Extraordinary – in part

Hello, everybody – long time no blog. I meant to tell you about the Proms and the Covent Garden Ring, and to do a tribute piece to mark the final farewell of the much-loved ENO/Hytner production of The Magic Flute – but ultimately I’ve been far too busy *going* to all of these things, and holding down the job that pays my wages and enables me to continue to buy tickets for them, to subject you to my thoughts about them as well.

Last night I attended the “Our Extraordinary World” gala at the Royal Opera House – a Diamond Jubilee event (the Queen was in attendance along with the Duke of Edinburgh), a fundraiser (tickets carried a donation supplement, which on the higher-priced tickets was eye-watering) and a celebration of all of the ROH’s activities – onstage, backstage and in the community. With the posts of Director of Opera and Director of Ballet both only recently in new hands, it was also styled as something of a marketing presentation to donors and members – it was run as a private event for which booking was available by invitation only – about where the company is at present. As an employee of a fairly large organisation I’m familiar with how this concept works in more conventional companies: an occasional compulsory meeting involving a hired conference room, a projector, free biscuits, a guest speaker on behalf of senior management, and lots of talking-head videos from all ranks and corners of the organisation.

The auditorium of the ROH is certainly more attractive and better-lit than most of the venues I’ve been in for such things, I don’t recall ever attending one of them in a cocktail frock and killer heels, and the Queen has always been conspicuous by her absence. (Although there were no free biscuits, which is clearly a point that needs addressing for next time.)

What we DID have were several new and nearly-new pas de deux, mostly choreographed by current members of the Royal Ballet – a demonstration of exactly the kind of creative innovation that the House can boast from within its staff, and something to be very proud of as a flagship British arts organisation. In a more conservative vein, to show off the corps de ballet, there was also a fully-costumed performance of Ashton’s La valse. Looking at the dance component of the programme, I can really see only one point – the MacMillan ‘Farewell’ pas de deux – where a snip could perhaps have been made without major compromise to this event’s apparent purpose of demonstrating the variety, innovation and importance of the work that goes on behind the scenes at the ROH.

And what representation did opera get? Arias and choruses, presented uncostumed and basically unstaged, not one of them under a century old. When guest soloist Eva-Maria Westbroek had to withdraw at short notice due to illness, the opportunity was taken to shorten an overlong programme by replacing her in only one of her scheduled items and cutting the other completely. Indeed, looking through the operatic items on the bill, I struggled to find any great over-arching statement of current artistic vision in there. That Westbroek’s intended ‘Pace, pace’ was the missing item was almost immaterial; pretty much any other number could have been selected for the chop without real creative compromise, as high-class as much of the singing was.

We all know that arias sung in evening dress are about as far removed from the main body of the RO’s day-to-day activity as it gets. It’s hardly as though the RO doesn’t have a huge amount of important new creative work and artistic development in constant motion. OK, there are no world premieres scheduled for the main stage this season, but we do have the upcoming UK premiere of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, which is a house co-commission, as well as a revival of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur which was commissioned by the RO and received its world premiere here in 2008. And in Kasper Holten, the company now has a Director of Opera who will be acting in a directorial capacity (he’s directing Yevgeny Onegin in early 2013) as well as an administrator. Could something not have been made of this new state of affairs in this evening’s festivities? And whatever became of the Royal Opera House Youth Company, who debuted on the main stage in La bohème last season? Some of its members were seen in the talking-heads footage, but there was no showcase for them here. They could surely at least have had a presence in the Tosca Te Deum which, led by Bryn Terfel, provided the evening’s grand finale.

Other then the mighty and hard-working Royal Opera Chorus, who we heard (and saw, if only in concert black and wielding scores) in several items, the only hint we got of the Royal Opera attempting to showcase itself as an artistic force for the future was in the use of singers emerging from the company’s world-class Jette Parker Young Artists’ Programme. With Westbroek indisposed, Santuzza’s solo in the Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana was taken by excellent JPYA alumna Elisabeth Meister, who has covered Westbroek several times and is the RO’s current Helmwige and Third Norn. The baritone Ashley Riches, new to the programme, was impressive in the small role of Saint Jacques when Roberto Alagna and the chorus gave us ‘Ô Souverain’ from Massenet’s Le Cid. But the most memorable JPYA contribution came, ironically, in one of the dance pieces – the excellent mezzo Justina Gringyte, performing alongside RB principals Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae in Alastair Marriott’s In the Hothouse, for which the music was Wagner’s Im Treibhaus (a.k.a. Wesendonck-Lied no.3). Of the evening’s vocal performers, she alone was fully integrated into the fabric of the piece concerned, with costume and movement.

I know I’m not alone in thinking that ballet came out of this far better than opera did. And I think that was a wasted opportunity.

OK, now for the realism: this was a fundraiser. I realise it would have been counter-productively expensive to present the RO’s forces in a programme of fully-integrated excerpts requiring comprehensive staging rehearsals, so I don’t think that particular solution would have been viable. What’s more, the company’s halfway into the last of four Ring Cycles, for goodness’ sake – it came as no surprise when Tony Pappano, originally down to conduct the operatic items in this gala, withdrew and handed over to Daniel Oren (Barry Wordsworth conducted the dance pieces). It’s worth noting, mind, that withdrawing on the grounds of an artistically-excessive schedule is a luxury which one of the ROH’s other greatest assets, the orchestra, do not have. They’ve been knocking out Swan Lake on pretty much every evening they haven’t had a Ring opera.

Practicalities like this can’t be ignored. But when it came to the evening’s purported theme, I felt I got a great impression of the “extraordinary world” of the Royal Ballet, but saw barely a scratch on the surface of the Royal Opera’s. If one company can be brave enough to present an intelligent and largely contemporary programme in the stuffed-shirt environment of a Royal gala, what’s stopping the other?

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2 thoughts on “Extraordinary – in part

  1. But there is only one company. The Royal Ballet. the Royal Opera consists of one contracted artist, a few young singers and all the same jet-setting international artists which appear at most of the world’s other big Houses. It has no real identity other than providing a stage for visiting artists and to my mind is all the poorer for it. It cannot even be said to develop its own artists any more for the vast bulk of youngsters passing through the JPYA programme hardly ever appear at the house again or do so infrequently. I’m afraid it is the way of today’s operatic world, but even the Met has more of a company than the Royal Opera currently owns.

    Tony Watts

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