Thanks to the generosity of friends, Mrs Spencer and I went to the opera the other week, an exceptionally rare event. Having grown up with the rougher edges of pop and rock music, the trained voices of opera singers always strike me as being artificial and overblown. And there is something about the snooty splendour of Covent Garden that brings out a chippy adolescent resentment in me, though on most matters these days I am soundly right-wing and usually enjoy a spot of luxury.
The evening didn’t begin well. Our taxi got stuck in a traffic jam and we had barely travelled 100 yards before the meter hit ten quid and we bailed out. But walking across Waterloo Bridge was almost as bad because there had been a big fireworks display for the Lord Mayor’s Show and we were repeatedly held up by officious police officers as the crowds dispersed. When we finally got to Covent Garden I was almost crying with rage and frustration.
The prospect of an enjoyable evening looked remote, especially since the Telegraph’s opera critic, Rupert Christiansen, had described the production of Bellini’s opera La Sonnambula as ‘tiresomely droopy, threadbare and a waste of everyone’s time’, while Michael Tanner had been pretty lukewarm in The Spectator.
In fact, I found it all splendid. In these anxious days of impending economic meltdown, there seemed to be something gloriously defiant about an opera house crammed with civilised people prepared to splash out £125 on a ticket. The dinner in the Amphitheatre restaurant was delicious, our seats in the auditorium were terrific, and even the opera proved unexpectedly bearable, probably because my expectations had been so low.
I loved the fact that the leading performers looked too old, and too fat, for the roles they were playing, and more remarkably still I enjoyed the bel canto singing. And though most of the critics hated it, I thought the production, updated to the 20th century and set in a Swiss sanatorium offering spectacular views of the Alps, gave the opera, with its slight and preposterous story of a sleepwalker caught in a compromising situation, genuine freshness and style. The tunes were pleasant and undemanding, too.
But I fear opera is a habit I cannot afford to indulge. The combined cost of the tickets and supper was a whopping 700 quid. And if I get hooked on opera I will soon be bringing ruin on my family by purchasing far too many tickets as well as box sets on Amazon. Having met quite a few opera freaks over the years, it is clear that this particular art form is almost as addictive as crack cocaine. I must just say no.
Talking of box sets, it probably hasn’t escaped your notice that Christmas is looming, and one of the aims of this column is to take some of the angst out of the festive season with a few recommendations for presents.
This time last year I recommended Deutsche Grammophon’s two great box sets, The Collector’s Edition, containing a total of 111 discs of its finest classical recordings. They were on sale on Amazon then for £75 a box, but the price has now gone up to £317 for the first collection and more than 100 smackers for the second. Do not despair, however, because Decca has just released for £76 a 50-CD box set of the glories from its catalogue called The Decca Sound that is every bit as enjoyable, featuring a wonderful roster of great recordings by celebrated artists. I have also been greatly enjoying Harmonia Mundi’s fine set of 30 CDs of music of the Enlightenment, Lumières, which includes music for harpsichord, operas and oratorios and great works by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. With my recent conversion to opera, I’m looking forward to getting stuck into its recording of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.
The other box set that I have been enjoying for several months now is Satchmo: Ambassador of Jazz, a superb collection covering the whole of Louis Armstrong’s career from the great Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings of the 1920s right up to his final releases before his death in 1971. This ten-CD set comes in a replica of his trumpet case, and contains a beautifully illustrated and informative hardback book about his life and career as well as copies of some of his scores with his own annotations. At £114 this is definitely a gift for someone you really love, but it will give a lifetime’s musical pleasure.
My final yuletide recommendation is a splendid new eight-CD set containing the complete works of the Smiths in which the combination of Morrissey’s often witty, angst-filled lyrics and vocals and Johnny Marr’s chiming guitar offer something close to pop perfection. It’s a beautifully assembled package with superb remastered sound, retailing at about 30 quid, and confirming my suspicion that the Smiths belong in the pantheon of British popular music with the Beatles and the Stones.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.