Covent Garden hears applause again, but not for the seats and sightlines

First Night: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
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The Independent Culture

The refurbished - and once again troubled - Royal Opera House reopened last night, to the arts community at least, with a special ballet performance for an invited audience of cultural leaders.

The refurbished - and once again troubled - Royal Opera House reopened last night, to the arts community at least, with a special ballet performance for an invited audience of cultural leaders.

A week before the Queen attends the official reopening festivities, the Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, and the chairman of the ROH, Sir Colin Southgate, made triumphant speeches from the stage as a prelude to a performance by the Royal Ballet - a performance that most but not all of the audience managed to see properly.

For incredible as it may seem to audiences, the opera house has reopened after a year in the dark and a £214m rebuilding programme, with 115 of the 2,000-plus seats still offering restricted views. Awkward as such seats may be for opera, they are doubly infuriating for ballet where a view of the whole stage is essential. It was noticeable, too, the much-criticised seats in the stalls-circle, with their limited leg-room, remain unaltered.

A spokeswoman for the ROH saidthe horseshoe design of the theatre precluded any changes; but the lack of clear sightlines and comfort throughout the house contrasts with the hyped publicity that the redevelopment has been receiving. That said, the new education facilities and studio spaces, where there will be free lunchtime performances, caused a buzz of approval for the architect Jeremy Dixon's work among an audience that included the former ballerina Dame Alicia Markova. And the Royal Ballet won rapturous and deserved applause for a night of divertissements that included the balcony scene from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, and a number of modern pieces forDarcey Bussell, Sarah Wildor and Jonathan Cope.

The Royal Ballet's performance was a welcome relief after the near-farcical events of the week, when the management had to cancel one of the opening productions because some of the expensive new backstage machinery is still not working properly. Cancelled, that is, unless you book on the opera house's website. According to the website last night, tickets for the production are still on sale.

Mr Smith's speech tactfully made light of the latest cancellation. He said that he was "delighted that the ROH is finally ready to take its rightful place at the heart of London, and the nation's cultural life".

There was no denying the egalitarian feel and party atmosphere in the vast, wooden-floored Floral Hall bars and foyers - although they provided a curious contrast to the plush auditorium. "The space is fantastic," said Norman Rosenthal, the exhibitions secretary of the Royal Academy.

While there may have been champagne, the arts community seemed to have resolutely dressed down to show this is now the People's Opera. The one poor couple who arrived in evening dress must have felt they had stepped out of a Bateman cartoon.

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