In his description of the ostentatiously lavish games put on by the vain tyrant Commodus, Edward Gibbon tells us that “Commodus killed a camelopardis, or giraffe, the tallest, the most gentle and the most useless of the large quadrupeds. This singular animal, a native only of the interior parts of Africa, has not been seen in Africa since the revival of letters”. In today’s age, when anyone can fly to Rome for the price of a dozen pints of beer, it’s only the history buffs who revere the Romans. But this small footnote, which tells us that the Romans enjoyed goods which were unavailable to the Enlightenment some 17 centuries later, gives a clue as to why Rome has usually loomed so large in the imagination of its descendants.
The Coliseum, home to English National Opera, does not merit a mention in Nairn. They put on a good show and I always enjoy my visits (a few years ago a very Bunuelian staging of a Ligeti opera featured, if I remember rightly, a nightclub inside a giant’s anus), although I generally only get round to visiting once a year, when I’m emailed about £10 tickets.
This evening, I took a good look at the place and decided that fun as it is, the Coliseum is actually quite vulgar. Stepping out of a time machine, would a Senator feel at home here or see it all as ersatz trash? My English friends who have visited Belfast describe Protestant Ulster as “England’s stalker”, or “a bankrupt Disneyland trying to recreate England and getting it a bit wrong”. The Coliseum gives the impression that England was Rome’s stalker, at least for that now-distant period when London took its turn to play at being the “Third Rome”. It’s very opulent, but is it tasteful? Then again, were the Imperial Games tasteful?
The first thing that springs to mind is a question: Why on Earth? I’m as kindly disposed to Rome as anyone, but what has it all to do with opera? Though the Romans had music, to the best of my knowledge none of it survives (unless you wish to count Carmina Burana) and although the likes of Seneca and Plautus wrote for the theatre, the civilization is better known for chariot racing, gladiators, bread and circuses.
Nonetheless this theatre is the ultimate fanboy for Ancient Rome, and the excess makes it feel like the bedroom of a teenage girl who has covered every surface with posters, articles and memorabilia relating to One Direction or Justin Bieber.
All this Romanitas happens to be up my street but taken this far, when you stop think about it it’s mildly strange. Considering how their coalition ended, a giant coin featuring Caesar and Pompey has as much pathos as a commemorative coin of Cameron & Clegg would in a few centuries time, if there was a chance of anyone remembering who they were.
There being such scant physical evidence left to us of that Rome, all the gold paint and marble puts one more in mind of Papal Rome. Perhaps it is appropriate, given that opera developed at post-Renaissance courts where people were trying on the clothes of the Caesars; what is a Hapsburg Kaiser in the time of Mozart, if not a pretender to this throne?
I didn’t want to be the pest who takes photos of the performance, but it was a good one; Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. I like Carmen but didn’t know this one. It’s the old chestnut of amour fou that has served opera so well, this time between a homecoming wanderer and the Brahmin priestess who has been hired to pray for the divers, like a mercenary goalscorer signed by a struggling club on emergency loan.
The set was beautiful, stilts supporting rudimentary shacks made from planks of wood and scraps of corrugated iron, with tealight lanterns strung across. Virtuoso lighting turned a wafted blue rug into the Indian ocean, cuts in the rug allowing the divers to emerge and disappear again as they moved between a rocking boat and the depths of sea. A short scene in the governor’s office turned the stage into a fifty-foot tall newspaper archive for some strange reason.
The first half set the scene, the second saw the lovers succumb to temptation and get caught out; like La Mer the music evoked a calm sea, then a stormy one. Finding soft-edged beauty in a life that is no doubt torrid, dangerous and infinitely wearying, the opera is pure Orientalism which tells us more about C19th France than life in an Indian fishing town. But I think that’s alright.
As we walk back to Charing Cross after dinner it’s dark, and the ‘Daily Planet’ pomp of the Coliseum roof looks good in contrast to the more restrained backdrop of St Martins-in-the-Fields.