I will confess to having looked forward excitedly to Monday night's farewell gala at the Opera House. I saw my very first ballet in that same stuffy auditorium (Fonteyn and Nureyev in Swan Lake, since you ask) and the thrill has never really worn off. The programme had been kept a secret and there were breathless mutterings about the various surprises in store. In the event, the secrecy seemed more a factor of managerial uncertainty than any particular sense of theatre. We all knew Sylvie Guillem would be dancing (it said so in the Radio Times), they were hardly likely to give Darcey Bussell, Irek Mukhamedov and Tetsuya Kumakawa a night off and the Kirov had already let the cat out of the bag that Igor Zelensky would be dancing. The only surprise was that there were no surprises.

The air was musty with the heady aroma of hot dinner jacket as the curtain rose on Frederick Ashton's La Valse danced to dizzy, dangerous Ravel. It was followed by the pub scene from Peter Grimes, which involves the drinkers swaying away from the wind every time the door opens - a production detail that caused a certain amount of merriment among the ballet crowd in the stalls circle. The fact that Peter Grimes was done with its minimal sets and full costumes looked promising. Perhaps all the opera would be dressed? No. All the opera was dressed with fractionally less style than the black-tie audience. Given that Covent Garden's date of closure has been a date in many diaries for a number of years now, it cannot have been beyond the wit of man to devise a programme of extracts that managed to give the TV audience more of an idea what their money was being spent on. Especially as the singing was often unremarkable. The House was prettily decorated by rent-a-plant, the ushers were decked out in period kit, but the actual stuff on the stage in the first half had the air of one of those store-cupboard suppers one has to rustle up from the ingredients available: Ready Steady Sing. It must have made pretty dreary television. Far better to have screened the highlights the following night. The whole live relay thing is supposed to be about increasing access, but are they sure people want access to this?

Ballet is more suited to being served in canape form. After some earnest frock-watching, we filed back in for some more operatic party pieces and for the premiere-league dance action. Igor Zelensky and Darcey Bussell reprised their success in MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet, his large frame and superlative technique flattering her coltish lines. Viviana Durante's comeback after a year's sabbatical was greeted with enormous warmth from a House that clearly adores her. She was partnered in the Diana and Actaeon pas de deux by Irek Mukhamedov in mini-skirt and all-over tan. Sylvie Guillem gave a racy and reckless reading of Manon in the bedroom pas de deux, ably caught by Jonathan Cope. This was followed by Placido Domingo who sang "Niun mi tema" from Otello, his voice coloured by an arresting mixture of majesty and pathos. The evening concluded with the Act 1 finale from Sleeping Beauty: Darcey Bussell was the Lilac Fairy (a role she should dance more often). She was joined on stage by both companies as the scenery flew up behind them to reveal the seedy world behind the gilt and plush and the real need for Covent Garden's two-year sleep.

Louise Levene

Comments