Music: Well sung, but its heart was missing

Dirt, I always think, lends depth to an environment, and by that reckoning the new Royal Opera House will take a while to ease into three dimensions. For the moment, with its pristine surfaces, its new red plush, the gold-leaf just a bit too gold, and the amazing mirrored acreage of what is now called the Vilar Floral Hall (after its sponsors), it feels like the set for one of its own, classier productions. And at Wednesday's opening gala it was just that. What we saw on stage was almost marginal. The real show happened front of house, starring the great and good whose names will be forever spoken (or perhaps sung) when the story of the ROH is told.

There was Vivien Duffield, the tenacious benefactress. Michael Kaiser, the unlikely hero-rescuer and chief executive. Sir Colin Southgate, chairman of the board and scourge of smelly trainers. Mary Allen looking sadly like the ghost of Banquo. Plus a good few others who were lucky to be let in - from Michael Waldman, the TV director responsible for BBC2's The House, to Baroness Thatcher whose refusal to allow a national lottery was one reason why the Royal Opera's redevelopment took so long to get off the ground. I can't have been the only member of the audience to stop and reflect that but for her fall from grace we would none of us be here. At least, not in a brand new theatre.

And this is a brand new theatre. The auditorium and surrounding foyers may look much as they did, but everything beyond the proscenium is fresh off the design-board - which is something to be borne in mind when it comes to critical appraisal of these opening celebrations. Brand new theatres never work as you expect. If you remember the portentous opening of the Bastille Opera in Paris, you might also remember that the next thing it did was close down. For breathing space. The ROH has, by comparison, been bravely - OK, crazily - ambitious to assume that it can pull together its opera and ballet companies after months of inactivity, march them into virgin premises, and have a season instantly to hand. Hence the cancellation of Le Grand Macabre, which was to have been the second production in the new house. And hence the lopsided nature of this gala, which gave a big, nostalgic, sentimental sell to the ballet in the second half but badly undersold the opera in the first.

The logic of what happened in that first half was impeccably egalitarian. It gave everyone his moment, starting with the orchestra in a Weber overture. Then a touch of international glamour, with Domingo and Deborah Polaski reliving the vocal triumph of the Royal Opera's recent Ring cycles. Finally, a spotlight on the chorus and some trusty company principals (Robert Lloyd, Roderick Earle, Timothy Robinson) in the closing scene from Fidelio. It all ran with the orchestra raised up to platform level, courtesy of new, state-of-the-art pit machinery. And when the band sank back into the pit during the interval, it proved that the machinery works. What more could you have asked for?

In fact, you could have asked for something other than a stand-and-sing performance. This was a just a concert: no attempt at theatre - which is, after all, what opera is about. It wasn't terribly exciting. And although the solid German repertory told you something about Bernard Haitink, the Royal Opera's beloved but broadly Germanophile music director, it hardly represented the spread of work that major companies have to tackle. Some Italian music - and perhaps some English - would have made the point.

But that said, it's not hard to understand why Haitink pruned back the opera element in this gala. He does, after all, have the serious business of a big new production - Falstaff - opening tomorrow. And against that, what's a gala? Pure frivolity. It's also understandable that ballet should have taken precedence, because this new house is even more of a godsend to dancers than singers. For years dancers have had to rehearse in west London and travel back and forth. Now, at last, they have facilities on site.

So, we were there to celebrate a building, and we did. With style and optimism. We were also there to celebrate a change of culture: a great learning from the purgative experience of the past two years. When the house closed down with a not dissimilar gala in 1997, it was a shabby- grand affair: like an elderly dowager taking leave with the all the dignity she could muster, but her lipstick smudged and her knickers showing through the ballgown. The new house has arrived like a cover model, stunningly coutured and smiling. All she has to do now is perform. MW

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