Written by Rachel Peake
The play Phèdre by Racine is a hugely significant piece of theatre history – personally, I studied it in several classes in both French and English. The reason for this captivation through the centuries is the character of Phaedra as Racine imagines her. In his telling, her strength, her weakness, and her struggle are palpable: she is pitiable and repulsive, relatable and heartbreaking all at once.
In his cantata based on Racine’s work, Britten takes that examination of character two steps further by removing all outside characters. He focuses instead on Phaedra’s monologues – her moments of discovery, decision, heartbreak, and change. He also, of course, adds music which deepens our emotional understanding of her experience and amplifies both her suffering and her resolve. By extracting from Racine’s play, Britten has at once condensed and expanded the experience of us journeying with this woman through some of the most intense pressure a human can endure.
Because of its base in theatre, staging Phaedra is not unlike staging an opera or play. Along with Mezzo-Soprano Allyson McHardy we dug into the source text to inform our choices, but also had to empower this piece to stand alone in its extracted form. With Conductor Timothy Vernon we mined the music for how it informs the story and what it tells us about Phaedra’s state of mind.
On the other hand, my approach as stage director on Serenade for Tenor, Horns, and Strings had to be quite different. In a song cycle, the connection is made by the composer and usually on theme, rather than story. In this case, Britten chose works by some of the greatest English poets of all time – Tennyson, Blake, Keats – all about night. As both a director and an audience member, I am drawn to story. Whether a literal understanding of events or a more general experience of emotional arc, I believe in taking an audience on a journey. As such, in conversation with Tenor Colin Ainsworth and Conductor Timothy Vernon, we worked to create an inner story for Colin’s character.
As the horn is such a key voice in this song cycle, we wanted to address who or what the horn is in each of the pieces. In Nocturne, the horn is a literal bugle call the character hears. But in other selections the song of the horn seems to convey details of the character’s inner life, to remind him of something lost or propel him toward things to come. We landed on a story of loss, of a man facing the end of love and, having ridden out its torment, finding release.
These two pieces, written at such different stages of his career (Serenade in 1943 and Phaedra, his last vocal work, in 1975) exemplify the breadth of Britten’s interest and ability. At the same time, the poetry, themes, and mythological references that run through both bring a commonality that helps deepen our appreciation of each.
I hope you enjoy the journey.