Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Our Extraordinary World Gala - review

Galas are funny things, and must be a nightmare to put together; trying to assemble a a coherent evening around a series of snippets made tempting by the star names singing, but dependent on diaries and personalities. Last night's gala at Covent Garden, Our Extraordinary World (30 October), was given in the presence of HM the Queen and Prince Philip and was intended both to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee but also the whole of the Covent Garden enterprise, both on-stage and off. There was also the feeling that it marked the launch of a new era, with Kasper Holten as Director of Opera and Kevin O'Hare as Director of the Royal Ballet. The offerings of opera and ballet were evenly balanced, with some tempting new pieces being created specially for the occasion. Interleaved with all of this were short video compilations of interviews with everyone connected with Covent Garden, dancers, singers, backstage staff, Friends of Covent Garden, education, community, indeed a celebration of the whole enterprise.


Such evenings do not happen without their fair share of dramas. Even before the night, Antonio Pappano withdrew finding the scheduling of the Gala in the middle of  a Ring Cycle just too taxing. Instead there were a roster of conductors, Barry Wordsworth for the ballet, Daniel Oren and Renata Balsadonna (the ROH's chorus master) for the opera. But then Eva-Marie Westbroek had to withdraw at the last minute due to illness. She was replaced by Elizabeth Meister in the Easter Hymn from Cavalleria rusticana, but Westbroek's departure seems to have been used as an opportunity to shorten the programme and Verdi's Pace, pace mio dio from La Forza del Destino was dropped.

After a suitably grand fanfare by William Walton, the orchestra launched into a sparkling account of Shostakovitch's Festive Overture conducted by Barry Wordsworth, accompanied by images of the Royal Opera House. Then we had a video greeting from Tony Hall, this was frankly rather unnerving, having Hall's head projected vastly increased in scale, rather big brother-ish. The odd nature of the video (projected onto drops so that the images were all hugely oversized) continued with a rather too jokey introductory dialogue between Holten and O'Hare; this was paralleled at the opening of part 2 with a jokey dialogue between Pappano and Wordsworth (who is Musical Director of the Royal Ballet). But it did help establish the feeling that we were starting a new era.

Holten's staging was simple and effective. Just drops, onto which were projected images of the Royal Opera House. The house itself formed the scenery. This also meant that the gala flowed nicely, with no awful waits. The ballets were all given on an open stage with the backdrop just lit; sparse but effective.

After the overture, the chorus sang Freudig begrussen wir die edle Halle  from Tannhauser conducted by Balsadonna, and though we had some brilliant singing there was the odd uneasy moment of ensemble with the pit which hinted at the problems and fraught nature of finding sufficient rehearsal time for such enterprises.

Once we started seeing the video interviews with the people involved in the house, I found that I warmed to the idea of the film snippets between the items. A wide range of people were used and many of the short interviews were rather touching and often amusing, illuminating the way music and the arts can touch peoples lives in many ways - a retired woman from Thurrock talking about how the coming of the ROH to Thurrock and how it had fulfilled her life in ways she had not thought possible before.

The first of the specially created dance pieces was Wayne McGregor's Ambar danced by Natlia Osipova and Edward Watson to piano accompaniment played by the composer/musician Nils Frahm. Frahm piano was amplified and his accompaniment eerily evocative. McGregor had created a slightly edgy duet for a troubled couple, the dance full of his familiar awkward and extended movements, with Osipova stretching herself upwards or wrapping herself round Watson. McGregor's note in the programme talked about insects trapped in amber, traces of life that once lived, and there was a sense that the duo were doomed to constantly repeat their same dialogue, never reaching conclusion.

The next operatic offering was one to which I had rather been looking forward, the chance to heard Roberto Alagna singing some 19th century French grand opera, O noble lame etincelante from Massenet's Le Cid. (An opera which Alagna has sung, in Montpelier). Alagna's performance was rather stiff; though singing without music he seemed a little uncomfortable on stage. This feeling was not helped by the rather forced sound of Alagna's voice. His voice has, inevitably, lost the bloom that it once had and but the voice sounded rather hard, the top notes were not ideally free. He brought off the aria nicely, but it was Massenet whom we were admiring rather more than Alagna's vocal artistry.

Liliom is a full length ballet created by John Neumeier (artistic director of Hamburg Ballet) based on Ferenc Molnar's play (the source of  Rogers and Hammerstein's Carousel). The chief roles of Liliom and his wife Julie were created by Carsten Jung (from Hamburg Ballet) and Alina Cojocaru and they repeated them in the pas de deux excerpted from Liliom for the gala. The two won awards for their duet  at the 2012 Prix Benois de la Danse. The score is by Michel Legrand. The duet showed another couple in trouble; you began to wonder whether Kevin O'Hare had decided to use the theme of couples therapy for the contributions to the gala! Again going through a cycle and never achieving resolution. Legrand's score and Neumeier's repertoire of movement styles kept hinting that the work might move into full Broadway mode, but it never did. I found the piece a little puzzling and unsatisfying and feel that I need to see the whole ballet.

