Friday, 29 July 2011
Alessandro by Handel meets The Countess from Figaro
Alexander the Great - in perfect health!
Another fantastic day today - the sun has been glorious and with just a slight breeze, for me, it is truly perfect weather. The heat got me thinking about many years ago when I played the Countess in my first Marriage of Figaro as part of the Chichester Festival.
Festivals are rather like exam time, they always happen in the hottest, most uncomfortable time of the year ! Indeed, when it seems that the rest of the world is enjoying life or bathing in a blue sea, and generally having a lovely time, we performers are roasting in costumes as heavy as Pavarotti after a pasta fest, and stuck under lighting sets which feel like a particularly hot day in the Sahara desert at noon!
The weather was boiling and wearing the heavy costumes of 18th Century Europe was increasingly unbearable. The Countess does not appear until Act 2, so I was able to stave off the moment when I had to don the tights, cotton bodice with loose petticoat, the tied on large white underskirt and finally the dress made of heavy green and gold soft furnishing material. Added to that a decolletage scarf for the first act and buttoned boots...................I must have weighed 15lbs more with all the layers.
The Dress on top
The Layers underneath
Once on the stage the lights add to the tropical temperature and the sweat begins to roll gently down the arms and finally off the tips of the fingers into neat pools on the stage ! After each exit I made my way to the dressing room where a dresser was handy to unlace the layers one by one, open the back of the dress and towel me dry......................ugh! I lie not ! It was like walking out of the shower each time I finished a scene, or aria. The combined sweat count on the stage during the great 20 minute finale of Act 2 was enough to fell a charging elephant !
Another such occasion was during a baroque opera called Alessandro by Handel. I was playing the title role and had to wear the inevitable Ancient Greek army outfit. I had the toga type dress, the gold helmet, sword, leather leg laces and sandals. To top this off the company had a bespoke breastplate made for me which did not appear until the dress rehearsal.
It was, once again late July and very very hot. At the 'dress' I was uniformed up and we set out on the 3 hour journey of a largely uncut Handel opera. All was fine for the first Act, and half of the second Act, but I then began to feel a little dizzy and a touch nauseous, which grew at an alarming rate until I gently fainted and slumped to the floor quietly and with all the dignity of a magnificent Greek general!
The performance stopped abruptly and someone ( I know not who!) rushed on the stage, undid all my layers and I came too, in a relatively short time. Rather embarrassed I rose to my feet feeling quite fine, and we began once more, all assuming that the heat and lights had caused my little interruption.
I was fine for another 10 minutes and then the whole procedure began again - this time I recognised the symptoms and informed the cast and producer I could not carry on. There was much consternation now, and much advice from the other singers, and a great deal of worry on the part of the director/conductor/stage manager etc. Where would they find another Alessandro at 12 hours notice, as clearly I was coming down with something akin to yellow fever!
Investigations were made, questions asked, a thorough medical given, which came back a cracking 100% fit.....what could it be?!
Finally the costume department came up with the answer. With razor sharp Miss Marple investigation they found out that the breastplate, so lovingly made to measure for me, was constructed of a type of moulded fibre glass. It turned out that as I sang and my body heat rose, the said breastplate heated up and gave off chemical fumes which caused my fainting fits !
In great haste a lining was added to the front section which kept the fumes more under control! One wonders that nobody thought to find out if the substance was fit for 'human consumption' so to speak ? A prop maker cheerfully, and with smiley confidence, told me that 'so long as I took it off when I was not singing I would probably be fine' !!!!
Great days! What we suffer for art !