This series of three concerts streamed from Covent Garden provides the first live performances in the building since the doors of the Royal Opera House closed on 17th March. The venue itself was one of the stars of the evening, the backdrop of an empty auditorium symbolising the current plight of the arts.

The Royal Opera House
© Tristram Kenton | ROH 2020

This second offering began with Frederick Ashton’s brief Dance of the Blessed Spirits, performed by Vadim Muntagirov, Principal Dancer of the Royal Ballet. The music, one of the world’s great melodies, (from Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice), was performed by a few string players of the ROH Orchestra and the exquisite principal flute of Katherine Baker. Ashton’s choreography welds a wide range of gestures into a coherent and compelling narrative. The dancer’s naked torso suggests the classical Greek aestheticisation of the male body, the splendid Muntagirov a celebrant of his own beauty and formidable skill, rather as the Orpheus myth celebrates the persuasive power of  song. It ran a little over three minutes, but balletomanes must have wept at what they are now missing, and at being offered so short a work, however magnificent the execution.

Dance of the Blessed Spirits: Vadim Muntagirov
© Tristram Kenton | ROH 2020

Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde would be impossible with each member of its large orchestra two metres apart. But the chamber version by Schoenberg and Riehn deploys a handful of strings and winds, percussion, harmonium and piano. Its effectiveness comes from Mahler’s habit of often using chamber textures in his scores, so many passages just don’t sound that different as a result. The clarity this brings to the sung text even adds to the impact.

David Butt Philip
© Tristram Kenton | ROH 2020

David Butt Philip’s fine tenor would not have the weight, or so one might think, to launch Das Trinkleid vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow). But this difficult opening made the impact it often lacks, a soaring call to arms. The refrain Dunkel is das Leben, ist der Tod (Dark is life, dark is death) was haunting, and that climactic vision of the ghostly ape squatting on the moonlit graves was harrowing. Butt Phillip was very delicate in that jocund piece of chinoiserie Of Youth and in The Drunkard in Spring his evocation of the bird’s singing was neatly echoed by leader Vasko Vassilev’s songlike fiddle.

Dame Sarah Connolly
© Tristram Kenton | ROH 2020

Dame Sarah Connolly was returning from her recent illness with no diminution at all in vocal quality. In fact I wondered if the great mezzo was not even a bit loud at first. But she sings this work often with full orchestra, and singing with her back to an empty auditorium must take some adjustment. She was soon in her vocal stride as Der Einsame in Herbst (The Lonely One in Autumn). Her desolate phrasing in this piece was exemplified at Mein Herz ist müde (My heart is weary) matched by the keening oboist, almost a third soloist in this work. In Der Abschied (The Farewell) Connolly was heartbreaking at the line “My heart is at peace, and awaits its hour”, and again in the final reiterated Ewig (Forever). 

This last movement is hard to conduct, with its very fluid writing across the bar line. Mahler asked Bruno Walter “Can you see how to conduct this passage? Because I can’t.” Antonio Pappano had no problems, and directed with great authority. As that final “ewig” faded, we were left with no applause and a black screen. I doubt there has been a more poignant performance of this work in London in many a year.

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.