Music: Glamour, nostalgia and magic

The new Royal Opera House: Jenny Gilbert applauds the dance; the music does less for Michael White
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The Independent Culture
Wasn't she marvellous? Wasn't she great? This was the comment that buzzed about the stairways and foyers during the interval at Wednesday's gala. But it wasn't a reference to any of the singers featured in the Royal Opera's opening set, apparently designed to warn anyone off opera for life.

No, the talk was of Vivien Duffield, the woman who took on the task of raising a crazy pounds 100m - a woman who, had she not succeeded by sheer force of energy and charm, would clearly have resorted to stringing up her millionaire chums and shaking the money from their pockets. It had been "a pig of a job", she told us, in tones Fanny Cradock once used over filleted herring. But she'd done it.

The new parts of the building are bold and beautiful, and - despite the gloatingly reported last-minute hitches - the auditorium is a restoration triumph. By half-time at this opening do, the invited audience of arts VIPs and benefactors fully believed that bricks and mortar, mirror-glass and Mrs Duffield were the reason they were there.

Then the Royal Ballet came on, and everything changed. Slowly, inexorably, eyes and ears and nerve endings were tweaked into receptivity. The reason for it all - how could we have forgotten? - was to applaud the brilliance, the glamour, the history and future potential of a unique creative heritage. And, for God's sake, to enjoy. Perhaps the Royal Ballet, being more of a discrete entity than the Opera, was better placed to express gratitude for its gleaming new home. Perhaps, dare I say it, it has more to be proud of, a distinctive style having been born under its wing. Whatever, the company put on a show of such dazzling assurance and virtuosity that one began to wonder - historical associations aside - why it wasn't the newly re-opened Royal Ballet House we were feting.

I'm not generally a fan of ballet galas - too bitty, too frothy, too much time spent on curtain calls. But Sir Anthony Dowell is obviously aware of these dangers. The sequence of extracts that rolled out over the next two hours was swiftly paced, astutely edited, and panoramic. How clever to bring on the old guard as a sequence of giant, gilt-framed photographs (Dame Ninette, Fonteyn, Sir Fred, Sir Kenneth ...), gradually overlaid by the new. And when Dowell himself gamely stepped through a door in his own youthful portrait to make a brief, lump-in-the-throat speech on behalf of his dancers, the circle of nostalgia was complete.

That the following 23 extracts succeeded in covering almost every aspect of the company's work, yet with such a light touch, was a major achievement. It was good to be reminded of ballet's capacity to offer good knockabout fun, with a flash of Ashton's wobble-headed Ugly Sisters, and the cloppety clog dance from La Fille Mal Gardee. Equally, it was right to visit ballet's darker side. MacMillan's Gloria, about the effects of the 1914-18 war, gave us a spectral duet between Christopher Saunders's hollow-eyed soldier, and Leanne Benjamin's silver sliver of Death. Remarkable that it was made to register in this context.

It was easier, of course, to programme the whizzbangs, and how this audience lapped them up! A half-dead, half-naked Sylvie Guillem flinging herself at her lover in the swamp scene from Manon, a radiant Darcey Bussell in the perilous "Rose Adage", a Herculean Carlos Acosta in the solo from Corsair, an ardent and reckless Angel Corella in his debut as Romeo, immaculate tornado jumps from Johan Kobborg, and much big, meaty dancing from Irek Mukhamedov.

It was cheering to see such a turn-up for male talent. The six male soloists who defected earlier this year were obviously doing the company a favour. What started with the Lilac Fairy from Sleeping Beauty, magicking the House back to life after its long sleep, ended with a traditional defile of the entire company and school, with its neat lines of fondant pink girls and little boys in vests and knickers. Past, present and future. Voila.

And now they have the right equipment, the right attitude, the right stars, all they need is luck. All right, all right, and some great new choreography too, but they're working on that. The omens are good. JG

Royal Opera House, WC2 (0171 304 4000)

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