With music director Sir Antonio Pappano at the piano (always a treat in itself), three celebrated singers and two matchless dancers, this intimate performance played to an audience of many thousands. They were not in the red plush seats, of course, but at home.
English theatre design, with its long rows necessitating much Excuse me/Thank you-ing, does not lend itself to social distancing. In Italy, by contrast, theatres are re-opening, because they traditionally favour many tiers of individual boxes and relatively few rows, at stalls level only. It's hard to imagine how London auditoriums can adapt, but there must be many people in the music business busy with their rulers and calculators.
Gerald Finley lightens the mood with Britten's song The Crocodile. Photo: Lara Cappelli
If the first Live from Covent Garden's virtual audience was hoping for some lighthearted escapism, this was not the place. This first of three scheduled Saturday evening concerts took a largely solemn approach. Settings of first world war poetry, a mournful Shakespeare song … The Royal Opera House clearly felt it would be inappropriate to come bouncing back with a frivolous cabaret.
Yet who did not, perhaps secretly, delight in baritone Gerald Finley boogying discreetly to a Benjamin Britten crocodile song, with its nonsense refrain? Similarly, after soprano Louise Alder’s opening with more sombre Britten settings of Auden poems, her sparkling and jubilant Handel aria was as refreshing and cheering as a glass of bubbly in the Floral Hall. And a sequence of pet songs was the comforting aural equivalent of I Can Has Cheezburger.
Early problems with helpful surtitles were quickly solved, and it was a privilege to catch a glimpse at the end of the programme of a moment from the afternoon's dress rehearsal. The company and crew took to the stage together, at safe distances, and took to one knee, a mark of respect for black lives.
Tenor Toby Spence and Royal Opera House music director Antonio Pappano in rehearsal. Photo: Lara Cappelli
Opera may depend on a libretto, but it has a worldwide appeal. At a time when countries are examining their past and present and facing an uncertain future, there was something heartening about the easy shuttle between languages in this programme. The songs embraced Italian (set by the German-born Londoner Handel), French in the popular duet from The Pearl Fishers, English, and in the dance work Morgen, choreographed by Wayne McGregor to music by Richard Strauss, German.
This internationalism was an uplifting reminder that the world of music has no borders, and that London is a city of linguists. To escape from the relentless use of language as a political tool and to hear thoughts take flight on the wings of song, was a welcome relief.
Next week: 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 in Ashton's The Dance of the Blessed Spirits, dance to music by Gluck.
Live from Covent Garden is available free on demand until 26 June. Further live streamings are on Sat 20 June and Sat 27 June, at £4.99
|What||Live from Covent Garden: opera and song review|
|Where||Online | MAP|
On 13 Jun 20, Available on demand until 26 June
|Website||Click here to view|