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A Night at the Opera

David Starkey visits the Lincoln Center for a night at the opera.

Arrive at the Lincoln Center in good time; so plenty of time to appraise (in the sense of 'to assign a money value to') the audience; giggle at the decor (who but these heirs of Solomon in all his glory would gild concrete?); and glance at the programme. It's Mozart's Clemenza di Tito.

'Vitellia, daughter of the deposed emperor Vitellius, is outraged at being passed over by the emperor Titus. Therefore she commands her lover, Sextus, who is also Titus's closest friend, to murder the emperor.' Will he, won't he, with much to-ing and fro-ing.

In short, the oldest stock plot in the business. And like the stock cubes it so much resembles, it comes in two varieties, gold and red. There's the chicken-and-herb, tragi-comic version of La Clemenza when the murder is prevented and everything ends happily; and there's the full-bloodied and beefy, as in Hamlet, when the assassination is carried out and all hell breaks loose. Not hell, though, but vigorous applause broke round the house; the overture began, and I settled down to enjoy the performance.

But alas for good intentions of musical appreciation. The production was a sort of Fabergé egg, precious in parts; and... well... da capo arias do go on. In one of the longer the thought struck me that stock though the 'best friend plots to murder the king and marry the queen' scenario was, it had actually happened, and more than once. My mind was now running away. In 1327 Queen Isabella and her lover Mortimer had murdered Edward II; while in 1536 Queen Anne Boleyn, who bore more than a passing resemblance to the sexy and imperious Vitellia of the production, was sent to the block on charges which rewrote the story of the opera.

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