United 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)
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?
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