Pappano and gifted soloists reanimate the spirit of the Royal Opera House and remember those we have lost

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various composers, Live from Covent Garden: Louise Alder (soprano), Gerald Finley (bass-baritone), Toby Spence (tenor), Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales (dancers), Vasko Vassilev (violin), Sir Antonio Pappano (piano), Anita Rani (presenter). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 13.6.2020. (JPr)

Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales (c) Lara Cappelli

Britten – On this Island, Op.11 – Louise Alder
George Butterworth – Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad – Toby Spence
Ballet Interlude: New pas de deux, choreographed by Wayne McGregor to Richard Strauss’s ‘Morgen!’, Op.27 No.4 – Louise Alder, Vasko Vassilev (violin), and danced by Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales
Mark-Anthony Turnage – Three Songs – Gerald Finley
arr. Benjamin Britten – The Crocodile – Gerald Finley
Gerald Finzi – ‘Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun’, Op.18 No.3 – Gerald Finley
Handel – ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ (from Alcina) – Louise Alder
Bizet – ‘Au fond du temple saint’ (from Les Pêcheurs de perles) – Toby Spence and Gerald Finley

This was so full of goodwill – and with the artists and crew taking the knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement at one point – I must suspend my usual forensic critical analysis and just celebrate the Royal Opera House coming back to life in these (hopefully!) post-Covid days. My only wish is that the choice of programme had been less downbeat and more optimistic of better days yet to come. At times (sorry!) it was more like a wake, than the joyous occasion that might have been anticipated for the many watching who have been starved of truly live performance during their lonely lockdown.

Sir Antonio Pappano accompanied throughout from the piano and also – alongside Anita Rani’s hosting and interviewing Wayne McGregor and Mark-Anthony Turnage – introduced the music we would hear. He began with: ‘Whoever you are and wherever you are in the world, good evening, and thank you for joining us. My collaborators and I have put together a musical journey from Benjamin Britten to Georges Bizet; from song to opera; with detours featuring the music of George Butterworth, Richard Strauss, Mark Anthony Turnage, Gerald Finzi, and George Frideric Handel. And what collaborators I have: soprano Louise Alder, tenor Toby Spence, and bass-baritone Gerald Finley. We are here together humbly doing our best to reanimate the spirit of this gorgeous house and to remember those we have lost in the last months.’

On this Island is Britten’s setting of five poems by W. H. Auden and surprisingly was not written for Peter Pears but for soprano Sophie Wyss. The first song ‘Let the florid music praise’ revealed the wide range of Louise Alder’s bright soprano with its warm mezzoish colours in her lower register. ‘Now the leaves are falling fast’ had hints of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream of a couple of decades later and Pappano came to the fore with the evocation of nature in ‘Seascape’. Alder showed great control in an impassioned ‘Nocturne’ and there was a clear sense of disgust to the words ‘revolting succubus’.

Toby Spence sang George Buttterworth’s economical and deeply melancholic songs quite plainly. This was not to suggest he eschewed all emotion as he bought deep sadness to the lilting ‘The lads in their hundreds’ with Pappano offering accomplished pianism in the ritornellos between the verses, as well as, elsewhere. ‘Is my team ploughing’ is believed to be Butterworth’s finest A. E. Housman setting and is a dialogue between someone living and his dead friend. Melody, harmony, and irony combine to heart-rending effect. Deeply affecting was how Spence closed his eyes and intoned the spectre’s questions as Pappano’s chords pull us down with him into his grave. The replies about his former life and lover were marginally cheerier, yet with much left unanswered the song ends in such bleakness that Spence himself was visibly overcome.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Three Songs are outwardly paeans to cats, but even then are still not particularly uplifting, especially the mournful ‘Last Words’ sung a cappella to Thomas Hardy’s poem. Nevertheless, Gerald Finley’s bass-baritone voice was so mellifluous – and his diction so perfect – that I was happy just to hear him sing, whatever it was about! Such as, Britten’s arrangement of – the admittedly jollier – The Crocodile (traditional text) and all Finley’s repetitions of ‘To my rit fal lal li bollem tit! To my rit fal lal li dee!’ were a tour de force and he ended with a top note any tenor would have been proud of. Finally, Finzi’s ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ – with words by Shakespeare – was sung with an air of great portent and there was deep regret in Pappano’s plaintive postlude.

Alder sang with marvellous musicianship and great panache the first of the operatic pieces, Handel’s ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ from Alcina (premiered at Covent Garden in 1735). It was described by Pappano as a ‘coquettish coloratura aria’ and it helped lighten the mood even more. The finale brought us the piece that most of those listening in would have been able to name, Bizet’s duet from The Pearl Fishers, ‘Au fond du temple saint’. Finley was wonderful once again and Spence acquitted himself well in the circumstances without having the vocal heft for his part.

