It’s déja vu all over again! The last work staged at the Royal Opera House before lockdown was La traviata, so it was somehow fitting that this Live in Concert fundraiser played in front of Bob Crowley’s set for Act 2’s gambling scene, with its crimson gallery and gilded ceiling, skewed at a warped angle. It still draws audience applause, not that there was any audience permitted inside the auditorium. (Seriously, couldn’t the vast Amphitheatre have been opened to a few patrons?) There was no gaming table, but the programme itself was a safe bet.

Vito Priante arrives as Figaro © Royal Opera House
Vito Priante arrives as Figaro
© Royal Opera House

After the downbeat note struck in the House’s first two streams, this was much more like it. The gala featured a strong line-up (Kristine Opolais a glamorous replacement for the advertised Sonya Yoncheva, who fell victim to travel restrictions) singing popular operatic repertoire. So we had Figaro’s bustling entrance aria, The Song to the Moon, the Gavotte from Manon as well as meatier chunks from Tosca and Carmen

The bespectacled Antonio Pappano could well have done with a pair of opera glasses, so far away were his singers. To ensure social distancing, the orchestra was placed in the Stalls – Pappano positioned somewhere around Row T – while the Royal Opera Chorus made its eagerly awaited return to the House, its members dotted around the Stalls Circle and Grand Tier. A bustling Figaro overture set an energetic pulse and one sensed the excitement of “getting the band back together”.

Aigul Akhmetshina © Royal Opera House
Aigul Akhmetshina
© Royal Opera House

The lack of an audience softened the impact of a few numbers. Most baritones will engage in a bit of joshing in the “Largo al factotum” and one was desperate for Vito Priante to do something with his hands, however affable his vocally robust Figaro. And it’s difficult to do comedy without a crowd to play off, so Charles Castronovo’s antics as Nemorino fell flat. But some singers are able to make love to the camera; Aigul Akhmetshina dazzled in the Cenerentola finale, her thrill at being back on her home stage palpable, while Lisette Oropesa’s flirtatious Manon and Adina connected across the screen.

Lisette Oropesa © Royal Opera House
Lisette Oropesa
© Royal Opera House

Vocally, these two delivered outstanding contributions. Oropesa’s technique is superb. She is the reigning bel canto queen in my book and the finale from La sonnambula was perfectly pitched, crowned by a sparkling “Ah! non giunge”. As well as the pyrotechnics of the Cenerentola finale, tossed off with ease, Akhmetshina gave us her sultry Carmen – not the habanera nor the seguidilla but the whole of Act 4 which allowed for some lusty choral singing, Priante’s silky Escamillo and Castronovo’s desperate Don José (you could tell he was desperate because he’d removed his bow tie). 

Kristine Opolais’ soprano exhibited a steely edge as Rusalka, one of her finest roles, and Priante sang Dapertutto’s “Scintille diamant” nicely, although he ducked the high note at the end. It was clearly an evening for villains to shine. Gerald Finley chewed the text as a devilish Iago, while his aristocratic Scarpia (picking up from the moment where the chief of police discovers the fan and resolves to use it in the same way Iago uses Desdemona’s handkerchief) was cold and calculating. Opolais was vocally stretched here, but Jeremy White’s cameo appearance as the crusty Sacristan was a joy.

Gerald Finley © Royal Opera House
Gerald Finley
© Royal Opera House

Whilst presenting these extended scenes was a noble ambition, it served to highlight how difficult it is to marry social distancing with drama: it was impossible for José to get close enough to stab Carmen, so she merely wandered off; and when Scarpia offers Tosca a handful of holy water, he can only wiggle his fingers and hope she catches a few drops. We’ve got a long way to go to bring real drama back onto the stage safely, but this was a very welcome start. 

This performance was reviewed from the video stream.

****1