Daytime TV: Heavenly voices

There are some musical moments that make Gary Day forget class and everything else

June 3, 2010

I don't like opera. Does that mean I'm not middle class? But then why would the middle class like opera? It is vital, passionate, exotic and spectacular; everything they are not. Maybe this most sumptuous of art forms transcends class, though it helps to have a spare hundred pounds if you want to see a production.

Did I say I don't like opera? Well, after seeing the first part of Antonio Pappano's Opera Italia (BBC Four, Monday 24 May, 9pm), I have changed my mind. A stronger man may have been able to resist Antonio's overtures, but not me. "Nothing gets my blood going quite like opera," he said, which almost seemed a challenge to the half-naked women he passed backstage.

Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo was the first mature opera, though at that time, 1607, the more common term was "favola", or fable. The word "opera", which means "work", was not used until the mid-17th century, presumably because, by then, the plots had become so complicated that the audience had to make a real effort to understand them.

Monteverdi also wrote L'incoronazione di Poppea, which was one of the first operas to be based on history rather than mythology. It tells the story of how Nero's mistress, the Poppea of the title, succeeds in becoming empress. Antonio pinged the clavichord while Poppea sang, "How were my apple breasts?" "Your breasts deserve a better name," trilled Nero, played by Sarah Connolly. "You've got to be very matter of fact about such things," she said, "otherwise you might get carried away."

Monteverdi's patron, Vincenzo of Gonzaga, certainly did. He nearly went bust looking at busts. Monteverdi made art at his court but not much money. To be rich, you have to put bums on seats. And that's what opera buffa did. Here were no gods and goddesses, but ordinary mortals, common people, even servants. It appealed to the middle class because they could look down on them, and it was cheap to stage. Rossini said, "Give me a shopping list and I'll set it to music." He made ordinary life extraordinary. The tenor Juan Diego Florez had lunch with Antonio and sang to him. This is Italy. They do things differently there.

Danielle de Niese is a soprano. No, not one of the Sopranos, just the sort who can do vocal high jumps, two chords above middle C. Diva Diaries (BBC Four, Wednesday 26 May, 9pm) told the story of her preparation for the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, which basically boiled down to the part being "a killer". Much more taxing was the baggage allowance on planes. "That really sucked."

A lot of the time Danielle sounded as if she had wandered out of an episode of Sex in the City, its banalities stuffed in her suitcase. Everything was "amazing". Didn't she have any other expressions? And then she sang. And I was lost for words. For a moment, it really did seem as if everything was, indeed, "amazing".

James MacMillan would agree. He was filmed in a setting that could have served as scenery for your average opera; mountains, a blaze of foliage and mist on the lake. These were the remnants of "the initial burst of loving energy that brought the world into being". And if you think he has a way with words, you should hear his music. He was one of three composers asked to think about the place of sacred music in a secular world (Sacred Music, BBC Four, Thursday May, 8pm). The other two were John Rutter and Sir John Taverner. MacMillan's answer was that it searches out the spiritual.

And when you heard a choir sing A Child's Prayer, it was hard to disagree. MacMillan wrote the piece in response to the Dunblane massacre of 1996. Sixteen children and one teacher were shot to death. The music aspires to "consolation and peace beyond the desolate facts". Julie Cooper, one of the singers, described how the two soprano voices become progressively more unearthly and ethereal. "They merge and twine and soar above the rest of the choir until only they are left at the end."

The question of tradition featured strongly in the programme. MacMillan described it as a river running through history, irrigating human experience at any given point. Taverner put it more prosaically - "people have a thirst for continuity", while Rutter claimed that the devout Anglican tradition was becoming more earthy. Whether it is opera or plainsong, there's a desire to blend past and present, soul and sense. The impossible dream.

Back on earth, or at least Yorkshire, Ted Evans enjoys a reputation as Britain's most notorious clamper (The Yorkshire Clamper, More4, Thursday May, 8.30pm). He immobilises cars. A metaphor for the class system? Discuss.

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