It is in the heart of Venice that we found ourselves, seated in an intimate chapel-like
building as ancient looking as the rest of Venice. The concert programmed was to
be predominantly Vivaldi strings with extras by Handel in the form of his “Ombra
Mai Fu” which I was particularly looking forward to hearing. There were additional
well-known opera arias in store for us too, so we waited, expectantly for the show
The strings proceeded to play Vivaldi’s divine Venetian music. I was swept away by
it and could well understand how Vivaldi composed this uplifting music and in such
plentitude, as Venice can only be described as the muse of all muses. Picture the
jade sea-water of canals lapping alongside streets as you walk; the multitude of
dazzlingly beautiful architectural gems in the form of churches, palazzos and towers
all risen up out of marshy land, due to sheer bloody-minded resourcefulness and vision.
I had listened to Vivaldi before, having been brought up with his music, but listening
to it in this setting added a wonderful depth to the experience.
It was time for the soprano to make her appearance, as she made her way onto the
podium looking very Italianate with her dark features. She had an operatic stature,
flaunting an ample front carriage that promised to produce some sonorous warbling.
She opened her mouth and out it came; a wonderfully warm, rich sound that fell pleasantly
on the ear. She used all her expression to convey the musical message; she was clearly
a good actress too. It was now the turn of the tenor. He approached the podium and
stood looking ahead of him, awaiting his moment of glory. He too looked very Italianate
with his dark bearded face. He looked familiar; if I was told he’d appeared in the
Godfather I would have believed it. Then it started; “Oooooooooombra mai fu”. I listened,
at first not believing my ears as the notes that were coming out were not of the
quality I had been expecting. The phrases ended abruptly as the air inside the tenor
seemed to run out prematurely; the notes themselves were being forced out by such
laborious means that this tenor looked as though he was on his last legs. We noticed
the tenor’s hands were moving spasmodically beside his body which made us come to
the conclusion that Venice is active in offering equal opportunities to physically
and mentally challenged people as this tenor seemed to prove. Well, needless to say
we were not really impressed by this performance, but we became milder in our criticism,
thinking that the man was either mentally or physically challenged in some way. In
the mean time, the quality of the soprano’s arias did not falter. Once again, the
tenor put in an appearance and this time we noticed how his gait seemed unsteady.
He managed to get himself into position again and off he went into a caterwauling
that I had not thought possible from a professional singer. His eyes had trouble
staying open and on focusing when they were. Something was not quite right here.
Then we realized our misjudgment. This was no spastic, mentally or physically challenged
tenor, this was a tenor in the midst of a drunken stupor. It made sense. He swayed
as he stood, attempting to give a concert-worthy performance, but it was a shambles.
I scanned the rest of the audience and the expressions of some of the faces were
priceless. Some people were just staring incredulously, others were stifling their
giggles. The word farce sprang to mind. I started literally squirming in my seat.
It was relentless. As the concert drew to a close, we all clapped with relief. The
ordeal was finally over, or so we thought. But then the tenor addressed the audience
with slurred speech announcing their encore piece. And so we had to endure another
slaughtering of a musical masterpiece. By this time, my partner could not contain
himself any longer and released such an explosion of laughter that he had to dive
behind the seat in front of him in an attempt to remain anonymous. A young couple
in front were having equal trouble keeping straight faces as the tears rolled down
from the agony of suppressing their laughter. I wonder if that tenor actually noticed
anything of what he was evoking in his audience? I got the distinct impression that
he was now paralytic and was being kept upright only by the grace of Verdi. I started
feeling sorry for our inebriated Tenor. Perhaps he had had some bad news; that his
wife was leaving him or that his father was dying or maybe he was just an alcoholic
spinning out of control? Whatever the reason, he had at least managed to create an
unforgettable evening if only for the comical travesty of it. We filed out of the
chapel feeling a mixture of emotions, though roaring laughter was still at the forefront
only to be fueled by the person at the door asking if anyone wanted to buy the CD.