Thursday, 16 August 2007

A Night at the Opera

We went to see El Teatro Colon (the Buenos Aires Opera Company)'s performance of Puccini's Turandot last night. It was at the Auditorio Nacional, a most impressive edifice that was built in the 50's and renovated within the last few years. Mexicans do large scale monumental architecture extremely well. The forecourt is huge but doesn't make you feel small and insignificant. There are views through the open spans in the roof towards the skyscrapers, mostly hotels, in the vicinity, while much of the forecourt area is covered with glass and steel galleries. Staircases and entrances to the toilets are tucked away behind huge pillars, and there are various bars and snack and coffee places scattered about. Various sculptures, indoor and outdoor, all on the monumental scale, have been commissioned for the space for particular events as well as those originally installed. I love most of these, they all seem very confident and really enhance the space, using natural and man-made materials and sometimes pre-Hispanic themes that contribute to the Mexican-ness of public spaces.

We went with Maggui, our oldest friend in Mexico, her 90-ish mother Romy, and Estela, one of her many siblings. The handicapped access system worked in a way: public access is generally very unfriendly for the disabled, with lots of stairs and slippery surfaces, but they have a system where you ask in the carpark for a wheelchair and an attendant comes to you, takes you to the one tiny handicapped access lift, and gets you up to the level of the theatre. Maggui knows the system and so we arrived very early, but as there are so few wheelchairs they took us to a table in the forecourt where we had to unload Romy to vacate the chair. We muscled in on a table with several spare chairs: the couple whose space we were sharing turned his back on us and proceeded to natter on his phone for a while before they moved on and left us in sole occupancy.

Barry and Maggui queued for coffee: terribly slow service, compounded by the unavailability of any wine. The bars sell beer and hard liquor, but no wine or champers, so different from the Opera venues at home. Then 15 minutes before the performance (which began at 9 and ran till midnight) Maggui had to go get a wheelchair from the carpark again to actually get Romy into the theatre. At least it ensures plenty of exercise for those accompanying the handicapped person!

There was a huge and colourful display at the back of the forecourt advertising Lucha Libre, the Mexican wrestling phenomenon which is very popular here. It seemed very incongruous, crossing all kinds of boundaries - I mean, at the Arts Centre in Melbourne they may go so far as to have a display of Kylie Minogue's or Dame Edna's costumes, but hardly the wrestling!

When we entered the actual auditorium, we were blown away. In fact it seems a very appropriate venue for wrestling! It is enormous: on 3 levels, and probably seats 5,000 to 6,000. The top level wasn't used at all for the opera, but the downstairs section we were in is just vast, and even though we had paid around US$110 for tickets, we were not in the front section. The orchestra pit seemed less of a pit than it is in most venues we have seen opera: lower than the stage, but not that much lower than the front stalls. From half-way back we could see the orchestra players, though we were too far away to see them well.

The surtitles were very clear, telling everyone to turn off all functions on their mobies, while half the audience was busily talking, texting etc. on the mobile! Mind you, I didn't hear any going off during the performance.

There were lots of empty seats in the more expensive front section, but when we thought we might move down into an empty seat after interval, the staff were busily checking tickets so those seats remained empty. I don't know if there would have been more leg room in that section, but we could have used some: on average Mexicans are less tall than we are, so I suppose they cater to the mean. We were a bit uncomfortable in seats that were wide enough but only just accommodated our legs. Mostly the audience was not dressed up, even though this was opening night. There were an enormous number of uncomfortable looking shoes, however, with many women teetering on high heels, platforms, thin strappy sandals and other dangerous-looking implements of foot torture. (I noted this also at the Frida Kahlo exhibition, where everybody knows they are in for a lot of walking and standing about on hard surfaces - too many fashion victims!)

The performance itself was excellent. The sets (by Roberto Oswald) were huge and multi-level,with much impressive statuary, the costumes (by Anibal Lapiz) contrasted the masses in shades of grey, the military with lots of shiny bits, the court officials in opulent robes, and of course the Emperor in richly embrodered robes outshone only by his fantastically attired ice-princess daughter, Turandot, in robes so heavy that about 4 courtesans were needed to schlep her train every time she moved. And of course the obligatory troupe of boy dancers with nearly bare buttocks that opera designers can't resist including as eye candy.

Cynthia Makris as Turandot was excellent, very expressive and believable (well, to the extent that any opera is believable: the range of her emotions was very powerful, even if the plot requires a suspension of disbelief). Jose Luis Duval as Calaf was good, and also his emotional range was great, even though in the show stopper Nessun Dorma we have all been spoiled by the Three Tenors. Paula Almerares sang Liu, and also was really good, though her costume made one think of Pocahontas. The production was splendid, not too gimmicky but not bog standard either. Due to the size of the venue, the whole performance and all the soloists were miked, and there were 2 large video screens showing the main action in close-up. It was a bit hard to keep an eye on these, on the stage, and on the surtitles - which of course were in Spanish which I read slowly, so they kept going off before I fully absorbed them. But as with many operas, the music bypasses my brain and goes straight to my heart, so I would rate it a 3- kleenex performance.

In the foyer during the two intervals, they were doing a roaring trade in wrestling food - nachos, burgers, hot dogs, Mexican sandwiches (generally to be avoided, I find, as I hate the sweet standard-issue white bread here) popcorn, soft drinks, but the number of smokers busily puffing away chased me back inside.

W hile we were waiting for Maggui and the family to get down to the underground garage after queuing for the available wheelchairs, we were entertained by a host of valet parking attendants collecting cars. Dressed in salmon pink, their technique seemed to be to sprint wildly through the carpark to the vehicle they were to collect, quite diverting to watch, and it would be a good interval training workout for them, I guess. Barry noted that the older valets were less speedy than the young ones: I wonder if there are time trials to get and keep this job?

Driving home around 12.30AM , I was struck by how easy it is to get where you are going in Mexico City without the usual traffic gridlock. Maggui of course was driving, as neither of us is game to get behind the wheel here, but we just zipped along (and noted how many drivers ignore red lights if they persist more than a few moments). Altogether a night to remember.

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