Over the last few years, I've started to notice that the operas which I'm least looking forward to turn out to be the memorable jewels which stay with me for months, whereas the famous works that everybody knows and loves have started to seem a bit flat and possibly even a bit clichéd.
I've also noticed that whereas, when driving, I used to do a sort of awkward Markovian radio-dance (Five Minute Advertisement for Henry Kelly's Hundred Greatest Classical Hits Selection -> back to Radio 3, Three Hours of Mongolian Nose Music -> back to Classic FM), nowadays I tend to think that Classic FM is like a continous diet of icing and that I quite look forward to the bleeding meat that is two consecutive performances of a deservedly little-known baroque opera by the same people but in a slightly different tuning. I wouldn't quite say 'enjoy', but perhaps 'find interesting' might work.
I take this an an ominous sign that my tastes are becoming jaded, and that I am starting to tire of what the bourgeois calls 'good' music, and must seek out the 'edgy', the 'dangerous', the atonal, the 'interesting', the 'piss-poor'. This is the sort of mental decay that causes people to resort to listening to modern jazz or the music of the Second Viennese School.
So imagine my surprise when Shostakovich's 'The Nose', which on the face of it appeared to be an absurd modernist ordeal about a singing nose, turned out to be every bit as dreadful as I'd thought it would be.
It's difficult to describe how unwatchably bad it is. There's literally no plot beyond 'A man's nose sets up on its own, to his distress.' Everything else that happens is apparently just completely random, and presumably you can read into it all sorts of things about Stalin and despair, and the chaos of the first half of the twentieth century and the horror of a writer whose work has become public property and taken on a life of its own, but for fuck's sake why would you do that?
I couldn't care less about any of that and if I did I could go and read about it directly. It's not Zen. It's not some unknowable mystic crap that you can't perceive directly but can just vaguely sense if you hear the right hints in a carefully cultivated frame of mind. You don't have to approach it obliquely, trying to sneak up on it like a man sneaking through a forest stepping on hundreds of miserably mistuned twigs and being screeched at by vultures made out of old newspaper.
It's fairly normal in modern operas not to have an interval, because the audience tend treacherously to take advantage and escape, and this can dishearten the performers, who have worked terribly hard to learn the incomprehensible sequence of random notes.
Many people left anyway. I stuck it out, mainly because by the time I realised that I just couldn't take another half an hour of it, and asked my exhausted and suffering companion if she knew how long it was, it was only fifteen minutes from the end and even though by this time I could see a clear path of empty seats to the exit as long as I didn't mind climbing over things, I figured I should dig in for the bitter end and get my money's worth.
It's a fabulous argument against public subsidy, or it would be if the Metropolitan Opera was subsidised. As it is, what are they thinking? Are they just so absurdly overbooked that they can put on anything at all and sell out anyway?
It is at least mercifully short at two and a quarter barren, hopeless, interval-free hours.
But the music is appalling, and Shostakovich knows this perfectly well, because there's a point where the noseless bureaucrat's drunken flatmate takes out a balalaika and plays a foot-tappingly good folk song.
By contrast with the murderous squeaky-gate plinking that has been going on for the last 93 horrid minutes it's an aural paradise, an oasis of relaxation, like when a torturer decides that it's time for a tea-break.
Halfway through the folk song the no-nose bureaucrat comes home and stops it, shouting "What are you doing messing about with this rubbish?". Which is admittedly hilarious and gets a terrific laugh from everyone still present.
The staging and general production values in this performance are wonderful. I can't imagine how it could have been done better. I spent quite a lot of time wondering what the hell it would be like to sit through a bad production.
I would like to compliment the singing, but apart from one lovely soprano snatch, which again I'm sure is in there as a sort of anti-audience taunt, there isn't any. But there are some quite funny angry shouts from time to time. Particularly the three people on the balcony who shout "The most bewildering thing of all is why an author would waste his time on this material".
I was bewildered to notice that it got a quiet, unenthusiastic, but nevertheless standing ovation, and I can't quite imagine the confusion of mind that could produce such a thing. Presumably you had to be there. The audience watching in the cinema just groaned in pain and rolled their eyes at one another. I heard someone say "Wild horses wouldn't get me to another one of these" to his wife.
Throughout the ordeal, I was sustained only by the thought "It can't possibly be as bad as Wozzeck. Treat it as a warm up."
