“O welche Lust in freier Luft” sing the prisoners in Fidelio, released from their cells to enjoy a few moments of fresh air. Released from the Covent Garden pit, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House enjoyed its moment on the stage, breathing in the sea breezes of Ravel and Chausson, strutting its stuff in Bernstein and basking in shimmering Scriabin. Sir Antonio Pappano beamed proudly at his charges, relishing the opportunity to show off what his orchestra can do. His faith was amply rewarded.

Sir Antonio Pappano © Musacchio & Ianniello | EMI Classics
Sir Antonio Pappano
© Musacchio & Ianniello | EMI Classics

Fingers and thumb on Pappano’s right hand drew gauzy threads of sound from the strings as Ravel’s Une barque sur l’océan set sail, while his left hand controlled the surge and swell of the waves. Woodwind flecks of light and the glint of the celesta splashed across the page as this miniature La mer took shape. We moved from delicate seascape to bustling Spain for another of Ravel’s orchestrations from Miroirs: the Alborada del gracioso. Pappano allowed Miriam Gussek complete freedom to shape the bassoon’s earthy solo as the jester sang his morning song. Rhythmic precision was paramount, while castanets clattered and pizzicato strings imitating the guitar truly fizzed.

An evening at the opera house wouldn’t be complete without a diva, of course. Anna Caterina Antonacci, unforgettable on this stage as Carmen and Cassandre, returned for very different French repertoire, Ernest Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer. Full of heady imagery – lilacs, the moon, the sea, decaying leaves blowing in the wind – the score is sumptuously romantic, and Pappano drew ardent, passionate playing from the strings. Antonacci has one of those ‘in between’ voices impossible to categorise, lying somewhere between soprano and mezzo. Lower notes have a lustrous quality, while upper ones are steely rather than silky. Yet it’s Antonacci’s dramatic sensibilities that make her a great singer, colouring her voice and delivering the text expertly. Few singers tell a story so vividly.

A suite from Leonard Bernstein’s Fancy Free allowed the orchestra to demonstrate its versatility. Jerome Robbins 1944 ballet depicts three sailors on shore leave, later the inspiration for Bernstein’s musical On the Town. Lounge lizard piano, a sassy rhythm section and smoky muted trumpet conjured up wartime New York City as Pappano and his band switched from one cocktail bar to the next in pursuit of girls. A bundle of energy, Pappano choreographed the entire score, practically dancing on the podium. It’s not the most memorable score Lenny composed, however, and its episodic nature made it seem quite lengthy.

The highlight came right at the end: an orgasmic, incandescent account of Scriabin’s Poème de l’extase. Pappano surely programmed it as a lush orchestral reflection on Szymanowksi’s Król Roger, which opened here on Friday evening. Both revel in exotic, perfumed orchestrations, full of sexy chromatic colouring. Scriabin’s score is pierced with laser-like trumpet solos, while horns provide a fanfare motif. Rarely has the ROH brass department nailed anything with quite such precision – thrilling playing throughout. With ecstatic string trills and pealing bells, the work exploded in a dazzling blaze of light as fierce as that which blinded the audience at the end of Król Roger. Glorious. This orchestra deserves its day in the sun whenever Pappano wants.