memorable month.

  • Budapest

    [archive post] Got back from Budapest, would you believe, on Sunday night. Five of us had an altogether enjoyable time. The itinerary included candlelit meals in a lakeside restaurant, Wagner opera for L1.50, and two hours in an astonishing 400 year old Turkish bath - wearing nothing but a pseudo masonic apron which partly covered the privates but left the hindquarters quite exposed.

    It's nowhere near as picturesque as Prague, but somehow more real. The people friendlier. The National Gallery is on Heroes' Square where we saw some fine Spanish paintings. Decorated Art Nouveau buildings characterise the city in a style they are pleased to call "Eclectic" which seems to mean pretty well anything the architect took a fancy to could be incorporated into the building.

    The Rudas baths is at the foot of Gellert hill, close by the statue of 'the popular queen' Queen Mary. Time Out said it was the loveliest, the most ancient, and had the cleanest water. It's quite gloomy inside: tiny star shaped windows in the domed roof send light streaming down on to the pool of hot spa water below. Five smaller pools cluster round the central one, containing water of varying temperatures. Water pours everywhere: from carved spouts into the pool and from great rusted taps. The room is filled with a great hub-ubb of conversation. Young bodies and old bodies cluster round the edge of the pools, disappearing from time to time into the steam room or the saunas which vary in temperature from hot to oven roasting. I chatted to a fellow who turned out to be assistant to the cultural attaché at a certain French speaking embassy. It was a curious feeling: we spoke in French about music. Suddenly (as his foot stroked mine) he asked me back to his house. Perhaps it would have been a kind of adventure. But I said no. In a side room off the main spa pool aimable masseurs pummel their victims off-handedly. I lay on a foam mat on a sloping aluminium table (much like the ones you see in dissecting rooms) and relaxed utterly.

    With minutes to spare we dashed over Elizabeth bridge into the town for the Valkyrie. The opera house is gliterry and magnificent - we were high up 'in the gods' on the third balcony. My first experience of Wagner, the company was under-rehearsed there were some stunning moments. Wherever we went not having much German - which is the main language apart from Magyar - was a bit of problem. From the sublime to the ridiculous - we were so starved after the opera we went into Macdonalds on Moscow Square (even M&S and Tescos are there now). I meant to order 2 No. 5s but somehow ended up with a tray of 5 No. 2s (if you see what I mean)... Also went to an enjoyable Mozart concert at the elaborate green and silver-gold art nouveau music academy. More French chat as a lady befriended me and pointed out her dashing son and his girlfriend.

    More than once we and ate far more scrumptiously gooey cream cakes than was good for us. We trekked out to a one-time monastery where they had an astonishing collection of 19th century printing equipment which I attempted to demonstrate, much to the consternation of the guard. The museum also houses a bizarre collection of womens underwear through the 20th century which would have had the building's former inhabitants in quite a tizz. And there are baboushkas still in Hungary - mostly in the museums, homely bodies in woollen stockings waiting to pounce if you so much as breathe over their precious glass cases.

    On the last day I left the others to a cable car ride in the Buda Hills to bathe at the Gellert Hotel In its heyday this magnificent place was popular with European high society. My valuables were locked in a safe deposit box and an elaborate ritual with keys locked up my clothes but my (hired) swimming costume was stolen when I spent some time in the spa. An ancient gentleman made a pass at me in the steam room, waving at me in the strange two-handed Hungarian way...

    We wandered round the Lechner's museum of applied art - a dazzling white moorish temple to Hungarian 19th century taste. At a quarter to five we realised we were due back at the hotel for the 7.30 flight home. William and Peter were fuming more or less aimably in the minibus outside. By 10.30 we were home, me clutching cherry brandy chocolates and Hungarian merlot, with a stash of memories of a busy but hugely enjoyable few days.