This past Sunday I went to Salisbury Cathedral for their famous Advent service. This is the Church of England at its ceremonial grandest, a procession of clergy and choirs, with the staffs and crosses, even the embroidery on the gonfalons* sparkling in the candlelit darkness, designed for maximum impact. As the clock struck, the lights went out. The darkness inside was absolute, the vast interior of the cathedral vanishing into it. It was one of the most powerful, overwhelming experiences I have had in a long time, rare and wonderful. Slowly the darkness was be illuminated by hundreds of candles, and somewhere a choir was singing – an ethereal, almost unreal sound echoing down. It wasn’t so much a spiritual as it was an almost mystical experience, a glimpse of holiness.
Until, of course, the babies started crying and the reality of other people (Sartre was onto something, I tell you) yanked me firmly back to earth.
Sitting under the candles, I thought about the people who had been there before me, 600-700 years ago, the people who had never seen the cathedral being built. Their experience cannot have been much different from mine, even if they were more used to the darkness. Did they hear the voice of God in the song, experience that same sense of unrealness? What did they feel looking at the tower, one of the the tallest buildings in Europe at the time, and certainly the tallest they would have ever seen? I can barely comprehend how it was accomplish with 13th century technology myself, and think it must have seemed like magic – or work of divine power – for the Medieval people. It is exquisite, almost a religious experience in itself, that sensation something I’ll cherish for a long time.
The Salisbury visit wasn’t the only thing of fearsome awesomeness last week – on Monday, couple of days after my second Lulu, I went to the Oriel College for a masterclass by Sarah Connolly. I did my first year Old Testament tutorials in Oriel, and love its grandiose… grandiosity. To get to the Music Room, one had go through three quads and find in a spiral staircase a rather Spanish-inquisition-was-here looking door, leading into a confused jewel box of a room – the ceiling medallions silver-leafed, a selection of old dignitaries looking down from their gilded frames, the heavy silk curtains stained with ancient water damage. There were four young singers presenting their songs to Connolly, and I learned three things of note: 1) always, always learn what the text of your song actually means; 2) a truly competent accompanist can really make the experience for you and the audience; and 3) all men are the same – oops, all young men are the same (even world class divas have foot-in-the-mouth moments – who knew?). Connolly was entertaining, funny even. Gorgeous. She focused much of the time on the (dare I say it?) least competent singer, and made him better. It was one of those surprising gifts of an event, making me glad that I went and let myself be inspired.
The third big event of the week (feels like a much longer time) was the ROH Manon Lescaut. Not my favourite opera by any stretch, but one of my favourite singers, Sondra Radvanovsky, was singing the title role. This is a revival of a 2014 production, and ugly as sin, and just about as confusing. The early 18th century tale of a girl who on her way to the convent gets distracted has been updated to the modern day, and just about nothing about it works. In the original, Manon gives up the true love of a poor man to become a rich man’s mistress, tempted by the luxurious lifestyle he can offer her, and is then imprisoned and banished to America along with other women of compromised virtue – it is the sort of story that, despite some of its completely timeless themes, cannot really work in a too-modern setting without starting to fight the libretto, or stopping to make sense. This update has Manon doing (soft) porn in front of cameras – hardly a life she would hesitate to leave behind – and the Le Havre port scene has been made into some kind of cheap reality TV episode. The critics seem to hate the fourth act the most, but I found it the only one that actually sort of makes sense – Manon dies high on a half-collapsed motorway flyover, a perfectly acceptable substitute for the Louisiana desert (Puccini had never been to the actual Louisiana, right?) in its derelict barrenness. Worthy of punt for Radvanovsky’s singing, and not much else, I’m afraid.
*a word I learned just for this – it means a banner hanging from a crossbar