Live from Covent Garden

Amanda Jennings reviews the first live performance on the Royal Opera House stage since the theatre locked down on 17 March. The programme included a world premiere choreographed by Wayne McGregor and performed by Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales.

Available to view for limited time on YouTube

The emotional impact of at last being able to see a live performance on the Royal Opera House stage, after so many weeks of theatrical deprivation, can hardly be put into words. To see some of the world’s greatest artists coming together in an empty auditorium and giving their all as they would to a full house was indescribably moving. As Antonio Pappano said, the programme took us on a musical journey from Britten to Bizet, via Finzi, Butterworth, Turnage and Handel, but for those of us whose primary focus is ballet, Richard Strauss was our destination, for a world premiere by Wayne McGregor to Strauss’s beautiful lied Morgen.

Costumed in an orange silk slip dress, Francesca Hayward opened the piece by reciting, beautifully, the lyrics of the song in English: “And tomorrow the sun will shine again...” Many highly revered and experienced actors struggle to command the camera in head-and-shoulders close-up as Hayward did; the enthralling charisma that marked her out as a true ballerina from her earliest days in the corps de ballet seemed to come through the camera lens, through our TV screens, directly into our living rooms. Her beautiful face shone with feeling, eyes gleaming with the joy of being on stage.

The Royal Ballet has several principal and soloist dancers in long-standing relationships with each other, and Hayward and Cesar Corrales are among this cohort, so social distancing was able to be overlooked in the pas de deux, although McGregor, interviewed briefly by Anita Rani, pointed out that he is not the type of choreographer who habitually stands back from the dancers; it must have been difficult for him to direct the rehearsals from a six-foot distance. As so often in his work, the impact of the piece depends more on the commitment and engagement of the dancers and their technical brilliance than on intrinsic choreographic merit, but here McGregor produced a sweet, charming piece perfect for the occasion. 

These two wonderful dancers brought true tenderness to the movement, Hayward gently caressing Corrales’s face or snuggling against him in a beautiful embrace at the end, seated on the floor. There’s a magnificent lift where Hayward lies on her side across Corrales’s shoulders and outstretched arms.

Corrales, with his pantherine physical style, brought a softness to his interpretation that was intuitively appropriate; like Hayward’s, his eyes were full of emotion and I am sure that many viewers were awash with tears throughout their sublime performance. Star soprano Louise Adler served Strauss’s gorgeous music honourably, accompanied by Pappano at the piano and violinist Vasko Vassilev.

McGregor, always a charming and intelligent speaker, made sure to mention in his interview that no fewer than 34 million people attend live theatre performances in Britain each year, highlighting the fact that if the industry is to be saved, government investment will be needed and merited. He mentioned freelance performers, whose lives have been particularly devastatingly affected by lockdown and whose prospects for the near future are shrouded in fear and uncertainty. He also pointed out the hard work, in the most challenging of circumstances, that dancers are putting in at home on their small squares of Harlequin floor to keep their febrile bodies conditioned.

This live performance was the first of three announced so far; next Saturday Vadim Muntagirov will dance Frederick Ashton’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits and Sarah Connolly and David Butt Philip will perform Mahler’s Das Lied Von Der Erde. There will be a small charge for this one performance and its successor; any additional donations can be made by texting ROH20 (to donate £20) or ROH10 (to donate £10) to 70450.