The Royal Opera opened its doors to its first post-lockdown live audience for 4/4, a quartet of staged vocal works, none of them originally intended for the theatre, all of them dealing in some way with isolation. They share a designer in Antony McDonald, though each is allocated a different conductor and director, with McDonald himself tackling the second of the sequence, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. He transforms the work from a bittersweet study of a child’s growing awareness of transience into a poignant examination of adult loneliness, in which an unnamed woman (Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha) remembers, or imagines, life with a family now absent, or which she may indeed never have had.
Adele Thomas’s production of Handel’s 1710 cantata Apollo e Dafne starts out as an erotic comedy but turns troubling as Jonathan McGovern’s Apollo becomes obsessive in his pursuit of Alexandra Lowe’s Dafne, before divine intervention leaves him crestfallen, self-pitying and alone. Deborah Warner stages Britten’s Phaedra for Christine Rice and does too much with it by bringing on stage not only Hippolytus (Matthew Ball from the Royal Ballet) but also the Minotaur (Andres Presno) as the symbolic embodiment of the irrational nature of desire. Richard Jones’s take on HK Gruber’s Frankenstein!!, meanwhile, re-imagines its protagonist (Allan Clayton) as a self-obsessed rock star locked in a codependent relationship with his silently besotted assistant (Dawn Woolongong).
The performances are terrific. Rice’s Phaedra is powerhouse stuff, with Richard Hetherington urgently propelling Britten’s score forward. With Patrick Milne in the pit, Rangwanasha, a member of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, sounds simply glorious in Knoxville. Frankenstein!! anarchically embraces everything from mock-baroque to Weimar cabaret and Schoenbergian sprechstimme, and Clayton, wild-eyed, hilarious and utterly brilliant, and conductor Edmund Whitehead seem to be having the time of their lives with it. There’s beautiful playing from the ROH Orchestra under Christian Curnyn in the Handel, and Lowe makes an exquisite, self-assured Dafne opposite McGovern’s funny yet dangerous Apollo, excellent in his grieving final aria.
Available online on demand (£) until 15 November.