Article by Deborah Weiss
Since the Royal Opera House shut its doors on 17 March in response to lockdown, we have all waited impatiently for signs that we might be allowed to lose ourselves in live performances again. The moment arrived when a handful of artists gave the first live performance to a spookily empty auditorium, streamed from the ROH to hungry audiences across the world. It was a start, a welcome step in the right direction but in some ways, alarmingly different. In the last few months, we have got used to watching archive footage on our TV screens and computers and have loved much of what has been shown. Perhaps we are going to have to live with the pared down version of live performances, but the massive space that normally has the capacity to seat 2,256 people felt like being submerged in some sort of dark, cool grotto with little hope of finding our way out. As each individual performance finished to silence, it felt impossibly lonely. The choice of repertoire was eclectic – not perhaps the most accessible when one is trying to attract both opera and ballet audiences and indeed, the wider public. However, the quality of performances was, without question, absolutely supreme.
Louise Alder opened with Benjamin Britten’s On this Island, beautifully sung but a later contribution, Handel’s ‘Tornami a vagheggiar,’ (from Alcina) was much more thrilling. Toby Spence sung George Butterworth’s ‘Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad’ but again, his duet at the close of the concert with Gerald Finley, ‘Au fond du temple saint’ from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers took me to greater heights. Finley’s repertoire was most diverse with songs by Mark-Anthony Turnage (who gave an interesting interview to host, Anita Rani), Britten’s The Crocodile as well as Gerald Finzi’s Fear No More Heat o’ the Sun. All were accompanied magnificently by Music Director Antonio Pappano on the piano.
For dance enthusiasts, our frustrations had to be satiated by a single piece, a new creation by Wayne McGregor to Richard Strauss’s Morgen! performed by Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales (on and off stage partners). McGregor is always eloquent when interviewed. He comes across as very relaxed and charming but it was good to hear him point out just how hard hit the dancers across the world have been. It is, “a high touch industry,” and that, “we have been deprived of this very personal connection with others.” He also explained that trying to keep in shape at home was vastly different from, “devouring space in a studio.” Anxiously, we watched as Hayward spoke the words of the song in English – her exquisite, luminous beauty framed on the screen. As she and Corrales began to move in intimate phrases, it seemed a near miracle that this was happening in real time. With Pappano on the piano, Alder singing and Vasko Vassilev playing the violin, they gave us something both moving and aesthetically pleasing. McGregor has sensitively created a work ‘of the moment’ – a piece that celebrates touch, closeness and manages to convey that tenderness we perhaps crave right now. We are grateful to be sharing these new experiences – and the whole concert demonstrated just how extraordinary the artists are, but it felt like a cruelly minimal taster. Fantastic to have them back – but roll on the ‘new’ normal, my face mask is ready and waiting.
Next week, 20 June 2020, Vadim Muntagirov dances Sir Frederick Ashton’s 1978 solo, Dance of the Blessed Spirits and David Butt Philip and Sarah Connolly perform Schönberg’s reduction of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde – 7:30 pm BST. www.roh.org.uk