Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Worry about the Plot, Just Listen to the Music

Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Worry about the Plot, Just Listen to the Music

Article excerpt

My New Year's resolution came to me just before Christmas as I watched the English National Opera's production of Verdi's Nabucco.

Nabucco is a work which for years I have wanted to see. The hit tunes and choruses are familiar enough, but the opera from which they come had always been a mystery. So when a kind friend invited me to join his little opera party at the Coliseum last week, I accepted at once. The staging of this ENO production was said to be bizarre but I knew the soloists, chorus and orchestra would be first-rate. When music is strong, one can suspend disbelief in a production and (if necessary closing one's eyes) sit back and enjoy the sound. I knew nothing of the story but hearing the whole thing in English might help me pick up the plot, too. I looked forward immensely to the occasion.

But by the time I got there, after an afternoon's struggle to get a decent parliamentary sketch out of an unusually scrappy session of Questions to the Foreign Secretary, I was feeling shattered. MPs had all been screaming about the Nice summit, half of them convinced it was the beginning, and the other half the end, of civilisation. For hours I had been trying to work out what people meant, who was right, and why. I just about made my deadline.

Running through the rain from the House of Commons to St Martin's Lane, I arrived minutes before the doors closed and bounded panting up the stairs to the dress circle where our host had taken a box. The others were already there. I settled into my seat, still breathless. As composure returned and the warmth of the theatre enveloped me, I realised there remained just a couple of minutes to mug up on the plot. The others had a programme.

But then again, `Why bother?' I thought. I'd probably get the gist of the story as we went along; or there was the interval in which to catch up. Our box was a comfortable nest - no place to swot. With that pleasant sense both of involvement yet of privacy which a box at the opera lends, I could get into this performance as much, or as little, as I liked. The orchestra struck up. The sound was full, rich and splendid. `Hang the plot,' I thought, `I'll just guess.'

Nabucco is glorious. Great waves of chorus washed over me. Down on the stage, regiments of oddly dressed people, some in chains, surged about amid what looked like scaffolding, while others sang like angels. Someone was oppressing someone, I think. The story seemed to involve two opposed groups, one or two kings (or chiefs, or generals), elements of insanity, and a captive woman with whom a man (I could not determine his status) was madly in love.

There was also another woman who seemed to be in love with him, but he seemed indifferent to her. Then there was a chap with a fantastic bass voice who looked like some kind of a rabbi; one got the impression that he wasn't too cuddly a character. As for the rest ... oh, who cared? Intermittently, I opened and shut my eyes and lapped up not the sense but the noise, the sheer, beautiful noise.

With the interval came a tray with champagne and glasses. Bliss! A fellow guest, more studious than I, took up the programme and began to read aloud the synopsis of what had happened so far, but it was full of names and complex relationships, and the champagne was cool, and my day's intellectual struggle was over, and. …

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