Royal Opera House / Royal Ballet
Live from Covent Garden: First Streamed Concert
including Wayne McGregor’s new Morgen duet
Streamed from Royal Opera House, London
13 June 2020
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The lights are back on at the Royal Opera House, admittedly at a low wattage. For the first live (and partially recorded) performance since lockdown on 17 March, the lamps along the three upper levels of the auditorium were dimly lit. The red plush seats were empty. On stage, facing away from the absent audience, was Antonio Pappano, music director of the ROH, seated at his Steinway grand piano. His role was to be co-presenter with enthusiastic Anita Rani, as well as to accompany the four singers. The choice of mainly English songs was his, in agreement with the performers, his collaborators. Wayne McGregor, resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet, contributed a new pas deux to his choice of music, a song by Richard Strauss.
The rationale for the three concerts on successive Saturday nights is to re-animate the House, to commemorate the people and performances that have been lost to the Covid-19 pandemic and to raise funds. Pleas were made for donations, as well as for online ‘tickets’ to the next two concerts. The emphasis is aimed at opera fans rather than ballet lovers, since dancers have been allotted only a few minutes in the first two concerts.
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Something to lift the spirits Not long until the curtain rises on our first live performance since lockdown began, which you can watch on our YouTube channel, Facebook page and website from 7.30pm BST on 13 June The performance of opera and ballet works will include a world premiere from Wayne McGregor and starring Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales, pictured here in rehearsal. Given the unique requirements of social distancing, these stunning images were captured remotely via FaceTime by photographer @tomjjohnsonphoto We can't wait to show you the full piece on Saturday. It's great to be back. #OurHouseToYourHouse
The tone of the opening concert was decidedly sombre. The performers were formally dressed in dark outfits, a few with unkempt hair. This was not a problem for Wayne McGregor, informally clad for his onstage interview with Anita Rani before the pre-recorded pas de deux. He explained that the duet was intended to be raw and intimate, performed by Royal Ballet dancers who live and train together – Francesca Hayward and César Corrales. In a bizarre choice of terminology, McGregor stated that ‘dance is high touch industry’, requiring a very personal connection with others, a connection many of us have been missing during this period of lockdown. While the singers observed a careful distance, the dancers moved within each other’s space, ending coupled together.
The music was Richard Strauss’s setting of a poem by his contemporary, John Henry Mackay, Morgen. It was the last of four songs the composer presented to his wife as a wedding present. On the Opera House stage it was performed in its original setting, sung by soprano Louise Alder, with Vasko Vassilev, Concert Master of the ROH orchestra, on the violin. Hayward spoke the poem, very well, to camera in an English translation of the German, starting with the assurance that the sun would shine again tomorrow and that the lovers would look into each other’s eyes; ‘And upon us will descend the muted silence of happiness’.
This piece was specially choreographed by Wayne McGregor
— Royal Opera House (@RoyalOperaHouse) June 15, 2020
She then stood waiting, wearing an orange shift, while Corrales approached her, curving and flexing his bare torso and rippling his shoulders in typical McGregor undulations as the violin played. Once Corrales reached Hayward’s side, writhing sinuously on the floor, both then adopted upright balletic fifth positions. The partnering then began, even before the soprano voice joined in. The dancers managed to fit the choreography to Alder’s phrasing, though the lifts look clumsy because of Corrales’s hunched shoulders and grasping hand holds. Although McGregor envisages him as ‘pantherine’, he is made to resemble a simian creature grappling with an exquisite ballerina. The two most expressive lifts came from other ballets: the raising of her heart to heaven from Romeo and Juliet and her lying along his outstretched arms from Spartacus.
They gazed into each other’s eyes, echoing the ending of the poem as they curled up together; she embraced his bowed head in her arms as the violin died away. It was a heartfelt ending, persuading viewers that the pas de deux had been as moving as the music. Admittedly, it had been created in difficult conditions but ballet can do better than this.
The three and a half minute recording segued into those involved in the concert kneeling in tribute to the Black Lives Matter campaign. The concert took place in the week that George Floyd, murdered by a white American policeman, was buried. The ROH issued a statement about its policy for dealing with racism, conscious and unconscious. Two Royal Ballet dancers, Marcelino Sambé and Joseph Sissens, had posted their personal contributions on social media.
The ROH came in for criticism for bringing politics into its cultural screening, with crass comments on the Live From Covent Garden site and other media. (Never, ever, look at the Live Chat column alongside a screening. What is the point?) It was an egregious segment in the first concert because of the obligation it imposed on viewers to respond, unlike the other offerings that could be left to personal taste.
The concert opened with This Island, Benjamin Britten’s setting of five poems by W H Auden, sung by Louise Alder. Unfortunately, subtitles didn’t kick in during her performance of the song cycle, whose lyrics are hard to hear. (Richard Alston’s last creation for his dance company, Shine On, to the same music, also suffered from the problem of inaudibility.)
Tenor Toby Spence sang George Butterworth’s setting of six poems by A E Houseman, lamenting lost youth and dead lads. Inevitably, they sounded sentimental compared with Shakespeare’s beautiful elegy from Cymbeline, ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’, sung by bass baritone Gerald Finley in a setting by Gerald Finzi. The melancholic theme was interrupted by Mark-Anthony Turnage’s setting of songs in praise of animals by Stevie Smith, Thomas Hardy and Walt Whitman. They had been composed for Finley, who also sang Britten’s humorous folksong about a fabulous crocodile.
The performances cried out for applause, as did the two excerpts from operas: Handel’s coquettish aria from Alcina, jubilantly sung by Alder, and the Pearl Fishers’ duet from Bizet’s opera of the same name, with Finley and Spence standing more than two metres apart from each other and Pappano at the piano. They concluded passionately, singing their hearts out, to be met with absolute silence.
The camera pulled away, revealing three tiny figures on the bare stage, seen from the very back of the empty auditorium. It was a tragic ending, in spite of assurances that the concerts would continue and that the Opera House would reopen.
The first concert was not much of a consolation for all that we have lost. The House is in mourning, begging for funding and donations, making only a small attempt to cheer us up. So far, the Royal Ballet appears a token add-on to the opera’s contributions, though the recent streaming of a 2005 performance of La Fille mal gardée certainly raised the spirits. Now, surely, is the time to win new enthusiasts for the future, whatever that turns out to be.