So, this Friday I’m leading the orchestra for a concert performance of a Verdi opera. It’s being sung to the original Italian libretto. Now I don’t speak Italian, but I do have good French, a moderate amount of Spanish, a smattering of Latin and a fairly good idea of what happened with Joan of Arc. Despite all of this, in the course of studying the score fairly thoroughly and listening to a couple of different recordings, I have acquired very little idea of what the plot looked like once Verdi or his librettist had finished with it – except that it seems to involve the French getting battered by the English, Joan / Giovanna having some kind of religious experience, arming herself, showing up unbidden and turning the military tide at least once, then her ending up a captive of the English and dead (so far, so predictable from general historical knowledge); and I think that she spends most of the stage time in love with King Charles of France (whaaat? somebody made that up). The chorus presumably may have little more idea of exactly what they’re singing some of the time, given as often happens they’ve been supplied with a phonetic guide to the libretto, which implies somewhat sketchy knowledge of the language!
Friday gone, The Filthy Spectacula were the third of five acts on a fairly mixed bill. I only remember hearing much of the words of the second act, Tony Black and the Collectors, who mixed a 50s rock-n-roll-ish musical sound (lots of two- and three-part harmonies, twangly archtop guitar, complex drumming on snare and floor tom alone largely with brushes) with wryly accurately observed lyrics of everyday contemporary England, somewhere between the Divine Comedy and Philip Larkin. The opening solo act may have been actually fairly lyrically clear (there was only electroacoustic guitar to block out the vocals after all) but I remember finding his being voice a bit too grating and tending to go out of tune, the need to change open tunings apparently between every song and all of his material being too alike to stay interesting for a half-hour set between them successfully obscuring whatever he was singing about. Fourth up were Tamuna, a bunch of five Sicilian expats who bill themselves as folk-rock but I’d suggest mix more funk with their native song tradition. Either way, their following of lithe, olive-skinned young women may have understood every word being sung as they danced enthusiastically, but as mentioned above I don’t speak Italian, and I think about half the audience were with me in not following a word of the songs. The headline act, Victor & the Rain Dog, were another power trio with more emphasis on subtlety than power. They had a fantastic rhythm section, with one of those jazz-trained drummers that annoy rock floor-shakers by making the most complex tricks look like they’re barely awake never mind breaking a sweat, and a virtuosic bassist. Credit where credit’s due, the Good Ship’s sound guy gave them excellent amplification as well. But while they certainly sounded stylish, neither their melodies nor their lyrics have stuck with me (the latter perhaps partly because the frontman’s very slightly Morrissey-esque vocals didn’t seem any of the clearest, however evocative).
I obviously don’t know how clear our vocals were, though the crowd seemed to pick up most of the words to the chorus Mr E got them singing along to. But then again it doesn’t have many words. I do know he blanked on one verse of one of his own songs and had to ad lib his way through it, and that the crowd seemed not to care in the least as long as we kept making tons of noise and I kept flailing around the stage and the front of the crowd like a cock-rock parody lead guitarist accidentally transferred to a violinist’s body.
I’ve always been down on engineers who mix bands with the guitars and drums drowning out the vocals and on vocalists who vaguely bawl the words six inches off the mike so even if you could hear them the words would be incomprehensible. Largely because the songwriters I’ve worked with have almost always written lyrics that deserve to be heard by the audience. But sometimes I wonder if it actually makes any difference to the audiences …