Cheesed off

David Rendall as Tito in CataniaToward the end of 1988, I had a contract to sing the title role in a production of La Clemenza di Tito in Catania, Sicily.  During that time, Mount Etna erupted, and apparently was bombed to divert a lava flow from consuming a small village.  It was very dramatic.

The conductor, Michael Bode, a young German, was very good indeed. However, the stage director was hopeless and I can’t remember his name.  He had never directed an opera before, and his only claim to fame was that he was married to a famous Wagnerian Soprano from Eastern Europe.  As you can imagine, rehearsals were a nightmare. I had performed Titus many times before, as had some other members of the cast which included Ashley Putnam, so we directed ourselves to a certain extent.  Isn’t it strange that I can remember the names of my female colleagues, but not the men….That’s a tenor for you!

As I said in my previous post, no recordings exist (to my knowledge) of these performances, so here are a few more of my solos from the previous year in New York, under the baton of James Levine.

Che orror, che tradimento
Dove s’intese mai più
Se all’impero

The chief repetiteur on the production was a Welshman, Ross Craigmile, who had been with the opera company for a while.  We struck up a friendship as we had a language in common, and had many a meal together in restaurants as well as in his home.

PecorinoAt one meal we had some fantastic cheese, Pecorino with black pepper, or to give its Italian name, Pecorino pepato.  This cheese was made locally to Catania from unpasteurised milk.  It was so delicious, that at the end of my performance run I went to the local market and bought a large wedge to take home to England.

A few months later, in the spring of 1989, whilst rehearsing the role of Tom Rakewell in The Rake’s Progress at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, I started to feel slightly unwell.  It began with back and limb pain so I went to see a chiropractor.  This treatment didn’t help, and the pain worsened.  A dear friend of mine – an orthopaedic surgeon – suggested I have a series of blood tests, and sent me to a colleague of his at a hospital in Brighton.  The result of these tests showed that there was something wrong, but they couldn’t say what, so further tests were required.  During this waiting period, the pain increased and my mobility was beginning to be impaired.

For the opening performance at Glyndebourne, I invited my singing teacher from my Royal Academy of Music days, and his wife to attend.  This was important for me as he, Alexander Young, was the first Tom Rakewell, chosen by Stravinsky himself.  In conjunction with the way I was feeling physically, his presence made me more nervous than usual.

After that first night I left my rented accommodation in rural Sussex and returned to our home in Hampshire, from where I was to commute for the rest of the performances, of which there should have been twelve. The day before the fourth performance, the doctor in Brighton called and said that I had to see him urgently.  Diana, my soon to be wife, drove me to the appointment and then on to Glyndebourne.

At the appointment, the doctor told me that I had some sort of toxoplasmosis, but that it wasn’t quite that simple and further blood tests were required.  He also told me that I should cancel the rest of my performances as my health was getting worse and that I could even die.

Just before my performance that day I called the management to my dressing room and announced that I had to withdraw.  I was in floods of tears at having to tell them this, but gave my all for this my farewell.  The last act, in Bedlam and Tom Rakewell’s death, was so incredibly surreal.

A week or so later, the final blood results came through. The disease that I had contracted was finally confirmed as brucellosis, often referred to as the Mediterranean disease, and was the result of eating the cheese made from unpasteurised milk.  I was put on another concoction of antibiotics to fight that particular virus, and was off work for about nine months.  I was completely listless and had to lie down for most of the day.  Diana would comment that my head was like a power shower, as my perspiration shot in jets from my pores.  It was really weird.

Needless to say, I recovered, but for the next three or four years, only for a week or so in early summer, the same symptoms returned.  I have never let my friend Ross forget this, and I tease him about it at every opportunity.  He even introduces me to his friends and colleagues as the man he nearly killed.


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