Classical Music: Victoria opera companies push the envelope

What:Victoria Conservatory of Music Opera Studio: Gender Benders

When/where: Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Metro Studio (1411 Quadra St., at Johnson Street)

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Tickets: $20; seniors and students, $10; VCM students and faculty, $5. Call 250-386-5311; in person at the VCM front desk (900 Johnson St.)

 

On Nov. 23 and 24, Pacific Opera Victoria and the Victoria Symphony, in their first co-production, mounted a specially adapted concert version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, conducted by POV artistic director Timothy Vernon and directed by Jacques Lemay. I attended the Sunday matinée, and the mightily deserved ovation had barely subsided before my pleasure turned to greed and I could think only: More, please.

“Concert version” is too modest. True, the orchestra was on stage, so the focus was necessarily on Rodgers’ magnificent music (who’s complaining?), but this was nonetheless a real production in most respects. The performers — all first-rate, including POV’s choristers — spoke their dialogue and sang their songs from memory, in costume. The action was fully staged, and there was even dancing, despite the severely restricted playing area. There were props and stage dressing and a projected backdrop.

It was a terrific show and made me realize how rarely musicals, operetta and other light theatrical genres get the deluxe treatment here in the hands of our best musicians. More, please.

South Pacific also reflected POV’s recent push to broaden its mandate. In 2009-10, the company began producing four rather than three operas per season; the results were glorious artistically, but, alas, the longer season had to be abandoned in 2012-13. To compensate, POV began exploring ways to augment its regular season through smaller but creatively adventurous collaborative projects.

In February and March, it complemented its production of Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring by collaborating with the Victoria Conservatory of Music and the Belfry Theatre in two other, shorter Britten operas, creating a small festival to honour the composer’s centenary. And in March 2014, POV will partner with the Early Music Society of the Islands to import the Boston Early Music Festival’s production of two short operas by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, from the 1680s.

Connoisseur fare like French Baroque opera would never be commercially viable in POV’s regular season — it might alienate the Carmen crowd — but clearly the company yearns to venture beyond the standard operatic repertoire. Augmenting its regular season with more modest productions and sharing the financial and practical burdens with other organizations looks to be a winning formula, especially if the result is professional performances of works we might never otherwise hear. Monteverdi and Lully, perhaps? Hindemith and Weill? Candide and Company? More, more, more, please.

POV is not the only organization that has sought recently to increase the yield of opera in Victoria; witness, for instance, the various chamber-opera productions by visiting and local companies. The most venerable among the latter is the conservatory’s Opera Studio, now more than 30 years old. This twice-yearly, 14-week program offers specialized operatic training to advanced voice students, and each term culminates in staged performances for the public.

Opera Studio’s latest production, this weekend, is a lighthearted program comprising John Duke’s one-act comedy Captain Lovelock, from 1953, plus excerpts from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel and Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The evening is titled Gender Benders, as each piece features either a “breeches part” (a male role sung by a female) or a plot that demands cross-dressing. Gender-bending dates back to the dawn of opera, though in this case the choice of repertoire had a practical motivation: All of Opera Studio’s current students are women — six sopranos, three mezzos. (They range in age from 18 to 30 and include visitors from as far away as Hungary; some already have professional experience.)

In Captain Lovelock, which runs about 35 minutes, a rich old widow rashly decides to marry a young army officer, so her daughters conspire with a matchmaker to convince her of her folly, through a scheme that involves dressing the maid as the soldier. The libretto (by Duke himself) is based on an 18th-century play, though the production’s director, Alison Greene, has updated the story to the present day and added some topical references.

The plot, Greene says, is “the American short answer to Don Pasquale and as absurd a piece as I have ever worked on,” and she describes the music as stylistically heterogeneous and “very hummable.”

The piano accompanist for Gender Benders is Csinszka Rédai, and the music director is Robert Holliston, the recently appointed head of the conservatory’s keyboard department and POV’s principal coach and répétiteur; both, like Greene, are longtime Opera Studio collaborators.

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