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National asset: The Vienna State Opera orchestra achieves perfection (©Vienna State Opera)


Why, demands my companion, why can’t it be like this in London? We are sauntering through the lobbies of the Vienna State Opera in the interval of a Nabucco revival — no headline names, no fuss, no media, just a performance of liberating intensity, the kind of show that passes in Vienna as routine.

Listen, I tell my companion, listen to where it all begins. Recall the opening chords, rising like dawn mist over a summer lake, an immersive impression, delicate in colour and immovably present. This particular sound sets the tone for every performance, assuring us that, come what may, elemental excellence will never waver. This orchestra is the custodian of house quality.

Never mind who’s conducting, never mind if a third of the players missed whatever short rehearsal was allocated for a revival, never mind if one singer or other is having an off-night, this orchestra will drive the opera securely to final curtain. And, with applause still ringing, the players will rise to their feet, shake hands with neighbours on either side and rush to catch the last tram home, knowing that half of them are back on rehearsal duty at nine the next morning.

Faces might change from one night to the next in a pool of 150 players, but the consistency of sound is guaranteed. A poor conductor might distend the tempi; he cannot affect the timbre. During weeks when two-thirds of the opera musicians are touring Japan as the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the remnant core plays on with no audible loss of quality, fortified by students of the principal players, eager to inherit. More than headline singers or directors, it is the orchestra and chorus that are the bedrock of a world-class opera house — and that is what London perpetually fails to grasp.

The first rule of UK opera governance is: trim the payroll. In recent years, the number of players in the Royal Opera House orchestra was whittled down to half the size of the Vienna pool before critics noticed a deterioration and adjustments were made. There are now a hundred players listed on the website, but you don’t need to be an HR consultant to know this is not enough to cover the normal toll of holidays, sickness, maternity and sabbaticals. The ROH orchestra is dependent on casual labour. Hang around the artists’ entrance any late afternoon and you will see freelancers emerging with London’s top rehearsal fee and no loyalty to the house. The reverse is doubly true: by relying on itinerant players the ROH sends out a message that it does not treasure the orchestra as its essence.

The attitude at English National Opera is rather worse. The ENO orchestra was reduced to chamber size, around 50, under a previous administration. It is now back to 70 players, but that’s not enough for Wagner, or for most modern music. So ENO trawls in the casuals who can’t get gigs at ROH.

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