Rupert Christiansen

Up in the Gods

Magnificence: Onstage at the Met


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My most chilling memory of air-conditioned nights at New York’s Metropolitan Opera is the prelude to a performance of Verdi’s Otello. As the lights dimmed, the house manager came out in front of the curtain. He was visibly trembling, as though afraid he might be called upon to launch into the Prologue from I Pagliacci. ‘Owing to a sadly unconquerable throat infection,’ he began, ‘Mr X will be unable to sing the part of Iago tonight.’ Now at Covent Garden any such announcement would provoke a polite moan of sympathy: at the Met it was greeted with cheers and calls for Mr X’s permanent dismissal. ‘At very short notice, Signor Y has kindly flown in from Parma and the bedside of his terminally sick mother, to take his place.’ No gratitude was shown for this matchless piece of altruism – instead there was a positive tornado of booing, stamping and whistling. I asked my neighbour, who had gone black with rage, what Signor Y had done to offend. ‘He was Renato five years ago in Ballo,’ came the esoteric reply, ‘and he pooped on the Eri tu.’

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