figuresâwith reverence and with extreme care lest they fall and shatter.
Meanwhile on stage the poet is now alone, having promised presently to join his companions in Christmas merriment. Themoment has come for the arrival of Mimi the consumptive seamstress, and it is as well, therefore, to stand on oneâs perch again to catch a glimpse of her. She arrives with her candle: the singer possesses a fine voice and sings with considerable feeling and expression, but she is heavily built and not in the first flush of youth. It occurs to me that perhaps this is a performance better heard than seen, and I decide therefore to sit down once more, especially as the precariousness of my position could make me lose my balance and topple onto the pair in front.
They, for their part, are totally absorbed by their curious ceremony. She has not moved at all: impassive, abstracted, her face still turned towards the stage yet paying no attention to it, there is no movement of her head, no ripple in her flowing hair that would suggest that her eyes are following the singers as they move around the stage. Her lover, on the other hand, has progressed from her arm to her neck. He is still holding the arm as though it were some precious fragile object, a holy relic perhaps, and this obliges him to rise slightly from his chair so that his lips might touch her nape to place the lightest of kisses on it.
The lovers on stage have departed into the moonlight and the first act has come to an end. Applause and curtain calls. There is, however, no interval. By an imperial edict of the late nineteenth century, still honoured in republican Austria, performances at this theatre must conclude no later than 10.15 pm. For that reason, the four acts of
are performed here with only one interval. Nevertheless a pause is necessary while the elaborate scenery of this thirty-year-old production is changed. The house lights are raised to a dull glow, providing enough illumination for you to consult your programme or the contents of your bag, yet indicating clearly that it is not time to go out for a drink, to smoke or whatever other pursuit is appropriate for intervals during performances of opera. This is a time for polite, murmured conversation over the hammering and thumping coming from behind the curtain. The lovers in front of me do not converse but continue theirsilent pantomime, a courtship ritual like those of insects that you can see, much magnified, on television. They are wholly absorbed by this ceremony, she in her stillness, he in whatever elaborate code governs the path his lips trace around her hand, arm, neck and shoulder. Dedicated to their ritual, they seem beyond place and time, trapped in a private and exclusive universe.
The second act begins, and I resume bobbing up and down. But I find that my attention is distracted more and more from festivities in the CafÃ© Momus. This is one of those plush productions from the sixties, when vast amounts of money could be spent by directors and designers to fill the ample stage of this theatre. Several square miles of Montmartre seem to have been transferred to the Vienna State Opera, at least as far as I can judge from the segment visible from my perch. A milling crowd fills the terraces of streets at the back, while at the front of the stage, outside the cafÃ©, Mimi and the bohemians, Musetta and her wealthy admirer sing the familiar music. It is all very lively, colourful and not a little hectic. Yet I grow increasingly absorbed by the lovers sitting in front of me. They have now progressed to the next stage of their curious and mysterious ritual. The gentlemanâs left arm is now twined around the ladyâs back and, fingers clenched, he is stroking her cheek with his nails, while his right hand is placed firmly under her armpit. He now looks like a musician playing some exotic stringed instrument, except that no sound, no response emerges from it: she is sitting as before,