After spending nearly five hours (with intervals) watching Guillaume Tell at the Royal Opera house this afternoon/evening, I am feeling gloriously, utterly saturated with music. My brain is swirling with twelve-part harmonies and top C’s, I have melodies leaking from my mouth and my pores; I swear if you put your ear close to my skin, you would hear faint echoes of horns and harps.
Tell was the first grand opera I ever sang in (chorus, sixth first-alto from the left). It was simultaneously a première and a pinnacle for me, because I can’t think of another opera where the chorus is so much of a character in its own right, or where it gets to spend so much time onstage and sing so many different kinds of music – legato pastoral tunes, solemn hymns, jolly folksy dances, pleading prayers, martial fanfare tunes and skirling defiance; and most of those several times over in different numbers. The company needed to mount a production of Tell is mind-bogglingly huge – a dozen principals (to include a tenor who can nail 19 top C’s per performance); women’s chorus; double men’s chorus (because the worthy Swiss peasants and the dastardly Austrian soldiers are onstage simultaneously for most of the big numbers); dancers; an orchestra with a minimum of flute; piccolo; two oboes; a cor anglais; two clarinets; two bassoons; four French horns (in two different keys); two trumpets; three trombones; a full string section (including at least five celli), a harp; and, in the percussion, timpani; bass drum; and cymbals. And, of course, a triangle. That’s before even starting on backstage and front-of-house staff. With so many people involved, the excitement generated was intense, so much so that when I hear the music I can still feel the frisson, half a lifetime later. We had to be onstage, behind the curtain, before the house lights went down; and remain immobile and silent through twelve-plus minutes of overture. On the first night, the tension was too much for our William Tell and he relieved his nerves by doing a Chuck Berry duck-walk across the stage in time with the loud part of the ‘Lone Ranger’ section, only just scuttling back in to position in time for curtain-up.
As soon as I saw that Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House was putting on a full-length production of Tell this year, I began dropping very heavy hints about how much I wanted to go and see it. And because my children’s Papa is an exceedingly lovely man, he booked us tickets, even though opera is very definitely Not His Thing. Not only that, for my birthday, he bought me a copy of the lush 1973 recording featuring Nicolai Gedda and Monserrat Caballé, letting me reacquaint myself with the music (and incidentally get my regrettable tendency to sing along right out of my system).
It was while listening to the recording that it dawned on me that LB was going to come to the Royal Opera House with us, two years and a day after he drowned in that NHS bathtub. LB drops in on me fairly often. I see an Eddie Stobart lorry: I think of LB. A bus goes by: I think of LB. I visit London: I think of LB. How could he not be there, when a story of oppression, untimely death, injustice and resistance, is being presented in his favourite city?
I thought beforehand that if LB was anywhere in the production, he would be in the spine-tingling Act 2 lament ‘Ses jours qu’ils ont osé proscrire’, (and would probably make me cry – again) but I was quite wrong. Director Damiano Michieletto had decided that Arnold would not mourn ‘Je ne te verrai plus’ into the usual middle distance void, but would sing to a ‘ghost’ that was in fact the actual actor who had played the murdered character. Large as life (obviously) and just as (obviously) substantial, he left no space for LB to occupy.
It didn’t matter. I saw glimpses of LB in Gerald Finley’s square-jawed determination, in John Osborn’s dark curls, and Sofia Fomina’s adolescent-boy awkwardness. He was in the resonances of hope, rage, fear, despair, mourning and then new hope, enduring love, a desire for justice and a resolve to pursue it to the end, that reverberate through Rossini’s music and which might have been written with the JusticeforLB campaign in mind.
In any case, LB is not a man to wait until Act 2 of anything to make his mark. No. The first person to be seen at the opening of Act I Scene 1 is the schoolboy, Jemmy. He sits, isolated in his circle of light, head down and cocked sideways on the table, totally absorbed in playing out a complicated story with his toy figures.