Saturday, April 30, 2011

Two brides today.

We interrupt the travelogue to report on the wedding fever which hit London today, Friday 29th April 2011. Yes folks, today the Royal Wedding sent Londoners into mad British holiday mode. The British appear to equate their Royals with serious patriotic fervour, and the town was painted red, white and blue. Now, I didn’t plan to take too much notice of it all, except for noting a photo of Larry, the Downing Street cat, posing in a Union Jack bow tie for the occasion, and the fact that Carluccio’s was completely empty this morning (except for me – the manager suggested I go home so that they could close). But then my baser instincts overcame me and I watched the proceedings on the internet. The sky was overcast but it didn’t rain, the bride wore her hair down, the dress was conservative, the ceremony traditional, there was no soloist (though the choir boys were lovely), and the fly-past by Blitz era fighters shook my windows. Harry didn’t drop the ring, the dear old Queen looked nice in yellow, no one made any interesting mistakes.

Oh, and the ration of utterly ridiculous hats reached what must be an historic high. An enjoyable day of ritual, pageant and a very chaste peck (or two) passing for a kiss on the balcony.

Hot off the presses: first pics

That completes my report of one Royal wedding. This evening I attended another, in a manner of speaking. Co-incidentally (because operas need a much longer lead time to organise than Royal weddings) Covent Garden tonight had scheduled “The Tsar’s Bride”, a Russian opera by Rimsky-Korsakov. It was a fitting way to spend the Wedding Afternoon and Evening, I thought.

Royal Wedding Street Party
First, I set out just after The Balcony Scene at Buckingham Palace, and made my way on the trains to Earlsfield, dodging Union Jack-draped monarchists wandering home from The Mall. In Earlsfield I was seeking the home of a couple of die-hard republican friends, and what should I find in their street but a genuine Royal wedding street party, complete with bunting and balloons. The republicans admitted to taking a peek at The Wedding on TV, and eventually they abandoned their principles sufficiently to spend the afternoon discussing the hats, the Dress, the Queen, the carriages, Diana, the horses and Prince Harry’s paternity. We ate roast lamb and toasted the happy couple with a nice Spanish Rioja.

Then off we set for the opera house, and were very pleasantly surprised with “The Tsar’s Bride”. Although popular in the Russian repertoire, the opera is rarely performed in Western Europe or the USA, and in fact this production is the first in any major English opera house. Now, if someone says that an opera is 3.5 hours long (with only one interval!), in Russian, dark and tragic, and nearly everyone dies, you don’t really expect to be in for a jolly evening. But in an inspired move, this production moved the action from the reign of Ivan The Terrible in the early 1500s to present-day Russia. The result was absorbing.

In the first act the scene was a cheap restaurant with vodka-drinking secret police, half-naked table-dancers and an impressive mink coat. Action moved to a derelict street corner, with girls in short skirts and mobile phones. After interval, the scene opened on a rooftop swimming pool terrace where an oligarch was throwing a party for tastelessly overdressed women; and the final scene was in the oligarch’s sumptuous reception rooms, where everyone was dressed for the wedding in – you guessed it – tails and hats. The cast was almost all...Russian.

The swimming pool scene.
Not wishing to stereotype, of course, but the theme here was about authority, power and money, historically and currently. Have you heard the one about two oligarchs who meet in the street? “How much did you pay for that tie?” “$500”, comes the reply. “You fool, I know a place where you could pay twice that!” They say there’s rich, there’s super-rich, and then there’s Russian rich. There are 25 billionaires in Moscow, as well as most of Russia’s 88,000 dollar millionaires.

But the story? I hear you ask. It is based on the true life story of Marfa Sobakin, the third wife of Ivan The Terrible, who died of suspected poisoning within days of her wedding to the Tsar. The opera opens with the Tsar choosing a new bride: 2000 girls have been gathered from across Russia for him to make his selection. If this were a Zefferelli production at The Met, we’d probably have had 2000 girls, but as it was we made do with somewhat fewer. The plot is complicated, but satisfyingly operatic, with secret police, a baddie who loves the heroine, an innocent tenor who is the childhood sweetheart of the heroine, a spurned mezzo, a love potion, a poison potion, and – naturally – a mix-up of the two. In the final scene, the colour scheme is heavily purple. You know what they say in show-biz: “If there’s purple, someone dies”. First the tenor is wrongly accused and executed, then the spurned mezzo is stabbed, then the baddie has his throat cut, then the Tsar’s poor bride wastes away. Here's a review.

The cast takes their curtain call.
I must say that the Buck House do was rather more cheerful. But at curtain call one of the cast unfurled a “William & Kate” Union Jack, to the delight of the audience – at least two of whom appeared to have come straight from Westminster Abbey, since they were wearing tails (him) and a substantial hat (her).

Just to finish off the day, the cab driver who drove me home told me that he had been a policeman at the time of Charles & Diana’s wedding, and had been on duty at The Mall the whole day. Everyone has a Royal wedding story in this town. This has been mine.

As waved tonight at the opera.

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