Wozzeck (Alban Berg, Royal Opera House)
Wozzeck is a sort of Everest of Awfulness.
Alban Berg was the most talentless, over-rated, screeching horror of the lamentable Second Viennese School of just limitlessly terrible composers. He wrote something about Napoleon that a dear friend once lent me, that I had to listen to all the way through because he had kept looking at me with such hope.
"You're clever, John, you like all sorts of things and you love patterns and structure and are interested in the properties of sound and you've liked opera since you were a little boy and you even sat through an entire ballet once you are that hard...
"Surely you can see the inner beauty in this work that no-one else can begin to understand.", said JB silently with his sad little eyes as he lent me his treasured CD and hoped sincerely that I'd enjoy it.
And I couldn't face giving it back and saying that I'd managed ten minutes and then given up because it was too painful.
So I listened to the whole bloody thing. You remember that Monty Python sketch where someone is making music by smashing live mice with a mallet and they are making a jolly tune with their death-squeaks? Well that is only funny because it is short, and not actually happening.
Alban Berg's accursèd (<-look, I hate it so much that I found the out where the è key is!!:-))
Alban Berg's accursèd Napoleon is without a shadow of a doubt the worst piece of music I have ever heard. I include the Birdie Song. I include sugary professional 1950's versions of 'Enniskillen Dragoons' cynically designed to appeal to blue-collar plastic paddies in the United States and performed half-heartedly by people who had grown up wanting to be famous singers and clearly loathed everything about what they were doing and everything about their lives. I include a certain video of 'Rose Garden' that is available on YouTube and that Sipper played me when I laughed at him for admitting that he liked it (in strict confidence) when he was drunk.
Napoleon is like someone doing the mice-smashing-mallet-death thing with real mammals. Real living mammals whose hopeless cries for pity tear incessantly at the heart like badly-oiled bandsaws with grit in them.
Just in case there was any danger of anyone being moved by the purity of its despair, the cover picture shows that it is being performed by an unbelievably oily-looking fat man wearing really bad schoolgirl make-up and swallowtails and smiling like Margaret Thatcher.
But the worst thing about Berg's Napoleon is that it doesn't even exist. It's a false memory. Apparently Schoenberg wrote something called Ode to Napoleon but I'm pretty sure that wasn't what John lent me. What sort of sewer of a mind do I live in that can imagine an experience like that? I suddenly empathise with the man who wrote to the Times complaining about the increasing amount of sex and violence in dreams.
I realise that it's probably unfair to blame Berg for it.
But those who have spent their lives studying the music of the Second Viennese School tell me that of all Berg's music, there is nothing remotely as bad as his opera, Wozzeck.
Apparently it's entirely without discernible structure, almost impossible to play or listen to, and about a deserter and a prostitute, who live in hopeless misery and then die. They say it's only possible to appreciate it by reading the score, and that actually turning it into sounds spoils it.
So imagine my joy when my dear friend Bob told me that she had a freebie ticket for the dress rehearsal of a new production of Wozzeck that she is playing in, but had given it to someone else on the basis that I was too much of a philistine to come.
'Oh', I said, one part of my brain not quite believing that the other part of my brain was actually saying this, 'that's a shame.
'I've been getting a bit worried about being unadventurous recently, and I'm trying to do as many new things as possible. I would probably have quite enjoyed that.' The sane hemisphere, unable to take control of my mouth, had gone into spasm.
Bob rang back, of course, a couple of days later, after the original recipient of the golden ticket had been found hanged in his garage.
I'd been a little worried about the logistics of getting to London in time. Early mornings are not really 'my time', and getting to Covent Garden for 11 o'clock would involve facing rush hour commuter trains, which are not really 'my thing'. But Bob very kindly looked up all the train and tube transit times for me and sent me a detailed text message telling me that if I could manage to make it to Cambridge station for the 09:20 train then I could get a return ticket with tube for £23 and make it to pick up my ticket at the box office in plenty of time. So there was no escape.
I figured if I got up at eight then I'd make the train easily enough even allowing for a certain amount of uselessness on my part, and so I diligently left my office at ten o'clock on Sunday, intending to get an early night.
I phoned Bob to check that the plan was all in order, and she mentioned in passing that she was going to London that night and staying over, having fallen victim to Storm Fever. She seemed slightly surprised that I hadn't heard anything about this storm.
