Once there was a time when I would have been fully on top of such exciting news: a rock festival just down the road at Crystal Palace Bowl. Only a few stops on the train, or a mere jaunt on the bus, without any need to negotiate the seething metropolis.
In fact, the news reached me through an unexpected source: English National Opera (ENO), performing Puccini’s ‘Tosca’ on two nights at the end of the festival, either side of Max Richter – making up the filling in an orchestral sandwich, if you will. Overall, South Facing Festival seems to have given itself a commendably wide remit – plenty of soul, dance and hip hop dominating (Corinne Bailey Rae, The Streets, Dizzee Rascal, Sleaford Mods) with a detour into rock (Supergrass) before its surprising classical swerve at the climax.
Why surprising? It’s not as if we don’t have outdoor classical music – take Proms in the Park for just one, high-profile example. It’s also worth remembering that ENO have taken the lead on this sort of thing before – bringing Wagner’s Valkyries to the Glastonbury stage in 2004.
But I think this is one of the first occasions where I have seen a classical performance mounted, treated and experienced exactly as if it was a rock performance. And, a couple of easily-sorted blips aside, I think the approach paid handsome dividends.
Let’s get the hiccups out of the way first. As this was an outdoor rock set-up, entry was controlled on a rigid timescale. Ticketholders could access their various zones from around 6pm, with the opera due to start at 7pm. Apart from those in the ‘premier’ seating at the front, the audience sprawled out on the grass, marking their spot with a judiciously-placed blanket, rug or partner, before heading off for refreshment.
As befits any outdoor music festival, the food and drink offer had an earthy pungency you simply don’t get in, say, the Royal Opera House restaurants – not for love nor money. But don’t get me wrong: I am no food snob, and pizza or burgers suit me well enough under the stars, even if I felt a strange, salt-flavoured pang of guilt listening to Tosca’s anguish while finishing off my few remaining chips. (I’m not sure I could quite bring myself to do that in the Coliseum’s upper circle.)
No: the food ‘problem’ was the time it took to get it. When it’s a rock band up on stage, no-one cares if they need to queue off at the side for a while to get a drink or bite to eat. But this is one aspect where opera really is different – there’s a narrative to follow, and the emotional pull of the music can drag you in straightaway. All the venue had to do to acknowledge this difference was open up a bit earlier to give more punters a chance to get food before the start time. It’s a testament to Puccini and ENO’s performers that most of the people in the queues were all facing the stage, as rapt as those who’d already settled.
(It might also be worth giving the caterers a bit of awareness training. Once you’d ordered your food, you had to wait for your number to come up to collect it – nothing unusual there. But at one particular moment, when the singers and orchestra fell into a tender near-silence, a strident voice with impeccable timing yelled “EIGHTY SEV-E-E-NNNN!!”)
And my only other reservation: I would have preferred to stand, or have the option of a standing area. (Again, the Proms lead the way on this.) But the picnic vibe dominated here, so everyone hit the deck – making it impossible to stand, of course, without blocking someone’s view.
The ‘grass’ at Crystal Palace offered a gentle caress similar to reinforced concrete, and after parking my frame on it for nearly three hours, I did wonder if there were parts of my anatomy I might never consciously feel again. However, the key reason I favour standing combined with more seats is that it would further enhance the atmosphere of an outdoor rock concert. That’s what this was, and what it always should be if it comes back in future years.
It helped that ENO got the performance exactly right. Everything was amplified: not just sound, but vision too – with huge screens each side of the stage. As a result, we were treated to a powerhouse ‘Tosca’, ratcheted up for maximum energy and tension. (It’s worth remembering that choosing the right opera was a skilful call in itself. Clearly, it had to be a ‘bums on seats’ option, but that doesn’t mean it’s an automatic no-brainer. However, this relentless, merciless thriller with its rock-solid structure – three acts, three set pieces, three unforgettable lead characters, three twists, three climaxes – is precision-tooled for maximum jeopardy and excitement. I couldn’t see, for example, ‘Parsifal’ casting its mesmeric spell in quite the same way, its contemplative interludes punctuated by numerical yells, as the listeners froze into yogic positions after five hours on the ground…)
While the near-perfect balance achieved in the opera house would of course be unattainable, conductor Richard Farnes ensured that the ENO Orchestra gave a sweeping, punchy attack of a rendition that still achieved plenty of dynamic subtlety, and proved that you could command a field into silence as effectively as an auditorium. The Chorus made the most of their moment of splendour, sinister and intense, clad identically in black as if to represent the infection of Scarpia’s evil into the ‘Te Deum’ they were singing.
Thanks to the video screens, the effect was as if we could watch a performance live, and on DVD, at the same time – showcasing the acting, as well as vocal commitment, of the singers. The central love/hate triangle all held the attention in a vice-like grip. David Junghoon Kim was a vibrant, determined Cavaradossi, showing you stage by agonising stage how Mario has the fight knocked out of him. Roland Wood seemed to relish the opportunity to play a literally larger-than-life Scarpia: terrifying of tone even with a laconic, urbane exterior controlling the beast within. Natalya Romaniw in the title role was in glorious voice, and already a veteran of big-screen Puccini from playing Mimi in ENO’s drive-in ‘Bohème’. As Tosca is forced to career through the final night of her life like a rollercoaster, every flicker of love and hate, hope and despair was visible in Romaniw’s actions and reactions. All three leads played off each other beautifully.
So, this was nothing like being ‘at the opera’ – and nor should it be. Opera fanatics who couldn’t get on with this – fair enough – they will carry on going to hear opera in opera houses, exactly as they do now. But so will the people who experienced it first this way, in a relaxed, casual environment, and promptly fell in love with it – and isn’t that the point?