Travel Talk 

Latvia is a night at the opera

Meridian Writers’ Group

RIGA, Latvia–"Riga," sneered Napoleon, "is a suburb of London," referring to the strong trading relationship which then existed between the two cities.

In 1812 Napoleon’s forces found Riga to be something of a hot spot: the residents had set fire to outlying districts and retreated inside the city walls, which proved unbreachable. The magnificent medieval centre was left largely intact, and large areas of flamboyant Art Nouveau architecture subsequently grew on the scorched suburbs, providing me with plenty to see during the day. But filling the evenings was more of a problem.

The obvious choice was the Latvian National Opera, known locally as "our White House," its snowy neoclassical facade an important city landmark, and resembling London’s Royal Opera House in miniature although its productions had the reputation of being anything but scaled down. The problem was that its audience was intimidatingly dressy, and there was something lacking in my packing.

I’d also heard that last-minute tickets were expensive, but top price for opera productions turned out to be under 25 Latvian lati (about $60 Cdn), and for ballet under 15 lati (about $36 Cdn), well worth the risk of ostracism for not bringing black tie. Russian influence seemed to have reached all forms of nightlife, however, since the evening’s offering was Swan Lake , classical ballet’s biggest and most crowd-pleasing spectacle, originally created for the Imperial Russian Ballet, to music by Tchaikovsky.

The beautifully restored interior of the theatre was sumptuous enough to be worth the price of the ticket itself. There was red velvet everywhere from the upholstery to the vast gold-trimmed curtains, and proper chairs rather than tip-up seats. Gilded figures scurried around the fronts of the balconies and the ornate proscenium arch, and the design was the traditional horseshoe, providing a high proportion of seats with poor sight lines for the stage, but an even higher proportion with excellent views of everybody else, which was what theatre-going used to be all about.

From my seat in a box to one side, the rest of the audience was indeed worth viewing. Two-thirds of it was female, often women with the gazelle-like beauty common to the region, and runway-ready in terms of both dress and the calm "look at me" confidence with which they stalked to their seats.

I felt more comfortable when I saw that the men were both more drab and more casual, but I was startled to find one of them reading my mind.

"Needn’t have worried about bringing a tie," commented a very English voice behind me.

"Well I brought one," came the reply. "It’s holding my trousers up."

But then all hushed for the start of the performance, during which a remarkably well-disciplined, 20-strong corps of swans turned the stage into a sea of white net and love was found at first sight and expressed in jetés and pirouettes. The various "ethnic" dances from the ball scene of the second act gave plenty of opportunities for the talented soloists to have their moment in the spotlight, and offered something to please everyone.

ACCESS

For more information on the Latvia National Opera visit www.lmuza.lv/opera/default.asp .

For information on travel in Latvia visit the Latvia Tourism Development Agency website at www.latviatourism.lv .

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