In 1986, I attended the first night of The Mask of Orpheus at the London Coliseum and then, 33 years later, I was at the opening of the revival production at the same venue.
The two evenings couldn’t have been more different, both onstage and front of house. The first one was a solemn, serious occasion with all focus on the production and Harrison Birtwistle’s stupendous score. In 2019, it was a much more frivolous affair: TV breakfast show hosts were being interviewed in the foyer while the designer swanned around in an outrageous creation and 400,000 Swarovski crystals upstaged everything else that was going on.
I’m fascinated by the differences in theatre practice, both as an art-form and as a social event. It makes a fun game of imagining being at historical performances and seeing them with a 21st century head so, when my colleague Philip Fisher picked his Top Ten Dream Productions in the theatre, it set me thinking about the operatic equivalents I’d like to have witnessed.
A few come immediately to mind. I didn’t see either of my two favourite tenors live, one because I was too young and the other too lazy. They were Jussi Björling (1911–1960) and Carlo Bergonzi (1924–2014) and I’d now give anything to see them in any of their roles, preferably in their prime, of course.
Another tenor I’d love to see, if I had a time machine, would be the German Fritz Wunderlich, who was simply unsurpassed in Mozart and who died at 35 when he tripped on a loose shoelace. What a pointless, tragic end to a glowing career.
There are fewer sopranos on my wishlist but I guess I’d have to say Maria Callas as Tosca, because her performances were said to be momentous events in themselves. I’m not actually a great fan of her voice and on film she looks positively histrionic (something people often mistake for good acting) but I’m not in a position to judge, so I’d have to be there to see for myself.
Going back to the 19th century, the one event no Wagner fan would miss is the first production of The Ring Cycle at Bayreuth in 1876. Conducted by the composer in the playhouse he’d built specially for it, it must have been quite an event. By all accounts, the staging left a lot to be desired but that’s true of most productions even nowadays, after 144 years of technical innovation and plenty of time for musicians to get used to the difficulty of the music.
Going even further back to the very earliest days of opera, witnessing Jacopo Peri’s Dafne in 1597 would be a must. It’s alleged to be the first ever opera; the audience then couldn’t begin to imagine how the art-form would develop and change over the centuries. If I couldn’t get a ticket for that, Monteverdi’s Orfeo in Mantua in 1607 would be a good alternative.
Much more up to date, but still well before my time, I’d love to have been at the première of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes at Sadler’s Wells in 1945. It really kick-started post-war opera and, in my view, is still the best opera written in the last 75 years.
That gives me three more choices to make up a Top Ten. Sorry, but I’m going to pick another tenor: Enrico Caruso (1873–1921), who sounds fantastic on disc, even with the poor recording quality of his day. I’m then going make two visits to Berlin in the 1920s, which was such a fascinating time historically. Firstly, for the original production of The Threepenny Opera, to see authentic Brechtian theatre practice and hear Kurt Weill’s fabulous score for the first time. Finally, I’d attend the première of Berg’s Wozzeck in 1925. It’s such a thrilling opera and there was something of a scandal around the performance. These two events were among the last opportunities to see something modern and imaginative in Germany before the country descended into its darkest period.
So, to summarise, my Top Ten Dream Nights at the Opera are:
- Jussi Björling as Rodolfo in La bohème
- Carlo Bergonzi as Don Alvaro in La forza del destino
- Maria Callas as Tosca
- Fritz Wunderlich as Tamino in Die Zauberflöte
- The opening production of Wagner’s Ring, 1876
- One of the first operas ever performed 1597–1607
- The première of Peter Grimes, 1945
- Enrico Caruso as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor
- The first production of The Threepenny Opera, 1928
- Berg’s Wozzeck, 1925