You don’t have to be an opera buff to savour Quartet by Ronald Harwood but I think you’ll appreciate some of the references more if you are. We meet four retired opera singers in a residential home for old musicians – a tenor who might have been a noteworthy Tristan or Siegfried, a mezzo, a baritone with an international career behind him and a soprano who has just moved in. Many years ago, the soprano and tenor were briefly married. The past, even when some aspects of the present are not always easily accessible, is always with them.
A recording of Verdi’s Rigoletto which they made several decades previously has recently been reissued. There’s a concert in honour of the composer’s birthday at which our quartet are expected to perform. “Bella figlia dell’amore” is the logical choice. But the loud ticking of a clock and the relentless beat of a metronome which introduce each act remind us that time is not on the side of the elderly. There may be no fresh rosebuds to be gathered even in these carefully-maintained communal gardens but thorns are very in plenty to prick cold and deep.
The second act with its rapid succession of short scenes leading up to the concert works better than the first one. Granted that we need to know quite a lot about these four people in order to emphasise with them, but I found a certain crispness lacking. Director Joe Harmston has a fine cast to work with and Simon Scullion’s setting is spacious. Susannah York is wraith-like Jean, so elegant (shades of Callas?) as she refuses at first to accept her new lifestyle and the fact that she can no longer choose her own intimates.
Few actors do ageing disgracefully better than Timothy West. You can easily imagine him in all the Gobbi roles and the man behind the performer is there as well. Gwen Taylor is very good as Cissie, for whom the present all too easily knots itself up in the past but whose good nature keeps on bubbling through. Reginald is the intellectual of the four, layering a concern for the meaning of art over the wounds his personal unhappiness keeps ever-open; Michael Jayston suggests that the spikiness could be worth braving.
If you don’t know the play, I won’t spoil its final five minutes for you except to say that they provide a magic all of their own. If you love Verdi, you’ll savour every last moment. If you don’t know the music, then I hope that you’ll find that a new world has previewed itself. As the quartet find out, there’s something to discover and learn, wherever you stand on life’s accelerating stages.