Bricks and bouquets at opera's farewell

Gala brings curtain down on Covent Garden as MPs plan finance inquiry

The curtain came down on the Royal Opera House last night after some of the most emotional scenes ever witnessed at the 139-year-old theatre.

As Darcy Bussell danced to music from Sleeping Beauty the company, together with stage staff and other workers, filed silently on stage behind her.

She turned and the backdrop rose to reveal a theatre already in the early stages of demolition - packing cases, bare brickwork and girders. The audience rose to their feet and flowers rained down on the stage as they cheered and clapped.

The Farewell Gala was the last performance at the opera's Covent Garden home for two years, during which time it will undergo a pounds 214m development.

But a shadow was cast over the evening after it emerged that the company is expected to be investigated by the Commons select committee on culture over its failure to widen its audience to ordinary people.

It was certainly a joy to see the spotlight back on the two companies after a batch of public relations disasters by the opera house management. And the evening's excerpts boasted a number of highlights including Placido Domingo as Otello, Sylvie Guillem as Manon and Darcey Bussell as Juliet. But how one longed for an impresario producer. Between the set pieces the audience was left staring at the curtain. A compere could have introduced the performances; the heads of the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet could have related pieces of company history; former stars could have told anecdotes.

At Westminster, Gerald Kaufman, the Labour chairman of the cross-party Commons select committee which will monitor Chris Smith's new Department of Culture, Media and Sport, has told friends that he wants to make an inquiry into the opera house and its financing a top priority. The committee is meeting later this week to agree its agenda.

The investigation is expected to look at the large sums of public money going into the Royal Opera House, including a pounds 78.5m lottery grant towards the rebuilding project; the availability of tickets for the public at realistic prices; and the management of the opera house, which was subjected to an unflattering fly-on-the-wall television documentary.

Mr Smith privately believes that the opera house has not done enough to allow ordinary people to hear and see opera, either by providing a greater number of cheap tickets, or going out to capture a wider audience.

The Royal Opera House does provide inexpensive tickets, but Mr Smith and senior colleagues believe too few are offered at prices most people can afford. The Secretary of State would also like to see the number of broadcast performances increased to make them more accessible.

Under pressure to become "the people's opera house", Covent Garden shared its farewell with millions of BBC2 viewers, as well as a huge crowd who watched a big-screen relay in the nearby piazza.

The opera house is due to reopen in December 1999, in time for the millennium celebrations. The Bow Street facade will be extended and enhanced with the transformation of the wrought iron Floral Hall - used as a scenery store since a fire in the Fifties - into a huge foyer space with bar and dining areas.

Backstage areas are being rebuilt with a massive fly tower to house scenery, replacing equipment dating from 1858 and electrical wiring from 1901. A 450-seat studio theatre will stage small-scale opera and ballet.

During the closure, the Royal Opera and Ballet companies will perform at a variety of theatres and halls. In November, they will stage a spectacular production of Verdi's Otello at the Royal Albert Hall. Other London venues will be the Barbican Theatre and Concert Hall, Royal Festival Hall and Shaftesbury Theatre. They will also tour to Aldeburgh, King's Lynn and Birmingham.

The Royal Opera flies to New York later this month to stage Palestrina at the Metropolitan Opera House.

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