What are those strange, vaguely familiar sounds we hear as the Royal Opera House opens its specially curated and streamed evening of four chamber pieces, entitled 4/4? Heavens, it’s the welcome murmur of an audience settling down in excited anticipation – a sound we have almost forgotten. And as though to confirm there is real humanity in the room after months of Covid-induced absence, a burst of world-weary laughter greets an introductory surtitle. It reads: “This is a programme for our times”. Indeed it is. What times we live in.

Jonathan McGovern in Apollo and Daphne
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Of course, the return of a socially-distanced opera audience to Covent Garden is something to celebrate; real people witnessing and responding to live art, at last. But this time, alongside them, sits an unseen, even larger audience at home, watching the event live, and, it could be argued, having a far more involving experience than those in the Stalls.

From the start, those of us watching on our laptops (feet up on the sofa, good-quality headphones, nice glass of wine) are at an advantage. We are taken into the orchestra pit, where we hear all the detail that’s lost in the auditorium; then we are at eye-level with the singers, witnessing every nuance of their facial expressions. We are getting both the big picture and the intimate one. And all for £16 – that’s £4 per piece, a bargain.

Alexandra Lowe and Jonathan McGovern in Apollo and Daphne
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Those surtitles cheerfully admit that the items we are about to hear would not normally be performed on the main stage of the Royal Opera House, but these are extraordinary times, calling for arms-length musical drama. Oliver Mears, director of opera, had chosen four pieces that would feature a British-based cast, to be directed by a quartet of Britain’s top directors – and for the most part he chose extremely well.

Handel's Apollo and Daphne is a perfect Covid chamber opera. Its titular characters never make any physical contact, despite the best efforts of the god Apollo to win the heart of Daphne. She will have none of his advances and sees him for the puffed up, vainglorious peacock that he is. Director Adele Thomas and movement director Emma Woods keep the action flowing on a completely bare stage, using the pillars of the proscenium arch and the great heavy stage curtains as places of refuge – and danger –for poor, beset Daphne, sung with a beguiling mix of feminine grace and withering fire by soprano Alexandra Lowe. Baritone Jonathan McGovern gives a beautifully judged performance, tracing the disintegration of Apollo from strutting macho-man to heartbroken lover, so overwhelmed in his last aria “Pianta cara” that he cannot complete the final cadence.

And here, those of us at home are at a distinct advantage. Christian Curnyn’s conducting, aided by the streaming sound engineers, makes sure we hear every detail in Handel’s delicious score; perky oboes sing through the texture, and a delightfully pithy bassoon picks its way along the bass line with a jauntiness surely lost to those in the vast auditorium.

Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha in Knoxville: Summer of 1915
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The evening’s designer, Antony McDonald, also directs the next item, Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which sets strongly nostalgic “improvised” poetry by James Ageé, in which he recollects the warm, lazy summer evenings of his boyhood in his Tennessee town, a cosiness that was to be cut short by the sudden death of his father the following year. Barber, who shared a similar background to Ageé’s, took the words and scored them for solo voice, sometimes a tenor, but usually a soprano. Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, a Jette Parker Young Artist, relishes Barber’s sinuous vocal writing, investing the music with a glowing, yet fervent, innocence. This is a piece so much better suited to her glorious voice than the title role in Handel’s Susannah, which she took in this year’s Handel Festival, downstairs at the Linbury Theatre. And underneath her, swaying back and forth like an old rocking chair on a porch, is Barber’s gently lilting, dreamlike score, sweetly caressed by conductor Patrick Milne.

Christine Rice in Phaedra
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

And then comes the performance of the evening, given by mezzo-soprano Christine Rice in Britten’s Phaedra. The caustic power of the score, given full rein by conductor Richard Hetherington, pushes Phaedra towards her doom, in a relentless, breathtaking 15 minutes of astonishing drama. She has fallen for Hippolytus, the son of her new husband, Theseus. Hippolytus, played silently and languidly by Royal Ballet star Matthew Ball, barely notices her, yet she is eaten up with lust and longing, and knows that death will be her only escape from everlasting unrequited adoration. Rice inhabits the role completely in a mesmerising performance that demands, and receives, our total attention; a tour de force, guided by sure-footed direction from Deborah Warner.

Allan Clayton in Frankenstein!!
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

And then finally, a damp squib. What should be a light-hearted end to the evening turns out, disappointingly, to be an over-long, self-indulgent ramble of a cabaret piece, performed by tenor Allan Clayton with actor Dawn Woolongong as his crazed assistant. HK Gruber’s Frankenstein!! is a madcap series of 19 vignettes, covering everything from vampires to James Bond, John Wayne, werewolves, Superman and Batman. It’s laboured and cranky and not very funny, though conductor Edmund Whitehead enjoys the idiosyncrasies of Gruber’s orchestration. And hats off to the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, who perform it with the same brilliant aplomb they bring to everything else in the programme, even though they are sitting far apart and (string players at least) playing behind those oh-so-necessary face masks. 

This performance was reviewed from the Royal Opera House's video stream.