The Tenor


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 to begin.

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.