An extract from "The Ultimate Book of Heroic Failures"

by Stephen Pile, 2011

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The Least Successful Stage Set

Never have the possibilities of a sloping stage been more innovatively explored than in a celebrated Wexford Opera Festival performance of Spotini's La vestale in 1979, set in a vestal virgin's temple. They took the exciting decision to cover the floor with Formica, which not only looks like marble, but also has the added attraction of acute and liberating slipperiness. The plan was to cover the stage with lemon juice so the cast's feet would stick to the floor.

According to Wexford legend, a cleaning lady was so professionally affronted by the state of this stage that she washed and polished it one afternoon, helping to create the most inventive and free-range choreography seen on the operatic stage for a hundred years.

The curtain rose. Making a magnificent entrance, the Roman general Licinio strode onto the stage, fell flat on his back and slithered towards the footlights. Singing throughout, he got to his feet. After several plucky attempts to walk back upstage, he decided to stay where he was, no doubt calculating that the next character, his friend Cinna, would shortly be joining him near the footlights anyway.

On came Cinna, arms waving, who hurtled down the stage and crashed into his chum at speed. The script demands that they 'embrace in a friendly greeting', which they amply fulfilled, being locked in each other's arms as they were propelled towards the orchestra pit.

Averting disaster at the last second, they worked their way gingerly along the edge of the stage 'like mountaineers seeking a route round an unbridgable crevasse', according to the opera critic Bernard Levin, who looked on with growing delight.

Still singing and clutching onto each other, the pair decided to make for a pillar bearing the sacred vestal flame that was three feet further up and embedded firmly in the stage floor.

At this point matters were considerably improved by the entrance of the chorus.

Throwing themselves into their roles, they also decided to make for the fixed pillar, which was now becoming quite crowded. Happily, this chorus of centurions, gladiators and vestal virgins decided to form 'a daisy chain of mutual support', according to Mr Levin, leading from the pillar across the stage with everyone clutching on to each other until they were all accommodated. The audience was so moved by this performance that most were weeping and some struggled for breath.

With impeccable improvisation the heroine herself, the priestess Giulia, skated into the wings and kicked her shoes off. Finding on her return that this did not improve things, she slithered back into the wings and removed her tights as well.

The act ends with 'extended triumphal dances', which have rarely been more memorable.

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