This is the spooky hallway you walk down between the foyer, where the food, wine and coat-check are, to the Royal Opera of Versailles itself. The lighting is only slightly less eerie than the terrible quality of this phone photo conveys, and the statues are spotlit to cast perfect shadows on the white walls behind them. Add that to the sheer Cinderella sensation of approaching a giant, illuminated palace by night, and even without a horsedrawn carriage, it's a performance just getting to the performance.
The performance in question? Véronique Gens singing Mozart concert arias with Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques, who also played two of Mozart's symphonies. Having gamed the Versailles online ticketing system just a little bit – French venues really don't want to let you choose your own seat – I ended up with this view:
Not exactly the posh seats, but not bad either, with almost no neck craning required. By the way, if you should stumble across any YouTube clips of this concert which appears to have been filmed from this angle, rest assured they're not mine; but there was a lady beside me who seemed to determined to spend as much of the concert as possible dangling her phone over the balcony and taking panoramic videos of the theatre. Where's a stern usher when you need one?
There's little to be said about Véronique Gens in Mozart that isn't crashingly self evident. Her silvery, regal voice might as well have been custom built for this repertoire. Except that she also seems to have been just as carefully designed for Berlioz, Poulenc, Handel and a dozen other diverse composers. Still, her Mozart is sensationally idiomatic and she was in fabulous form for this concert, better even than when I heard her last year at Wigmore Hall.
Her opening aria, "O temerario Arbace...Per quel paterno amplesso", set things up beautifully, and if they'd all been like that I'd have been delighted. But it just kept getting better. Aria after aria – "Ah, lo previdi...", "Vado, ma dove?', "Chi sà, chi sà, qual sia" – tumbled out in silken, fluid voice, shepherded with masterful phrasing and an almost casual agility – as if all that coloratura happened unaided. Concert arias are such luxury when sung by a voice you love: seven or eight minutes, or even more, of non-stop vocal fabulousness. They're built as much to show off singers as to further any sort of plot, sometimes more so, and while I know this is the sort of supposed frivolity which puts some people off, say, the outer reaches of bel canto, there was nothing empty or even particularly showy about this concert. Véronique is almost all business, and the stand-alone nature of these arias doesn't make her delivery any less captivating.
And yet, as much as I loved all those concert arias, it was the odd one out that really made my night: Fiordiligi's "Per pietà". It was the last item in the concert, and while it might well have been listed in the program – which once again I didn't buy – it wasn't listed on the Versailles booking site, which meant it came as a complete and almost overwhelming surprise. The other arias had been sung, not surprisingly, like concert pieces, but now Véronique was Fiordiligi; we might as well have stumbled through some Mozartian wormhole into a production of Così. (Versailles, after all, is no stranger to wormholes.) If only this had been the beginning, not the end. I wanted her to keep singing for hours – even though the concert had already run late enough to make me miss at least one train, and just minutes earlier I'd been willing the Jupiter symphony to hurry up before I missed another.
She did keep singing for a little while, with Cherubino's "Voi che sapete" her first, adorable encore and then a repeat of "Chi sà". Then it was over, and I was powerwalking my way across the cobblestones of the courtyard towards a train which was due to leave in about eleven minutes. Reader, I made it. But I can't say I wouldn't have camped out there overnight if she'd offered a repeat of "Per pietà" for my troubles.