Focus: Bravissimo!

An Italian opera in three acts starring Nancy Dell'Olio as the love-lorn Diva and Sven Goran Eriksson as her powerful and distant lover. (With apologies to Puccini and others.) Programme notes by Sholto Byrnes
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Act 1

Act 1

Our drama begins with the character of Nancy Dell'Olio, a raven-haired lawyer known in her native Italy as La Dama Nera (the Dark Lady), enjoying a Tuscan health spa. Into her presence stumbles Sven Goran Eriksson, the son of a humble lorry-driver from Sweden. Drawn together by the mysterious but irresistible force of love, the couple overcome differences in age and looks - he is older, balding and paunchy, she is younger, curvaceous and permatanned.

But theirs is a forbidden passion. Both are married. Nancy's husband Giancarlo Mazza is one of the dons of Lazio, the football club that employs Sven as coach. After playing footsie under the table at a dinner in Sven's honour, the couple resolve to tell the world of their love. They meet Don Mazza in a restaurant in Rome, where Sven boldly informs the wronged husband that La Dama Nera is now his innamorata and will be leaving the Palazzo Mazza to live in sin with him. They skip into the night, quite possibly singing as Don Giovanni and Zerlina did: "La ci darem la mano" (Place your hand in mine).

Nothing can mar the couple's happiness when Sven is asked to manage the team of England, a faraway land off the coast of France. They find a house in Regent's Park, a sylvan paradise in the English capital, London. But not long after they arrive, Sven leaves their happy home to cross a stinking canal district known as "Camden Market" to attend a birthday party given by the wicked press baron Richard Desmond. In the dark, cavernous Roundhouse, the Prime Minister's manipulative consigliere, Alastair Campbell, introduces the unworldly Sven to Ulrika Jonsson, a flaxen-haired Nordic goddess famed for her ability to beguile men (and not-so-famed for her television series, Dog Eat Dog). Back in Regent's Park, Nancy rests happy in the belief that Sven has promised to marry her.

Act 2

Sven is in his pomp, preparing his forces for combat against the champions of every nation at the World Cup tournament. He is beloved in his adopted land, the Chorus of Popular Opinion singing from the terraces: "Forza il ghiaccioso! (Come on you Iceman!)"

But rumours sweep the country that Sven and his fellow Swede Ulrika have been practising their own national pastime, massage, on each other. Nancy's faith in her Sven is not shaken, and she declares the tittle-tattle to be "rubbish". Unfortunately, a scandalsheet reveals that a serving wench in Jonsson's employ has spotted Sven's shoes, with their distinctive raised heels, outside her mistress's bedchamber. On entering, she has disturbed Sven apparently coaching Ulrika to reach the high notes. Nancy's reaction is yet again bold, announcing that she and her lover are "closer than ever".

The next day, Sven tries the patience of the long-suffering Nancy by refusing to tell his inquisitors in the press pack if he is still in love with her. Sven is also practising his enigmatic Nordic silence on the siren Ulrika, by not telephoning her. Ulrika reveals she is to publish her autobiography - but also that she is "no longer a part of this relationship". Nancy celebrates in her customarily demonstrative way: by attending an Arsenal match in a flowing white trouser suit.

England crash out of the World Cup at the quarter finals. The Chorus of Public Opinion begins to wonder what has happened to Sven's magic touch: "Siamo malati come dei pappagalli," they sing. (We are sick as parrots!)

Nancy is also upset with Sven, because he has not yet married her. Despite her immaculate composure in public, the diva is said to fill her Regent's Park house with the discordant music of smashing plates.

The two travel to the Italian coast for a holiday where she issues the ungallant Swede with an ultimatum: he must marry her, or else. Sven does what any operatic leading man would: puts off setting a date and tells friends that a wedding is out of the question. Nevertheless, Nancy summons representatives from Tiffany's and Cartier to show her engagement rings. She shows her trust and commitment by accompanying Sven to a Downing Street soirée in a sequinned red catsuit. Ulrika 's autobiography is serialised in a journal much read by the English petit bourgeoisie. Now as cold with Sven as a tiny frozen hand, Ulrika claims that her former lover referred to Nancy as "the Italian" and "the third party". Mortified, Nancy is unable to throw more plates because she has moved out to stay with a friend in Knightsbridge - but she screams at him down the phone that their house must now be redecorated, because Sven brought his illicit lover there. Like Tosca, she must be tempted to sing: "Perche, perche signore, perche me ne rimuneri cosi," (Why, oh why, God, do you not treat me justly?) Despite her anger, Nancy still loves Sven, who is cowed by her fury. He knows she has been offered bags of gold by publishers. Will she tell all?

Act 3

Sweeping chords, soft lights, calm. An uneasy peace holds in Regent's Park. Sven has persuaded Nancy to take up a stress-reducing yoga regime, which the pair demonstrate on a Swedish beach. Now, whenever she feels a tantrum coming on, Nancy takes deep breaths. But not when she discovers Sven has been viewing apartments in Kensington without her knowledge. A Bulgari plate flies through the drawing room, missing the England manager, who explains that the flat is for his assistant, Tord Grip. Nancy takes solace in the organisation she and Sven have set up, Truce International, which puts an end to wars by building football pitches. She also announces that she and Sven are considering adopting a child. His friends deny that the subject has ever come up.

Sven, meanwhile, continues to act suspiciously. He is offered a new deal to stay as England manager for £4m a year but is revealed to have visited the home of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, for a cup of tea. The press grumbles its disbelief. The national team performs poorly in Euro 2004, and the Chorus begins to question whether he has achieved much at all. "Lei e Graham Taylor in travestito?" (Are you Graham Taylor in disguise?)

Nancy appears on a television programme hosted by Jonathan Ross to talk about her charitable activities, but her tongue runs away with her and she reveals details of her love life with Sven. He is furious with her.

However, the story has more twists and trysts than the Marriage (whoops, better not mention that word) of Figaro. Soon it is her turn to be furious with him after a new story suggests the unlikely lothario has formed a special friendship with a secretary at the Football Association. "I will kill you if this is true!" says Nancy.

Sven denies any ungentlemanly behaviour, but the edifice of their relationship crumbles around the two storm-tossed lovers like cheap scenery. They fight a verbal duel over who dumped who, using "friends" and reporters to amplify each blow until it rings around the auditorium. It is Nancy who appears to emerge the winner: once the wicked temptress, she has now won our sympathy while the cold Swede loses favour with every bum note. As the curtain closes we thrill to Nancy's most dramatic act yet: driving off in a red outfit and large gold earrings to dine with a Prince (even if it is only Charles at Highgrove). The End? You must be joking.

Additional research by Oscar Blend


The Boss

Giancarlo Mazza was a director of Lazio who lost his wife when the new coach arrived

The Matchmaker

Alastair Campbell, a powerful force in the court of King Tony, introduced Sven to Ulrika

The Other Woman

Sven and Ulrika Jonsson shared their Swedishness, their popularity, and a bed

The Captain

David Beckham. Every opera needs a dashing blade who runs about looking good, saying little

The Mystery Woman

Rumours of an affair between Sven and Faria Alam of the FA have been denied by friends

The Prince

There had to be one, even if he is taken. Nancy dined with Charles (and others) at Highgrove