What: Phaedra and Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31
When: June 10 (Phaedra) and June 11 (Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31)
Tickets: By donation
A co-production between the Victoria Symphony and Pacific Opera Victoria with close to 50 musicians on stage at once feels like a rare victory in the world of music at the moment, given the health-protocol limitations that have been placed upon performing arts groups.
Timothy Vernon, artistic director of Pacific Opera Victoria, will gladly accept forward momentum of any kind as the symphony and opera unveil online performances of Phaedra (June 10, 7:30 p.m.) and Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31 (June 11, 7:30 p.m.). Both are presented free of charge through victoriasymphony.ca, though donations are accepted. The shows will be available for online viewing for 30 days.
“We’re trying to keep inventing things that provide a fresh challenge,” Vernon said. “This is a test for everybody, not the least of all our audience, and our relationship to our audience. I mean, how much can we take for granted? Well, the idea is you can’t take anything for granted. But our audience has stepped forward in a way that none of us foresaw. They have been present, they have been generous.”
Both Pacific Opera and the Victoria Symphony have responded in kind with regular, high-quality events throughout the pandemic, the latest of which are semi-staged performances of two Benjamin Britten compositions conducted by Vernon and starring mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy and tenor Colin Ainsworth.
“With Britten, some people shudder,” Vernon said of the 20th-century composer, whose challenging orchestral works, opera, and song cycles are held in increasingly high regard. “But that’s ridiculous. He’s great. He’s one of the greatest composers of the last century.”
The performances, which were taped several weeks ago at the University of Victoria’s Farquahar Auditorium, feature musicians from the Victoria Symphony on a set that, while modest, is much more expansive than other pandemic performances by either company. Even a slight return to form was a welcome one, Vernon added. It was his first time on a staged set since in-person performances were shuttered, and he could feel the excitement among his peers over the semblance of something normal.
These are more of a significant step up, in terms of its proximity to Pacific Opera performances of the past, than recent pre-taped recitals, Vernon said. “People standing and singing to the camera, no matter how well, it just doesn’t grab. I’m proud of this. It’s an intermediate form, obviously — it’s not full opera — but it’s not just a recital either.”
Britten’s fondness for text shines through on Serenade, which gives Ainsworth plenty to chew on. Music set to poems by British poets Charles Cotton, Alfred Tennyson, William Blake, Ben Jonson and John Keats hints at the darkness so prevalent in Britten compositions, and provides a powerful cocktail in the somewhat spare setting.
“Some of his songs are just so right, and expressive and strong and direct, that that they wed themselves to the text,” Vernon said. “Britten was great at putting small anthologies together to make his song cycles. There’s something riveting about his imagination, and there’s also something always a little bit dark. It is kind of always there in the background.”
Victoria Symphony principal horn Alana Despins will shoulder a heavy load during this performance, according to Vernon. Britten was exceptional at writing for horn, but he outdid himself in terms of difficulty where Serenade is concerned. “This is a very hard horn part. Every horn player quails before this piece because of the stuff that is in it, but she was terrific.”
Vernon loved the challenges presented by the semi-staged performances. He’s eager for more, and will get his wish soon enough: Pacifc Opera has two large-scale operas on deck for February and April next year, their first following what will be almost a two-year period of inactivity by that point. Vernon is excited that these be produced on stage rather than on screen.
“Everything’s going to get better. We have reason to believe, expect, and hope that we’ll back be back in the theatre in the new year.”