Next came Angela Gheorghiu to sing Rusalka's Song to the Moon from Dvorak's Rusalka, conducted by Daniel Oren. Gheorghui, wearing an amazing figure hugging glittery dress, sang from music and rather fiddled with the music stand. Her tone was radiant and she has huge potential in the role, but her performance only really took off dramatically at the end when she abandoned her music addressed the audience directly.

Part one finished with a performance of La Valse, Frederick Ashton's choreography to Ravel's music; the one chance for the Royal Ballet's corps de ballet to show off. This they did, giving us a brilliantly entrancing performance. In some ways, La Valse is slightly an odd piece for a gala. You can imagine it being chosen because of the lovely frocks and tiaras that the women wear, but these people are dancing on the edge of the abyss, and Ashton's final image is of them furiously dancing as the curtains close, doomed to dance forever.

Part 2 opened with a fine performance of the Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana with Elizabeth Meister looking stunning with her red hair and green dress, giving a stunning vocal performance. The chorus on form too.

With Bryn Terfel's account of Son lo spirito che nega from Boito's Mefistofele we got some real operatic drama for the first time. Terfel is a brilliant stage creature and his performance was never just going to be a concert. He relished every moment of the piece, especially the whistling (which went down a bomb with the audience). Can we have the full opera next time please?

Alastair Marriott's In the hothouse was another premiere. Setting Im Treibhaus from Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder Marriott had mezzo-soprano Justina Gringyte (one of the ROH Young Artists) on stage with the dancers Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae. Gringyte looked astonishing (designs were by Jonathan Howells who was also assistant choreographer), looking rather medieval with her long white dress. The dancers wore unitards and spent rather a lot of time lying on the ground. I make it sound unpromising, but it wasn't, it was riveting. Marriott created a real atmosphere, something happening though you were not sure what. A superb occasional piece which engrosses and enchants and stands on its own, gripping immediately.

Roberto Alagna reappeared for another excerpt from Le Cid, this time the slightly better known O Souverain, o juge, o pere. Lovely to hear it sung by a native French speaker. All my comments above apply to his performance here as well. ROH Young Artist Ashley Riches supported ably in the small role of St. James.

Kenneth MacMillan's Farewell pas de deux was created for a gala in 1990 for the Queen Mother's birthday. MacMillan then developed it into a full blown ballet, Winter Dreams, based on Chekov's Three Sisters. Here we had the original pas de deux with Roberta Marquez and Nehemiah Kish accompanied by Paul Stobart at the piano playing Tchaikovsky. I saw the pas de deux in its original incarnation and in Winter Dreams with the original dancers, Darcy Bussell and Irek Mukhamedov. Marquez and Kish were passionate and involving, though they did not quite erase memories of the original dancers. Kish is an elegant dancer and was not quite as robust as Mukhamedov.

Angela Gheorghiu reappeared in a change of outfit (and without music) to sing the Habanera from Carmen. A surprising performance, as Gheorghiu found a lovely dark smoky tone to her voice which suited the music brilliantly. She gave a more involving performance, sexy rather than dangerous; though the brightly coloured 'gypsy' dress was a mistake.

After the Rain is a section from a longer ballet created by Christopher Wheeldon and first performed in New York. Here it was danced by Narianel Nunez and Thiago Soares, with Peter Manning and Robert Clarke playing Arvo Part's Spiegel im Spiegel. More couples therapy, but this time the couple seemed happier. Wheeldon seems to have been inspired not only by the hypnotic nature of Part's music but also by the title, so that the two dancer often mirrored each other. An absorbing and fascinating piece, and perhaps a suggestion that we might get the full ballet?

The next pas de deux was entirely surprising. The music by Glazunov (from his Scenes de Ballet), the costumes traditional with Laura Morera in a regal purple tutu and Federico Bonelli in matching purple, the choreography in the school of Petipa inspired, which links many of the great choreographers from earlier in the 20th century. It wasn't structured like a classical pas de deux, there was no solo movement for each artist. But it was delightful and elegantly entrancing. And it was a world premiere, by Liam Scarlett.

Finally we had the Te Deum from Puccini's Tosca with Bryn Terfel again on form and greatly dramatic.

For the bows everyone came on-stage (everyone that is except Roberto Alagna who seems to have disappeared). Then to everyone's delight the Queen and Prince Philip came on-stage to greet the artists, a great treat for those of us sitting in seats where the Royal party (sitting in the middle of the grand tier) was invisible.

This was a great evening and I know that no-one was counting, but you could not help feeling that ballet won on points by the end of the evening. The tradition of creating short occasional dance pieces works well for such occasions in a way that would not apply to opera. There is something rather wonderful about celebrating a gala with a raft of brand new works to complement the more traditional items and the new ballets were very satisfying. On the operatic front it was lovely to hear Massenet's Le Cid but it was Terfel's performance in Boito's opera which stays in the mind.

Elsewhere on the blog:
  • London Song Festival - English and American comedy songs - review
  • Barbican Centre - Donizetti Belisario - review
  • Brighton Early Music Festival - Autumn Lates - review
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