I stopped off for a kebab on the way and was slightly amazed that by the time I got home it was eleven thirty. But it was a hella kebab (thanks Gardenia!, we've missed you, welcome back, your new look is lovely), so maybe it had taken slightly longer to eat it than I'd budgeted for.
Still, that's still 8½ hours sleep, which ought to be enough even if it's sub-optimal.
When my alarm went off my first thought was 'Oh God, not already?', but after about fifteen minutes of staring hopelessly at the ceiling wishing I was dead I manned up and got dressed and headed off on my bicycle to the station through the curiously deserted and darkened streets of Cambridge. My sources inform me that everyone else in the entire world gets up at about 8, and I was expecting things to be pretty busy at 8:30, but no.
Even the station was curiously quiet, in fact there was only me and a couple of other bewildered looking elders, and a polite guard who told me that there was absolutely no possibility of getting to London by 11 o'clock, never in a million years, there have been 102mph winds on the Isle of Wight and everything south of a line between Birmingham and Bishop's Stortford has been effectively destroyed and the absolute best we can offer you is that there might be a train at 9:30 but it will be going very very slowly because of the danger of fallen trees and pit vipers and everyone on the world will be on it so you'll either have to climb on over the bodies or lie on the floor and be crushed under a pile of sweaty fat men and palely attractive women in suits who smell of early morning cigarettes and twitch because their souls have been sucked out by management consultancy.
And even if you do that there is no way you are getting to Covent Garden for 11, mate. I would give your friend's opera (in Cambridge they are trained to say that sort of thing without even sneering even slightly) a miss. We are advising people to make only absolutely essential journeys and if I were you I would go home and sit in front of the fire and not get killed, if you take my meaning.
Well I am the sort of man who can take a hint, I like to think, so I fucked off home and on the way I bought a newspaper and some croissants so I could enjoy reading about the Great Storm over breakfast. As I got towards home I noticed that the common was covered in willow branches, which I hadn't noticed on the way out, and a couple of friends were walking up and down the bank with mallets and mooring pins, rescuing distressed narrowboats, which seemed pretty Christian of them, so I made them tea and apparently the storm had been through while I'd been at the station, and smashed everything in its path except immediately around my boat, which seemed curiously undisturbed.
Breakfast seemed to go on for a extraordinarily long time, and then after that grim Woman's Hour came on, and so I went back to bed.
And I'd been in bed for about 15 seconds when Bob rang up to say that they'd put the opera back to 12 o'clock because Nick Clegg had been hit by a falling storm-gherkin, and I could still make it.
And I said, but it's ten past eleven, there's no way I can get to Covent Garden from here in fifty minutes, even if the trains weren't sneaking carefully from station to station for fear of fallen trees. And she said "you haven't put your clocks back yet, have you?", which was a bit embarrassing but did make better sense of all sorts of little discrepancies that I had been noticing for the last day or so.
So off again to the station and it was all a bit groundhog day only this time the light was much brighter and people were up and about but there was still no-one at the station, and the very same guard, who had visibly grown a beard since I last saw him, patiently explained that there was no possibility of getting to London until at least three o'clock, what with the roof having blown off St. Pancras and the Potter's Bar tunnel being full of water and the electricity being down all over the South of England and all the wheels having blown off all the trains.
Lucky escape, I was thinking, and I'm sure that all that cycling around has been good for me and there's a certain sort of early rising-bastard who'll tell you that accidentally getting up at 7am is character building but obviously they only say that because they can't bloody sleep because their souls are so laden with sin and horror and there is no rest for the wicked ones. Dear God what is this evil that they must have done?
But here's the thing. I had been really looking forward to Wozzeck, I now realise. I was confidently expecting it to be one of the worst experiences of my life and I was anticipating just how bad it would be with exactly the sort of enthusiasm that I used to muster for a bad Channel crossing in a tiny yacht, or a game of rugby in the sleet against Newmarket III. And so now it is a sort of Everest of Awfulness which I keep glimpsing distantly through the clouds but some sort of mystic force is preventing me from getting to it and I am taking it personally.
And so now I'm going to have to go and buy a ticket. And spend serious money supporting something I am confident that I will utterly despise and loathe and sincerely wish would be banished forever from the memory of man. And Covent Garden are going to interpret my ticket purchase as meaning that there is a market for this sort of thing, and that maybe the common philistine-in-the-street is finally coming round to modernism at last and we should put some more of these on......