For some months now, my friends Kim and Véronique and myself have been talking about going to an opera performance in 2015.
From where we live, there are three venues we can get to quite easily. In London (by train) there is The Royal Opera House. In Hampshire (a drive in Fiona of less than two hours) there is Grange Park. And in Sussex itself (a short hop in Fiona) there is Glyndebourne. Lucky us, to have such a choice!
The Royal Opera House would be a metropolitan affair; we'd have to eat at a good restaurant. But at Grange Park and Glyndebourne we can enjoy the classic bucolic champagne-picnic experience.
All three are a fantastic excuse for donning posh togs and best pearls, and generally posing our heads off - because, of course, attending an opera it's not just for the rich music and the emotionally charged singing. It's one of life's higher-level experiences, and you go for the atmosphere as much as anything else. There's that shared feeling that This Is Something Amazing. If you want to catch me at my most gushing and theatrical, and possibly at my most transported, then catch me at the opera!
None of us is especially well-off. So £200 tickets, plus travel and food costs, are not really affordable. Not all performances cost that much, thankfully, but - for instance - if I were to book a seat to see Die Zauberflöte at the Royal Opera House (and there are still tickets available for the 23rd and 26th February, and the 2nd March) it would set me back £182. That's excluding the booking fee, train travel and something to eat. So make that the best part of £250, all in. Ouch!
Reality check: £250 represents the cost of a week's fuel and site fees, if I go off to the Cotswolds in the caravan. It will also cover my grocery bills at Waitrose for twenty days. It will pay for three fillings at the dentist.
There are in fact three operas I'd personally love to see this coming year:
1. Die Zauberflöte above, at the Royal Opera House.
2. La Bohème at Grange Park (on from 6th June to 17th July, although because of my Scottish holiday I can make only 27th June, 11th July and 17th July). No prices quoted, nor can one book yet.
3. Carmen at Glyndebourne (on from 23rd May to 11th July, although I can make only 23rd May, 25th and 28th June, and the 1st, 4th and 11th July). As with Grange Park, no ticket prices yet, and it's not bookable till the 9th March.
I'm looking at the one or other of the last two - or both! Ticket prices at Grange Park used to be around £125 at most (I last went there to see Tosca in 2011, and Madama Butterfly in 2012). Glyndebourne will be much the same as the Royal Opera House: say £50 more. Hmmm. If I'm honest, if it has to be one or the other, and not both, then I fancy the fiery and passionate Carmen a little more than La Bohème!
But just in case the vote is for the less-expensive La Bohème, I decided today to get hold of the best Carmen CD, and install the most-loved singing from this opera onto my phone, as a change from arias and plain chants from The Beatles and Roxy Music.
And immediately I ran into a problem! What exactly is the 'best' recording of Carmen?
I wasn't prepared for the hotly-debated online reviews I suddenly got plunged into. For, of course, I didn't simply go to the Tesco website and click on whatever they had. I did a bit of research. My goodness, what a lot of conflicting enthusiast knowledge! So far as I could gather, mainstream opinion centred on these three 'classic' recordings:
1975: conductor Sir Georg Solti, with Tatiana Troyanos and Plácido Domingo.
1977: conductor Claudio Abbado, with Teresa Berganza and Plácido Domingo.
1983: conductor Herbert von Karajan, with Agnes Baltsa and José Carreras.
Which then? There were strong opinions for and against each recording. I decided to go for the one that had moved me back in the early 1990s, when I was going through an 'opera phase' and discovered that I was totally enthralled by Carmen. I would play it loudly in my car, as I sped along the Sussex lanes. I remember being out one evening in 1991 or early 1992 en route to Brighton from Horsham, and the girl I was with marvelled at which song I found the most appealing. She remarked - enigmatically - that it said an awful lot about me. At the time, I thought she merely meant that I had a penchant for women's singing voices. Nowadays I speculate that she meant something more.
Anyway, I'd been playing a taped version of the Abbado/Braganza/Domingo recording. So be it, then. This must be my choice. I've now paid Amazon £18.87 for a new CD, plus an mp3 download, if I want it. The CD arrives in three days' time. I shall go into track-ripping mode on receipt. Already I'm humming the music.
At this point I may have to brace myself for tut-tutting comments from people who genuinely know a lot about opera. I am aware that the Abbado recording, though a leading one, has its fierce critics. I also know that aficionados would, in any case, urge me to buy another recording, perhaps the Solti, simply to understand the differences between this one and another, and thereby educate myself.
But best of all would be to see a live performance. I'm texting Kim and Véronique as soon as I've finished this post.