Live from Covent Garden review, Royal Opera House: moving, yes, but not a showy gown in sight
There’s been no shortage of live music broadcast across the internet during the lockdown, much of it played at a high level. But it’s fair to say it’s been somewhat short on high spirits and visual appeal. Listening to these austere concerts from white-walled studios or book-lined sitting-rooms has somehow magnified the unhappiness of our situation, reinforcing the sense of enveloping weirdness rather than offering some relief from it.
One might have hoped the Royal Opera and Ballet would break the mould, pull out the stops, and give us a good time. But thus far it’s been serious stuff, with not a tutu or showy gown in sight. Last night’s concert, the second of the series of three, was even more dark-toned than the first. After a jarringly gushing introduction from host Anita Rani, the camera panned round to the dimly-lit stage, where at a distance the figure of principal dancer Vadim Muntagirov could be seen advancing towards us.
His performance was advertised as the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice, as choreographed by Frederick Ashton for a 1953 production at the Royal Opera. But the dim light made it feel more like Hades than the Elysian Fields, and the spirit seemed more anguished than blessed. Muntagirov as ever made every movement tell, his face as expressive of forlorn abandon as those long flexible limbs. It was a sublime six minutes.
Then came another sort of farewell, even more moving: Mahler’s Song of the Earth. It was performed in a masterly arrangement for a reduced orchestra of only 16 players, which had two advantages: it meant the players could comfortably socially distance in a way that looked natural, and it allowed the voices of tenor David Butt Phillip and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly to cut through the orchestra without strain. Conductor Antonio Pappano seized the opportunity to give a different reading of the piece, questing and urgent rather than spacious. It meant Connolly’s heart-felt, beautifully paced performance of the final farewell was moving in a more intimate way.
The final image was of the starkly empty, silent hall, which killed the afterglow of the Mahler stone-dead and reminded us there are few things more pathetic than an empty theatre. Perhaps this was deliberate, because it demonstrated the point so many in the performing arts are making. They need real audiences, not virtual ones, and they need them now.
This concert is available on demand for 14 days for £4.99 per household, via roh.org.uk or the Royal Opera House’s YouTube channel.