The lights dim, down in the orchestra pit the musicians stop tuning their instruments and an expectant hush descends on the Roman amphitheatre in Sanxay, waiting for Aida to begin. The silence is suddenly broken by the sound of a dog growling. Embarrassingly, the dog in question is Biff.
We are perched, four humans and a little black terrier, on a picnic blanket on a grassy knoll above the auditorium.
‘Quick give him a piece of bread or something to distract him,’ says one of our group.
It works. As Biff forages around in the hedge behind us, we take it in turns to view the stage through shooting binoculars. (We have booked the cheap €16 tickets, which means that the stage is somewhat distant but in my view it's more relaxed and better than paying €40 to be shoe-horned into a hard plastic seat below.)
I pull Biff’s head out of a bowl of potato salad and in the interval, I discover he has eaten half a chocolate cake.
‘Oh well, what’s a dog to do when confronted with all this food?’ says Rob, who has spent a day preparing the picnic. ‘Seriously, you can’t blame him.’ (Thank goodness my friends are all dog lovers).
Biff, who has been enjoying a packed social diary for some time now, can normally can be relied upon to behave impeccably. The previous day he enjoyed a seafood lunch in La Rochelle, where everyone marvelled at the fact that he sat patiently under the table for nearly three hours.
But as the second half of the opera begins, with Aida warbling nostalgically about green hills and perfumed rivers, Biff starts barking again. It’s as if he is trying to compete with the captured Ethiopian princess. Fortunately, the people around us seem very relaxed – some of them are snoring gently under the indigo night sky – rather than throwing us poisonous looks.
As Aida is buried alive in an Egyptian tomb with her lover, my dog tries to upstage her, jiggling the security rope in a desperate play for attention and slurping water noisily from a bowl, before finally settling down to watch the last act.
Perhaps like me, he can only take opera in small doses. Generally, I prefer the edited highlights to the full-on production But this Aida - the first Aida I've seen - was an exception. The music, the colour, the costumes and even the incense that was wafted into the night air to evoke the tomb scenes, meant that all of the senses were engaged. As we drove home through deserted country villages, it was, we all agreed, a very memorable night at the opera.