La bohème - Royal Opera House, 19 June 2012
Last night marked 20 years since Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna first clapped eyes on each other in some obscure crevice of the Royal Opera House.
To celebrate this momentous occasion, a fount of scurrilous gossip and hilarious candids ever since, Covent Garden have mounted two special performances of La bohème, the John Copley production that is even older than the famed couple's relationship. This was the first.
"What are tabs?" the gentleman next to me asked.
I was just about to share my knowledge on the subject when the woman emerged again to say the tab problem would now take a couple of minutes to resolve.
"She's trying to say they can't open the curtains," I explained to my neighbour as the "tabs" flapped shut behind her.
Conductor Jacques Lacombe disappeared from the pit. Things were not looking good. The woman reappeared with a "five minutes" announcement - but nothing happened. Time ticked on.
Suddenly a different woman burst through the curtains. This one had a microphone and a bold smile - and a solution. The curtains would be removed. And our illusions would be shattered. The very fabric of theatrical magic would be rent asunder by our 'bonus' viewing of the scene change between Acts 1 and 2 (legendary for its swiftness, and normally shrouded in velvet) - allegedly a "treat" normally reserved for school parties.
After another ten minutes of faffing, the huge velvet curtains finally parted (I imagine the result of scores of sweaty chaps hauling on mighty ropes, Billy Budd-style). The good-humoured audience cheered and applauded as the show began, half an hour late.
It would be wonderful to be able to say that the evening lived up to the drama of its unusual start. Unfortunately it didn't - though it was, as promised, fascinating to watch as the Act 1 set disappeared off to one side and the Act 2 Cafe Momus, complete with staircases, waiters, urchins, etc was wheeled forward to replace it (even some of the orchestra stood up to observe).
Poor Roberto was bravely soldiering through with a cold. He made a few theatrical nose-blowing gestures but it was all there anyway in his sadly-diminished vocal resources. Still, I'm sure most of the audience would much rather hear Alagna at 90% power than some obscure replacement - and given the momentousness of the occasion he could hardly cancel for any reason short of hospitalisation.
The missus was in the rudest of health of course. That may change by Saturday given the amount of full-on saliva-exchanging snogging incorporated into the staging, but for now the sick man has his germs to himself. But where Roberto took the evening seriously, Angela frequently slipped out of character, almost winking at the audience as she sang with a full-on gala-style beam on her face. Never has a Mimi passed on less tragically. Anyone who admires Gheorghiu for the beauty and purity of her tone won't have been too disappointed though - she certainly made an appealing sound.
The rest of the cast were somewhat overshadowed by the starry couple, though George Petean deserves credit for his generous Marcello.
Jacques Lacombe pulled off the tough task of following Angela's wayward phrasing with aplomb. Though his dynamics sometimes challenged the smaller voices on the stage, he conducted with flair and vitality - in a purely musical sense, the orchestra were the real stars of the night.
An extended curtain call (despite the late finish) saw Angela pelted with flowers from one of the boxes and a bit of celebratory cuddling - you can watch Kyoko's video at the foot of the page.
All photos: intermezzo.typepad.com
Thanks to Kyoko for the curtain call video below:
And here are the terrible twosome at the afterparty: