I decided to retire in April of this year. A surprise party was thrown by my daughter and son-in-law at their home in Manchester, of which until I walked through the door, I had no inkling. We had a great time; a gathering of family and friends, all of whom are very close.
Part-way through the evening, my daughter gave me an envelope with a home printed birthday wish, to ‘The world’s biggest grump’. ‘Where would you go if you could go anywhere in the world, and what would you do?’ I was asked to answer the question without seeing the reverse of the print, but I immediately said, ‘Verona, in Italy, to see and hear opera the way it should be heard’. This had been my dream for many years, but I had always found it out of my reach. I was then allowed to turn the card. It bore the legend, ‘This entitles you to flights to Verona, the best seats in the Arena di Verona to see whichever opera is being performed during your stay, and all of your hotel bills paid for’. Hand on heart, I was moved to tears.
A week or two later, they did exactly the same thing to my son-in-law’s mother, who is also an opera buff.
In August, my wife Beth and I, and Stephen’s parents, Peter and Pauline, found ourselves on a plane, winging its way from Manchester to Verona, via Frankfurt. We were picked up at Verona airport by Stephen, who with Heidi, was on an extended European holiday, and were staying at the same hotel.
The hotel, a tiny pension, was all of five minutes’ gentle stroll from the Arena di Verona, and on the evening of the opera, we did just that, we strolled around, very slowly, to a restaurant on the Via di Barbera just opposite the Arena, ate our pasta, drank some lovely cool Suave, then just as lazily, we sauntered over to gate 1, down a red carpet to our seats near the front. It really was lovely having first class seats, we knew that we had no need to rush; we would have no need to suffer pushing and shoving on the way into the arena.
The show turned out to be absolutely fantastic. 25,000 people were in the arena that lovely, warm evening, and except for an idiot German sitting behind me, the evening could not have been more enjoyable: but more about him later.
I’ll run through to the incredible, very special effects that occurred in the second act. Opera fans will know the story, and non-fans will not want to know it, so I’ll go to the scene in the dining room of Scarpia’s palace, and I’ll even condense that. Scarpia’s the bad guy, by the way. He’s had Mario Cavaradossi, who is Floria Tosca’s lover, thrown into his torture chamber, and is using Mario’s captivity as a lever so he can get into Tosca’s knickers, threatening to have him executed if she doesn’t play ball – as it were. Tosca hears Mario’s cries from where he’s being kept in the cells, and snitches on Angelotti, whom Mario has hidden in the well at his villa.
Tosca is prone at the side of the stage at this point, and she sings the beautiful aria ‘Visi d’arte’, after which Scarpia tries once again to convince Tosca that she should let him have his nasty way with her. As Tosca finished the aria, the entire arena erupted with a standing ovation. So excited were the audience that with a look between Tosca and the orchestra conductor, she launched right back into the same song. Now here was where it became a touch mystic, because at the end of the aria, Scarpia approached Tosca, and the clever girl does him in with a rather sharp steak knife, at which point, I happened to glance at my watch and saw that it was exactly midnight, and at that same moment, there was a roll of thunder and lightning flashed across the sky. 25,000 people looked up at the same moment, most probably thinking as I was that these were the best special effects ever more. I turned to my wife and said, ‘Wow, that is fantastic’, and my wife said that she thought the storm must be real, as the lightning was actually above the clouds, which would have been a difficult thing for a special effects person to achieve. The storm continued to the end of the programme, which considering the subject, was doubly effective.
Anyway, Mario is dragged up from the dungeon, and just before he faces the firing squad, which poor old Tosca had been told would be using blanks, (terrible fibber, was Scarpia), he sings the absolutely superb ‘E lucevan le stelle’, and when he finished, as with Tosca earlier, he was encored from all over the arena into a repeat performance.
Needless to say, that ended with a standing ovation. People were stamping their feet and clapping and shouting, and I will admit, I was right there along with them.
Now we come back to the stupid German guy in the row behind. He banged me on the shoulder and shouted ‘Will you sit down, I am trying to watch the show’. Now bear in mind that he was probably the only one in the arena not on his feet. I turned and said, ‘Pardon’, and he shouted, ‘You’re in the way, I cannot see’. Hand on heart, I thought he was kidding and said so. Seeing that he wasn’t, I’m afraid I got rather angry myself, and summoning what I remembered of my rock ‘n roll German from the 60s, I said, ‘Dummer Deutscher, nicht wissen sie was ein stehbeifall ist?’ (Stupid German, don’t you know what a standing ovation is?) I know I may have been rude, but the guy was going out of his way to spoil what, up to that point had been a fantastic evening, and I think it must have worked because he just sat down, absolutely stunned. The opera finished soon after, and the storm which had been threatening all evening very kindly waited until we were tucked up in bed before venting its temper on Verona.