Monday, 5 March 2012

Return to Vienna (5)

Having mastered the routes and workings of the Viennese underground, we set off in good time, picked up our tickets at the box office, and, having almost an hour until curtain-up, J. and I went across the road to a café-restaurant. In keeping with the culprit of the show, the villain of the piece we were going to see, we asked for champagne, but the waiter apologised: they didn't stock champagne, but would we like a glass of Sekt instead? Sekt is a bubbly champagne substitute, top hole for giving you a terrible headache. We opted for a glass of white wine instead, and a single serving of apfelstrüdel with two spoons, so that we could share it. This apfelstrüdel turned out to be very like English apple pie, especially as it was served with what they called hot vanilla sauce, which was no less than custard. So an evening dedicated to nostalgia started unexpectedly well.

30 minutes later we took our seats, having been shown to a box furnished with red plush carpet, red plush chairs and a red plush balcony to lean on. A few minutes' wait while members of the orchestra drifted in, tuned their instruments, ran over tricky passages just to be sure, the houselights dimmed, the conductor strode in, took a bow, lifted his baton...

* * *

46 years earlier I too had lifted my baton at that point, not in Vienna but in West London, for a student production (photo below) of Die Fledermaus, preparation for which entailed missing every lecture for almost a complete term. The authorities were very understanding: obviously putting the music of quite a tricky operetta together, rehearsing the chorus and soloists, gathering and rehearsing the orchestra, organising the ballet, all these were excellent training for the headship of school music and drama departments to which we would undoubtedly be appointed in double quick time, given our energy and effervescence.

Or something like that. I still have the programme (cover below) of that student production. There are names in it you might just recognise: Roger Sloman, Christopher Strauli, Patricia Hodge, Røgnvaldur Areliusson, Rosemary de Pemberton. Actually, I don't know what became of Rosemary, but with a name like that she ought to have gone far. Few of those involved actually became teachers.

It was a legendary production set in halcyon days. Cast members found themselves caught up in a Viennese whirl, fell in and out of love with each other. Beefier members entered a local 7-a-side rugby tournament. There was a glorious reunion several months later at the wedding of two of them who'd stayed the course. People took each other for full-fig birthday dinners to a Soho restaurant called Old Vienna. Corps de ballet members swooned over photos of Nureyev, then in his prime. The whole production became an icon of unity and teamwork, bonded more strongly by knowing that in a few months many of us would have left, students no longer. As two lines from the libretto ran:

Glücklich ist, wer vergisst
Was doch nicht zu ändern ist.

[Happy is he who can disregard
What can't be changed.]

* * *

So a return to all this in Vienna, birthplace and setting of Die Fledermaus, in the Volksoper, was particularly heady and poignant, and, sentimental soul, I felt the starting tear for the memory of all those old friends, some no longer with us, as the famous overture started and the tangled plot started to unravel its threads of revenge, lies and perfidy, famously exorcised by Dr Falke the avenger's climactic call to brother- and sister-hood towards the end of Act 2, and in the finale the attribution, however improbable, of these follies to the effects of champagne.

But to bring us down to earth, there was an unfortunate occurrence. Minutes before curtain-up, there was a slight disturbance behind us in our box, and an elderly lady appeared, accompanied by (I suppose) her daughter and a friend. The elderly lady was on crutches, and the 3 chairs in the box were already taken, so that she was obliged to stand. J. and I looked at each other: should one of us offer the elderly lady our chair? We had come all the way from France for this, a special and quite expensive birthday treat booked months in advance. Should we make this sacrifice? There was a third person in the box, a stout German, middle-aged, sleek and pomaded. I'm afraid we left it to him to offer his chair. He didn't. Just before the end of Act 1 there was a crash and exclamations of pain behind us. The elderly lady, unable to stand any longer, had collapsed. Her daughter came to the rescue, and I don't think any great harm was done. But J. and I felt bad about it, all the same. What would you have done?

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