Imagine a grand and sweeping 19th-century opera boiled down to a fraction of the length, as if you placed Verdi’s “Don Carlo” on simmer and left for the day. Then lose the orchestra and all but one singer, and you have the ingredients for the British composer Judith Weir’s score “King Harald’s Saga,” described as a Grand Opera in Three Acts for Solo Soprano. It lasts all of 11 minutes.
The saga of the title is the historic invasion of England by King Harald of Norway and his forces in 1066 — a grand military operation that ended with the wholesale slaughter of the Norwegian forces. In recounting this tale, Weir asks her lone soprano to take up no fewer than eight different roles. Part of the wonder of this work comes in how the composer differentiates the myriad voices, and more deeply, how she imbues such a brief span of music with the expansive aura and solemnity of an actual epic.
On Saturday night in Boston University Theatre, Weir’s score was, in truth, hard to separate from the riveting performance it received by soprano Elizabeth Keusch. Standing on a darkened stage and deploying not just her voice but her entire body, Keusch vividly conjured, among others, the traitor Earl Tostig, the king’s dead brother, the king himself, and his two wives bidding him farewell. Strikingly, in this realization, even the few seconds devoted to the wives, who address the king in artfully shaded repetitions of the same words, summoned two completely distinct relationships to the man himself. Finally, in an epilogue following the Norwegian defeat, an old sage poignantly glosses the tale as a parable about the endless futility of war, a fact forgotten anew by each generation of rulers.
Weir’s work was one of three standouts on a thoughtfully conceived program devoted to British vocal music, part of Odyssey Opera’s ongoing “British Invasion” festival. That the drama we might associate with fully scaled opera can be distilled into much smaller vessels seemed to be the running theme of the evening, most successfully illustrated by performances of, in addition to the Weir, Benjamin Britten’s “Phaedra” and Peter Maxwell Davies’s “Eight Songs for a Mad King.”
Britten’s cantata, premiered in 1976, features a single mezzo supported by strings, harpsichord, and percussion, with a text taken from Robert Lowell’s translation of Racine’s classic version of the Greek myth. On Saturday, in a dramatically taut and tonally lustrous performance, the mezzo Erica Brookhyser impressively conveyed her character’s contrite wrestling with intractable passions (her love for her stepson Hippolytus), and more broadly, the sense of tragic grandeur that radiates from this brief score.
Written a little less than a decade earlier yet engaged with a more avowedly avant-garde aesthetic, Davies’s “Eight Songs for a Mad King” places us in the almost fearfully intimate company of King George III, who we are told, in addition to losing the American colonies also lost his mind. In this classic modern work for baritone and mixed chamber ensemble, Maxwell Davies imagines his way into the shattered interior world of the ranting, fading monarch at the end of his life. On Saturday the fine baritone Thomas Meglioranza fully inhabited this daunting role, in which the king must both convey hints of his former dignity while prowling the stage (here in white pajamas) and screeching in falsetto about God and kingdom and cabbages. Gil Rose led a mixed chamber ensemble in a crisp account of this kaleidoscopic score, which uses quotation and various stylistic references as signposts in the king’s extended mental free fall.
In the company of these three potent works, neither Lennox Berkeley’s “Four Poems of St. Teresa of Avila” (with Stephanie Kacoyanis, contralto) nor Richard Rodney Bennett’s “Ophelia” (with Martin Near, countertenor) made particularly favorable impressions, especially in performances that seemed a bit more like well-prepared demonstrations of the scores than full-blooded and fully convinced accounts. One point of interest in the Bennett, based on poetry of Rimbaud, was an extended cadenza juxtaposing harp (here, Ina Zdorovetchi) and ondes Martenot (a pioneering electronic instrument rendered on synthesizer by Linda Osborne, with patches by Paul Lehrman). Still, one was grateful for the chance to have glimpsed all five of these rarely spotted British works. The festival concludes (June 18-20) with Thomas Adès’s chamber opera “Powder Her Face.”
KINGS, QUEENS, SAINTS & SINNERS: FIVE MONODRAMAS
Presented by Odyssey Opera
Gil Rose, conductor
At: Boston University Theatre, Saturday night
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.