About halfway through this short programme there was the new pas de deux (described by the choreographer as ‘very beautiful’ and ‘intimate’), from Wayne McGregor, The Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer, to Richard Strauss’s elegiac ‘Morgen!’, sung by Louise Adler, and accompanied by Vasko Vassilev’s violin and Pappano’s solo piano. McGregor described how ‘Dance is a high touch industry … and many of us have been deprived of this very personal connection with others.’ Reflective, sad, poignant, and deeply moving, was my reaction and although one half of a real-life partnership, Francesca Hayward, didn’t seem that comfortable with contemporary dance, Cesar Corrales’s remarkably sinuous movement reminded me at times of Fokine’s The Dying Swan and Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faune. Corrales is strangely still only a first soloist but is arguably the second-best male dancer the company currently has in its ranks.

I am sure the vast experience of music director Antonio Pappano at the piano – often shown voicelessly mouthing and breathing along with his gifted soloists – added an extra measure to the success of what we saw and heard (click here) against the backdrop of the darkened auditorium. Next week – behind a paywall – there will be an orchestra on stage, with mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and tenor David Butt Philip in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, and Royal Ballet principal Vadim Muntagirov dancing to Gluck’s music in Frederick Ashton’s The Dance of the Blessed Spirits. Perhaps for some subsequent programmes there will be a realisation that the watching audience could do with offerings that are just a little more cheerful?

Jim Pritchard

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4 thoughts on “Pappano and gifted soloists reanimate the spirit of the Royal Opera House and remember those we have lost”

  1. Eh? One would expect that a dance critic would know how to assess the particular demands of a given choreography, including who does what in partnering. Maybe watch ‘Woolf Works’, ‘Yugen’ and ‘Multiverse’ first before opining again on the execution of a McGregor. They’re online somewhere.

    • Thanks for engaging with S&H but wonder if this is directed to me or ‘dance critics’ in general. The whole event was critic-proof as I suggested and I only gave some impressions of the singing and dancing, which included who of the two dancers seemed more at ease than the other, but described the work as ‘reflective, sad, poignant, and deeply moving’. I have not seen ‘Woolf Works’ but will be reviewing McGregor’s triptych soon … so watch this space! Jim

  2. Oh hey! Thanks for responding. I will try to be more direct (and more polite!)

    Yes, you did say you would not look forensically at the show given the occasion, and so I found it so jarring that you would single out a performer for criticism in an otherwise glowing review of performances, if not the programming. I mean, why when you said you wouldn’t?

    Saying a dancer seemed not to be confortable with a whole genre of dance is a criticism, and an odd, oddly sweeping one at that when based on a short pdd, hastily put together under extraordinary circumstances, etc. and given the dancer’s experience in contemporary dance pieces. Obviously a subjective opinion, which you are of course entitled to. My criticism of your criticism, if you will, is more objective. The dancer you suggest is not at ease with McGregor has danced McGregor many times (chosen by him obviously), originating roles in the works I mentioned. So whatever it was you were seeing, it could not have been because the dancer isn’t comfortable with McGregor (nevermind ‘contemporary dance’ — that’s a leap in logic), especially super stripped down McGregor. Objectively speaking as well, there were the actual step sequences McGregor gave one and the other dancer: bits of ‘contemporary’ McGregor for one (cf. Woolf Works part 2), more ‘neo-classical’ McGregor for the other (cf. Woolf Works part 1) – a deliberate contrast perhaps? In any case, I personally thought both did well by the choreography they were given and agree with you on the overall effect of the piece. Perhaps the dancer simply doesn’t ring your bell? Fair enough. But maybe just say that instead next time.

    I’ve carried on way too long haha! Hope that clarified. Thanks again for engaging. Keep safe!

    • This is a discussion I cannot win because I appreciate your deeper knowledge of McGregor and his choreography. When ‘Woolf Works’ became available later this month I already had plans to review it as I missed the broadcast or when it was in the theatre (obviously). I don’t agree I criticised – maybe moot – but I say I observed and as small things matter you missed ‘that’ before ‘comfortable’. I have watched the pdd a couple more times and I got the same impression from FH that can sometimes be seen even in Natalia Osipova when she enters the worlds of ‘contemporary’, or even ‘neo-classical’. Some dancers cannot completely shake off their ‘classical’ training. I totally accept all you say about ‘hastily put together’. Further it is not true I did not comment on anyone else and ‘observed’ that TS did well but was not quite the voice needed for the Bizet duet. Anyway thanks again for taking the time to respond at such length. Feel free to tell me off again if it is warranted in the future!! Jim


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