A memorable experience
A chance find helps Arthur Nelson revisit his past
Do stop me if I’ve told you this one before!
Yesterday, as I was tidying up the sitting room, in a cabinet – amongst my CD collection – I came across a battered old cassette album of operatic arias sung by the Bulgarian dramatic soprano Ghena Dimitrova (1941-2005). I had no means of playing it, even if it was capable of being played in its sorry state, because – I estimated – I must have last owned a cassette player in about 1987 or 1988.
[By the way, just for the record, a ‘dramatic soprano’ is a opera singer possessed of a powerful, rich, full, emotive voice with the capacity to cut through, or sing over, a full orchestra – and don’t worry, I haven’t gone soft in my old age, I had to look that up!].
However, today I thought I would share with my National Rust readers the story of my brief and tiny connection with Dimitrova.
The parent group of the company I worked for in 1983 retained four prime stall seats at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and, when none of their board members could go, sometimes the board of our company was given the chance to do so. Once or twice, when even our board members were unable to use the tickets, minions like myself were offered the crumbs.
I have to confess at the outset that ballet and opera have never been of much interest to me, but – as a dutiful husband – I was under strict orders from Her Indoors to accept any opportunity to go to Covent Garden.
One morning I was called into the company secretary’s office and offered two seats to the Royal Opera House that very evening. I accepted in principle with alacrity and ran to my office to phone the Mem Saab and check that she was up for going.
She was. “What production is it?” she asked. I didn’t know.
“Well, is it opera or ballet?” Again I didn’t know. However, despite my ineptitude, back then we were young and relatively free and a deal to attend was struck.
That evening, by the time we took our seats in the splendour of the Royal Opera House surroundings, we were already up to speed with the fact that we were about to behold Puccini’s Turandot, which was an opera – not a ballet.
It was a damned fine production. It also so happened that Ghena Dimitrova was making her Royal Opera House debut in it, not that this meant much to us.
I had taken on board the gist of the action from a brief glance at the programme over our pre-match drink. We were going to be somewhere in China. The emperor’s daughter was available for marriage, but a ‘three riddles’ task had been set for potential suitors … and the penalty for failure to answer all three was death. Several had already tried and duly bit the dust, but by the end of the show, somehow, our hero was to succeed.
It kicked off with some lively antics involving dancers, much pageantry and some low-key singing from various people on stage. Early on, the emperor’s daughter – played by Dimitrova, a lady whose considerable dimensions suggested that the show would not be over until she let rip – was wheeled on and did one or two bits of business.
It was all going really well from my point of view, that is to say it certainly ‘registered’ with me as a more rewarding experience than spending an evening semi-comatose in front of the box.
Then suddenly, right before the interval, it was her turn to sing a centre-stage song. This was a revelation. She could do the soft and sweet, of course, but when the tune came to a climax towards the end, she cranked proceedings up to mesmerising effect. Pure and loud – and I mean really loud – she made the hair on the back of your neck stand up involuntarily. Her voice filled the auditorium, seemingly making the rafters shake. This was all effortless. Not shouted, just sheer controlled volume.
As she finished … and then the curtain came down … the audience went potty. My wife and I compared notes. Clearly we had not been the only ones affected by the impact of Dimitrova’s voice. The re-assuring aspect was that presumably some or all of these other people knew and loved their opera – it wasn’t the case that, as innocents, we’d been impressed by something that most fans of this type of thing would regard as average or mundane.
During the interval, the place was a-buzz. The second half went by in a blur. Every time the emperor’s daughter cleared her tubes to sing you could feel the atmosphere of excitement and anticipation soar in the auditorium. When it came to the pay-off climax – the aria I now know to be In Questa Reggia – the tenor playing the hero didn’t stand a chance in the ‘duet’ section. Dimitrova simply blew him metaphorically off stage, he was totally drowned out. In the stalls, the experience of her singing at full tilt was rather like standing on a Heathrow runway and having Concorde come by and take-off. Actually, that image doesn’t do justice. It was like being locked inside a Concorde’s hangar as the chief engineer conducted a final dress rehearsal, testing her engines at full throttle, before her maiden flight.
Deafening but thrilling.
At the end of the show, the guy sitting in front of me shook his head in shocked disbelief and jumped to his feet shouting “Bravo! Bravo!” and clapping like mad. Then someone else did. Then, as one, we all did.
It was one of those ‘I was there’ moments that I shall never forget.
A few years later, noticing that Dimotrova was involved, we bought tickets to a massive ‘popular’ production of Verdi’s Aida staged at the Earls Court. I swear to you that she was the only singer involved who did not need – and did not use – a ‘head microphone’ to make themselves heard in that cavernous arena.
In an effort to pay tribute to the great lady, here’s a link to her obituary as published in The Daily Telegraph. See here – TELEGRAPH
And here’s a video of her singing In Questa Reggia from Turandot at Verona in 1983, the same year I saw her singing it at the Royal Opera House. It’s nearly 7 minutes long, but I heartily recommend you turn the volume knob up a bit and try to stay with it to the end. And remember, Verona is an open-air theatre – not an enclosed one! See here – YOUTUBE