The writing was on the wall last month. As coronavirus cases started to rise again, it seemed unlikely that the Royal Opera’s return to fully staged opera with a starry revival of Tosca in mid-January could go ahead. It was cancelled last week and any lingering hopes at UK opera companies have gone with it.
Now it is back to opera online. Most of what is being streamed by UK companies at the moment is a compromise in one way or another — not a true opera, not really staged, or not with orchestra, but the following performances are welcome nonetheless, all free to view (though donations are invited and registration is sometimes required).
Grounded by the pandemic, English Touring Opera has put its tours on hold and the shows it devised are now appearing online instead. It had always planned for social distancing, so these are not full-scale operas, but song cycles with piano.
ETO’s streaming started on New Year’s Day, and follows on Fridays thereafter. There are four programmes, each of which is on demand for one week. The first pairs Tippett’s The Heart’s Assurance with Britten’s A Charm of Lullabies. The staging is minimal — just a young soldier shadowing the singer in the Tippett, a pile of discarded dolls suggesting an ominous streak to the lullabies in the Britten — but the performances gain from the added atmosphere. Thomas Elwin is impressively secure as the tenor in the Tippett and Katie Stevenson an expressive mezzo in the Britten.
A similar experiment was undertaken last year by Scottish Opera at the behest of the Lammermuir Festival. Janacek’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared is already a song cycle that stretches the boundaries of the form, as it introduces different characters and voices. Here it is staged with Ed Lyon playing the composer himself, writing letters at his desk to his siren beloved, Kamila Stosslova. This strays from the bucolic romance imagined in the poetry, but Lyon is lovingly tender in the tenor’s music and there is the novelty of a warmly coloured chamber ensemble accompaniment, though not made by Janacek himself.
The most ambitious offering is Grange Park Opera’s new film of Britten's pacifist opera Owen Wingrave. This went live last month, but is still available on demand. Although the opera is better known now on stage, it was written for television, making it a neat choice for streaming during the pandemic.
The main drawback is that the orchestra has been reduced to a piano accompaniment, with occasional support from percussion and a lone trumpet. Otherwise, this is a stylishly filmed production, mostly in black and white, for which director Stephen Medcalf has come up with some imaginative touches (such as the guards reflected in Owen’s eyes, though not perhaps old battleaxe Miss Wingrave playing at computer games). The cast includes many leading British singers, including Susan Bullock, Janis Kelly and William Dazeley, with Ross Ramgobin in the title role, and James Henshaw conducting.
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