Over the past year we have been going rather frequently to the opera. We are neither opera fanatics nor fabulously wealthy, but have a fondness for a musical treat once in a while and have taken advantage of a scheme run by the English National Opera, based at the Coliseum in London, which offers seats for £20. You select the opera you want to see, and the date, and a few days before you go you are sent your seats by e mail. We have had seats in the stalls, in the circle, in the dress circle, sometimes with a very slightly restricted view, but never such that the seating has detracted from our evening's pleasure.
The Coliseum Theatre, a mere five-minute walk from Charing Cross Station, is large and sumptuous, with all the traditional trappings of velvet, gilt and glamour that we expect from an opera house. Here we have seen some wonderful operas, but a few days ago was the cake's proverbial icing: we went to see Puccini's 'Tosca.'
This opera has had a special resonance for me ever since I was about twelve or thirteen when my late father came back from helping at the Scouts' bazaar with a stack of 78s. At the time I was barely aware of the operatic luminaries on these records: Maria Callas, Carlo Bergonzi, and Tito Gobbi in the principal roles; but I was soon to find out. We had few other records then, so despite each lasting about three minutes before the next one fell from the spindle onto the turntable with a most unmusical crash, the opera was played frequently, such that I could before long sing the famous tenor aria 'E lucevan le stelle' in Italian. (Why the tenor aria? No idea, since I was and am a soprano.) Over the years we have seen other productions, including one transported rather appropriately in time from the Napoleonic era where the story is usually set to that of World War 2, with corresponding costumes and sets, dark and foreboding. However the recent staging reverted to the original time and the colours and clothes of the period.
Here there were no great international names, but the singing was ravishing and the orchestra, as always, a tight-knit group of virtuosi magisterially directed. The story, in true operatic tradition replete with tragedy, ill-starred love, cruelty, treachery and murder, provided the opportunity for heart-breaking arias. But it was the final scene which drew forth from a captivated audience a cross between a gasp and a roar. The set representing the prison of Castel Sant' Angelo in Rome was a circle of stone with a backdrop view of a star-spattered night sky, resplendent in blue and gold. Following the discovery that her lover was dead, the grief-stricken Tosca stood on the lip of the abyss. Dressed in a simple gown of pale gold, her dark hair loose, she raised her arms to shoulder-height, and for a moment they looked like angels' wings. Then with a final declamatory, 'Scarpia, in the sight of God!' she fell, almost serenely, backwards to her certain death. I guess every member of that audience knew what was going to happen, but it still had an extraordinary impact. It was an electric moment.