Opera is a broad church, and while the word may make us think first of blockbusters by Verdi, Mozart and Puccini, there are countless chamber works, even pieces for a single voice, and the ROH plumbed this rich vein in its live programme to a live audience, entitled 4/4.
The four pieces in question included two by what the introduction to 4/4 describes as Covent Garden’s ‘house composers’ – George Frideric Handel and Benjamin Britten. Handel wrote for London theatres having been granted British nationality in 1727 so that he could compose a coronation anthem for George I. More than 200 years later, Britten was more embedded in Suffolk than the Strand, but his operas have been staged superbly at Covent Garden, witness Death in Venice last autumn.
Handel’s Apollo and Daphne, which opens 4/4, tells the story immortalised in stone by the miraculous sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. This fast-moving and hugely entertaining work is the perfect social-distancing opera. Resisting the unwanted advances of the lurid warrior god of the sun, Apollo, the virtuous Daphne is saved from his clutches only by being turned into a laurel tree, whose leaves will adorn the great and good thereafter.
Christine Rice excels in the title role of Phaedra. Photo: Tristram Kenton
In Adele Thomas's vigorous production, baritone Jonathan McGovern is a lurid and priapic Apollo, lording it in a scarlet codpiece, while Jette Parker soprano Alexandra Lowe's charming Diana is so pure she wears a chastity bra above her topically tiered skirt. McGovern’s bullying seduction exudes a sense of entitlement coupled with incompetence, which all feels very familiar.
Britten’s Phaedra, also from a classical source, is a solo piece, here sung by the peerless mezzo-soprano Christine Rice. Written when he was dangerously ill, the composer's last vocal work has an unstoppable urgency, as the wretched Phaedra fights with her fruitless sexual obsession with her stepson, Hippolytus (Royal Ballet principal dancer Matthew Ball).
Britten spent the second world war in the United States, where the foremost composer of the day was Samuel Barber. In 1948, the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a setting of 1938 poetry by James Agee. In it, the singer looks back on their childhood, recalling the mystery of adulthood and the grown-ups whose talk means nothing.
Knoxville can be sung by a man or woman, invoking the child’s voice. Here, the rich-voiced soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha phrases most beautifully, mining every speck of poetry. Antony McDonald directs with customary skill.
Allan Clayton and Dawn Woolongong entertain in Frankenstein!!. Photo: Tristram Kenton
The tour de force which closes the programme, tenor Allan Clayton’s whistlestop tour through monsters and ghoules in HK Gruber’s anarchic Frankenstein!!, perhaps belonged to a different evening. An explosion of comedy and mock shivers, it is nonetheless one joke told several ways in cabaret style by a metaller. Had I been in the small live audience, and already two hours or so in, I would have been ready to leave by the fifth or sixth of about 20 riffs on fright.
Luckily, home streaming means that you can take your time. Best enjoy 4/4 – including Frankenstein!!, directed by Richard Jones – in instalments, not least for the hilarious Dawn Woolongong, as Clayton's capable but anxious assistant.
4/4 is available to stream until Sun 15 Nov. Click here for more details of this and other Royal Opera House streaming. Verdi's Les Vêpres Sicilennes, introduced from the Royal Opera House by Donald Macleod, is available on Listen Again until Sun 15 Nov
|What||4/4, Royal Opera House: review|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
17 Oct 20 – 15 Nov 20, Live streamed, available on demand and on subscription until Sun 15 Nov
|Website||Click here for more information and to view|