Even the King had to queue to salute Antonio Pappano, a departing titan of British music

King Charles congratulates Covent Garden's outgoing music director Antonio Pappano
King Charles congratulates Covent Garden's outgoing music director Antonio Pappano - Reuters/Isabel Infantes/Pool

A celebration tinged with melancholy, this gala marking the end of Antonio Pappano’s music directorship at the Royal Opera House had a lot of ground to cover. Having been in post for 22 years – longer than any of his distinguished predecessors – and having conducted more than 700 performances at Covent Garden during that time, Pappano has been a transformative influence in every aspect of the institution. Yet if one label stands out above all it is his reputation as a singers’ conductor, and 19 singers, not counting the chorus, were lined up for evening’s entertainment.

Self-described as possessing “an immigrant’s work ethic”, Pappano worked hard here too, conducting every number across the long evening. Leading the congratulations, the King appeared on stage at the end, but it was not a night for speeches. The presenter Petroc Trelawny and (via short videos) Pappano’s colleagues rightly focused on the conductor’s achievements, the unspoken message being that the sort of culture being celebrated will become increasingly difficult to maintain unless the dismantling of this country’s arts structures is reversed.

Pappano has been a five-star-plus music director, but it’s in the nature of galas that some the performances here were a little less consistent. The pot pourri element was largely overcome thanks to the high level of Pappano’s conducting and the orchestral playing he drew (the Intermezzo from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut was searing), yet a few of the singers present are getting close to their yell-by dates and some extracts were perhaps not ideal gala material.

Fittingly given Pappano’s famously collaborative spirit, we got ensembles rather than star turns. Yet some singers couldn’t help standing out: Aigul Akhmetshina in Rossini, Lisette Oropesa in Donizetti, and Nadine Sierra, Freddie De Tommaso, Xabier Anduaga and Amartuvshin Enkhbat in Verdi. Musically subtle highlights included the duet from Massenet’s Thaïs with Ermonela Jaho and Gerald Finley, and an introspective “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco by the ROH Chorus. A rarity from Verdi’s I Lombardi spotlit the principal guest concert master, Vasko Vassilev.

Jonas Kaufmann, together with Diana Damrau, appeared for the Watch Duet from Die Fledermaus, one of only two German numbers. He sang a solid Eisenstein unaffected by his recent ill health, but sounded severely strained as Don Alvaro from La forza del destino. Despite somewhat worn vocal resources, Bryn Terfel was a magnetic Scarpia, thrillingly joined by the chorus in the Te Deum from Tosca. As William Tell, Finley led the finale from Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell”, with his line “Tout change et grandit en ces lieux!” standing as an optimistic motto: “All is change, and grows in grandeur.”

This was a chance, then, for everyone to say “grazie mille”. For Pappano, it is very much a case of “arrivederci”, not “addio”. Returns to Covemt Garden – not least for Wagner’s Ring – are firmly in the diary, and he will remain based in London, as chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. We’re not losing him, and as the ROH’s chief executive Alex Beard said in one of the video clips, “I hope he will always regard this as his operatic home.”

Antonio Pappano’s final production at Covent Garden this season is Andrea Chénier, in rep from May 30. Tickets: 020 7304 4000; roh.org.uk