Boston Early Music Festival's production of the Baroque opera double-bill, Orphée: La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers and La Couronne by Charpentier, March 14 and 15 at the McPherson Playhouse.

Reaching back for baroque with rare operatic treat

Boston Early Music Festival brings back 1600s with show exclusive to Victoria and New York

A couple of points stand out when considering the impact and significance of this weekend’s baroque opera performances in Victoria by the renowned Boston Early Music Festival.

Not only is it the first time in recent memory that the city has staged an opera based on 17th-century music and dance, Victoria is one of just two places the Boston group will perform French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers (The Descent of Orpheus into Hell) and La Couronne de Fleurs (The Crown of Flowers) on its current mini-tour.

The other? New York City.

“This is a huge event for us,” says James Young, artistic director of the Early Music Society of the Islands, which is co-producing the two-night event along with Pacific Opera Victoria. “This is the kind of event you will normally only see in a much larger centre like Boston or New York.”

While listening to and watching baroque opera performed by musicians and performers from one of the world’s leading early music ensembles will be a treat, what else might audience members notice?

“There’s never been anything staged and performed here in the style of the (1600s), which is what the Boston Early Music Festival specializes in,” Young says.

Not only is dance more prevalent in 17th-century French opera, the combination of voice and movement is a “very much more stylized and formal kind of performance, he says. “It’s an adjustment to see it, but I think when it’s done properly it can really engage an audience.”

People will also notice a difference when they look into the orchestra pit, Young adds.

Besides such period instruments as baroque guitar, violin, recorder, oboe and harpsichord, the ensemble includes a theorbo, a multi-headed, 14-stringed, lute-style instrument which produces soft mellow sounds not unlike a harp; and a viola da gamba or viol, which is larger and deeper sounding than a violin and can be plucked or bowed.

Bringing in an ensemble of the stature of the Boston Early Music Festival presents a financial risk for the local baroque group, one it could not have taken on its own without the help of a company such as Pacific Opera Victoria, Young says. He has other ideas brewing for concerts involving guest performers and as such, the success of this weekend’s shows will go a long way toward planning future special events.

“Pacific Opera Victoria is interested in doing another co-production,” he says, noting that such a partnership makes sense. “If you look at baroque music, the highlight of it is opera.”

The concerts happen at 8 p.m. Friday (March 14) and Saturday at the McPherson Playhouse. Pre-performance lectures by Boston Early Music Festival musical directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs precede both nights’ shows, starting at 7 p.m. in the theatre’s upstairs lobby.

Tickets are available in advance at rmts.bc.ca, at the theatre box office at 1 Centennial Sq., or at earlymusicsocietyoftheislands.ca.

ddescoteau@vicnews.com

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