Alexandra Lowe and Jonathan McGovern in Handel’s ‘Apollo e Dafne’
Alexandra Lowe and Jonathan McGovern in Handel’s ‘Apollo e Dafne’ © Tristram Kenton

It must be touch-and-go. Following the path set by some of their European counterparts, the prime concert halls and opera houses in London are starting to open their doors to live audiences — but is this just in time to close them again for the next lockdown?

The problems caused by the pandemic are especially acute in opera. With the large numbers of performers involved and the size of most traditional opera houses, it is barely feasible to work in a stop-go environment. Either they need to be completely open or closed.

The solution at the Royal Opera is to offer a drastically pared-down programme. There will be no fully staged operas this side of Christmas, but in their place come concert performances and smaller staged events.

This revised schedule kicked off at the weekend with a quartet of vocal works — none of them actually an opera — under the title “4x4”, as though firing on all cylinders. A socially distanced audience attended the single performance in the theatre and the live stream remains available to view on demand for a fee until November 15.

Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha in Samuel Barber’s ‘Knoxville: Summer of 1915’
Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha in Samuel Barber’s ‘Knoxville: Summer of 1915’ © ©Tristram Kenton

The concept was interesting, the works were nicely varied, the performers mostly strong. The disadvantage was the size of the theatre. While one sympathises with the desire to draw in a decent number of people under social distancing regulations, these were small-scale pieces that belonged in a more intimate venue than the Royal Opera House’s main auditorium.

Seen live in the theatre, Handel’s charming Apollo e Dafne felt lost and overlong, though it may work better online. The cantata tells of the amorous stand-off between the bragging god Apollo and heavenly nymph Daphne, a clash of personalities that gained little from being staged. Alexandra Lowe’s gleaming Daphne fared better than the unstylish Apollo of Jonathan McGovern, though his closing lament was touching, and both benefited from Christian Curnyn’s musical direction.

Each item represented a step up on the one before. The music of Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is so saturated in the atmosphere of a sultry Tennessee evening that little in the way of a staging was necessary; Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha’s resonant soprano stretched and wrapped itself around Barber’s grateful singing lines with satisfying richness. Patrick Milne conducted.

Dawn Wollongong and Allan Clayton in H.K. Gruber’s ‘Frankenstein!’
Dawn Wollongong and Allan Clayton in H.K. Gruber’s ‘Frankenstein!’ © Tristram Kenton

Britten’s Phaedra, an inspired late cantata, felt easily the most theatrical. Like a high-powered scene from a full opera, it takes the singer through the gamut of emotions and Christine Rice made a splendidly intense job of it, bolstered Richard Hetherington’s urgent conducting. Deborah Warner’s cryptic staging seemed to involve a modern woman uncovering the shrouded bodies of Greek mythology.

That left H.K. Gruber’s cabaret-gone-mad Frankenstein!, a so-called “pan-demonium”. Gruber wrote it to perform himself and its solo song-and-dance parade of heroes and villains, from Dracula to Batman and Goldfinger, is a showpiece for anybody who can bring it off. Tenor Allan Clayton did, adding to his already burgeoning tally of skills, and he was admirably seconded by Edmund Whitehead as conductor and the typically deadpan humour of Richard Jones’s staging.



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