John Gilbert and Lillian Gish on the set of La Bohème (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
On Opera

The grand tour

Sex and the cities

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Opera’s value as a guide to negotiating the old vale of tears continues to be hotly debated — well, here, anyway; to be fair, it’s got to be a better bet than mime. On the plus side, you can expect loads of hot sex and a richly varied emotional life. Then again, you’ll definitely be spending a lot of time in jail, clap clinic and loony bin. Swings and roundabouts, innit.

Alongside its other tips, it provides the handiest travel guides, Baedeker appendices for deviants of all sorts. Certainly, these depictions of exotic spots, if they happened on telly or anywhere the proles might see them, would long ago have been hurled into the BBC’s dungeon of the damned alongside It Ain’t Half Hot Mum or Thames Television’s Love Thy Neighbour; someone’s bound to find out eventually, and then there’ll be trouble, but for now this remains the last refuge for fans of racial stereotyping, essentialism, non-crime hate incidents, prejudice and ultra-conscious bias.

The most popular location has always been Paris, sweatily described in La Bohème, Traviata, all those Manons, Adriana Lecouvreur, Orpheus in the Underworld and so on as the world’s largest help-yourself cathouse.

It’s an enjoyable, sparklingly-written journey but there’s something off about it

Intrigued, the spirited gentleman would pack his copy of The Pretty Women of Paris, a catalogue of the town’s attractions (with addresses), and pay his respects to the “actress” Marie Kolb (“a pleasant little ball of fat”), or, for the thriftier, Gallayx (“will content the sober lover of hearty sensual enjoyment at a low price”) or any other of the myriad accommodating persons detailed in this useful volume.

Rome, really, is only for niche sado-masochists: effectively twinned with Moscow, both sewers of oppression and brutality gussied up with unhealthy, often religiously-enhanced, sexual eccentricity — see Tosca, Khovanshchina, The Coronation of Poppea, Nerone, La vestale, etc.

Nowhere shows opera’s good location sense better than Seville, though in those mediaeval alleys you must be on your guard: be nice to statues, don’t take  flowers from gypsies, and — ladies! — watch out for smooth operators promising a quickie marriage.

Plus, there’s a barber specialising in close shaves. After that we’re down to eccentric outliers like Armenia or Peking, where Puccini’s Turandot can still get away with having characters named Ping, Pang and Pong, which I think proves the point I made above.

London, as you’d expect, gets star billing for its top nosh and women. Or, to put it another way, not exactly. In truth the old girl looks a bit dank and unsexy beside those foreign fleshpots; there are tendentious suggestions that romantic prospects here are gloomy, and our hookers second-rate at best.

Venue of choice is the festering Torre di Londra, where a succession of languishing, discarded queens await their fate with a load of harps and doomed threnodies.

For an altogether jauntier picture, we turn to John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera of 1728, which gallantly defends the reputation of Dolly Trull, Suky Tawdry and her sisters. This is a bit more like it, the rackety St Giles-to-Newgate lives of Macheath and his doxies and cutpurses restoring the capital’s scuzzy, plebeian credentials.

The rake's progress

The big, legit Tourist Board piece — roaming the country until May with English Touring Opera — is Igor Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress of 1951, unusual both as a post-war opera that has lasted in the regular rep and as the opera-averse composer’s only proper go at making one.

Stravinsky was taken by Hogarth’s prints — a tragicomic novel in eight pictures — and hired W.H. Auden to write the words. It’s set at the same moment as The Beggar’s Opera, when London life was a teeny bit jollier than it is now with our pocket-Malvolio mayor’s 9.30pm curfew and criminalisation of eye-contact on the Tube, but its sensibility is wholly modern.

It’s a cunning piece, Stravinsky in neo-classical guise writing music that harks back to Mozart while never abandoning his own sound-world; not a pastiche but a musical counterpart of Auden’s very du jour re-engineering of Tom Rakewell’s spiritual downfall.

The text flirts with Existentialism and other modish conceits as Tom — not a wastrel but a good-hearted, idle creature — falls victim to the devil in the form of his Jeeves-from-hell sidekick Nick Shadow, whose indulgence of the boss’s wishes leads the lost soul to Bedlam via Mother Goose’s brothel and marriage to Baba the Turk, the bearded lady of St Giles’s Fair.

I suspect that composer and librettist had unfashionably Christian aims in mind, with Tom’s traduced inamorata Anne the conduit of a redemptive love. In reality that’s eclipsed by the coyly cruel fun Auden has toying with Tom, the brittle point-scoring that pervades words and music, an over-sophisticated frivolity in condemning him for the crime, effectively, of being a boy.

Sure, it’s a smart, enjoyable, sparklingly written journey, but there’s something off about it. For what it’s worth, I reckon Auden’s words would have made a terrific comic opera with music by Bernstein in Candide mode.

Or maybe heartless anomie is London’s appropriate contribution to opera: see also Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek, which is Oedipus set in glam Eighties Tufnell Park. It just isn’t Venice, is it?

In the end we should probably be proud that opera sits so uncomfortably in the Muvver City. Opera, here? Leave it aht, mate.

The Rake’s Progress tours until May 28. Details at

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