Don Giovanni - Royal Opera House, 8 September 2008
The opening night of the Royal Opera House season. Officially! We know because big cheese Tony Hall told us so, in an Oscarish pre-show speech that stopped millimetres short of thanking his agent and teh baby jeebus.
We arrived to find a splashy Sun bus parked at the front door - supposedly, the show was 'only' open to Sun readers, a myth propagated by the Sun's fact-lite press rivals.
But in fact anyone who registered on a special page of the ROH website, as explained here, could apply for tickets. Which would account for the number of familiar faces I spotted in the audience. (My own conscience is clear - I took along a ROH newbie).
But there were welcome absences too - scarcely a rustle of anoraks in the amphitheatre, no gobby tourists, few corporate suits at the bar. In their place, not the lager louts the broadsheets had doomily predicted, but a cleaner, better-dressed and better-behaved class of customer than Covent Garden has seen for a while. Enough looked understandably bewildered by the confusing ROH signage to convince me that few were regulars. And was that one of the scheme's most vehement opponents, Charlotte "boycott in order" Higgins of the Guardian skulking around the bar? No moral dilemma 'subsidising' "that utterly repellent institution: page bloody three" when you've nabbed a freebie press seat I guess.
The huge but unobtrusive cameras in the auditorium itself were part of a Met-style live relay to cinemas across the known universe.
Whether they captured the Royal Opera House at its best is another question. Francesca Zambello's production has a couple of qualities - it's cinematically splashy (my companion appreciated the guidance of the colour-coded costumes), and it strikes the elusive balance between comedy and drama with rare precision.
But despite its flaming wicker and shoals of purposeless extras it never really grips until the final showdown, with the dirty Don spectacularly flanked by burning bathtubs.
Still, there were enough laughs to hold the audience's attention, mostly supplied by the vast-voiced Kyle Ketelsen, shamelessly mugging as Leporello. Vocally at least he was more imposing than Simon Keenlyside's patchy Don Giovanni.
Joyce DiDonato gave the most consistent and impressive performance of the evening, totally uninhibited as the combustible Donna Elvira. Charles Mackerras took a firm grip on the orchestra, no concessions to any singers' foibles here, and she alone could ride the waves at their crest.
Marina Poplavskaya, suffering we were told from a respiratory infection, struggled with intonation to begin with, but her increasingly weighty voice made a powerful impression in any case, a significant development from her Donna Anna in the same production last year.
Miah Persson's Zerlina was more of a disappointment. She has the requisite sweetness, and began well, but soon strayed way off vocal course - perhaps she's picked up the respiratory bug too. Ramón Vargas also played a game of two halves, in his case a strained, reedy tone which eventually opened out.
But this was a generous audience, and it rewarded the performance with a generous ovation.
I'm back for more on Wednesday (booked long before the Sun offer appeared) - hoping for better singing from some quarters, but I doubt if there'll be a more enthusiastic and less jaded audience in the Royal Opera House for a while.