Il Cappello di paglia di Firenze
This was Wexford’s second crack at securing a Nino Rota opera and whether it was worth the wait is the question?
There was little to dislike about the production: vivacious and brash, it had an unusually large cast for a frankly vacuous storyline, almost as vapid as 2012’s Le Roi malgre lui, it was derived from a motley collection of influences
What to expect from an opera buffa, if it is to succeed and engage its audience, is an abundance of charm.
The source, therefore, of a moveable feast of mirth is the casting, and this production benefited from good interplay by dramatically strong singers, both visually and vocally, like Filippo Fontana, Salvatore Salvaggio and Eleanor Lyons.
It seemed to me, blame my rusty Italian, the guys got all the best lines, but nonetheless, though she is no Meryl Streep, well, not yet, Claudia Boyle, in a difficult role if you are not a natural comic, handled herself reasonably well.
One of Boyle’s calling cards is her propensity for the dramatic, her ability to stand out, no mean feat on a riotous stage directed with skill and with homage to the Marx Brothers by Andrea Catalano. She has some of the best of the prolonged lyrical passages, and when she is off the leash, there is no restraint.
It is unfortunate to review a farsa musicale after its premiere, because one could imagine the cast coming to grips with the mayhem after two or three outings. Comedy on stage often starts as a flat battery.
Like a football match, it was a game of two halves: the second compensating for the trivial predominance of the first, and as the plot, not worth analysing in depth, dovetailed to its natural and predictable outcome, the acting, ironically, became more challenging. No surprise that for an opera by Rota, who scored The Godfather, a horse’s head figures throughout.
A special mention for Filippo Adami, who was a last minute replacement for Davide Giusti, but he took to Il Cappello Di Paglia Di Firenze like a swallow to the sun, and was reunited with Andrea Cigni, both veterans of the Florence production of the opera in 2011.
Also reprising his role from Florence was the aforementioned Salvaggio who, as the father in law to be, Nonancourt, just about had the dramatic edge on everybody else, and turned the effectiveness of nuanced acting into a fine art.
I don’t know if Lorenzo Cutuli also designed the Florentine production, but his stage, from where I was sitting, seemed skimpy, and perhaps better suited for a ShortWorks, but this is a minor cavil. Paris on stage ought to be floriferous bright.
If the scenery didn’t cause a retinal sensation, it was practical for the anarchy amongst the busy ensemble unfolding across four acts. Unusually, this is considered Rota’s best opera, and in parts you can see why, as he has borrowed with the flagrancy of a magpie in the nesting season from Donizetti and Rossini. The music was designed to accompany the explosions of farce, so it is both lively and sassy. Energetic conductor Sergio Alapont’s orchestra was therefore alert and eager although, for Wexford ears, this fondue of an opera could have done with more meat.
Lightning striking twice rarely occurs in life, unless you are a politician, but in opera, it can happen occasionally.
Who would have thought it possible for Wexford to unearth two diamonds – Juan Diego Florez and Josef Calleja – between 1996 and 1998, and to potentially repeat the achievement across such a short abridgement with a duo of exceptional sopranos.
Wexford Opera House alumna Angela Meade, was the surprise sensation in Mercadante’s Virginia in 2010, although she was no bolt from the blue for Artistic Director David Agler, who had in mind only one singer for the role.
One suspects that he also knew that the part of Cristina in Jacopa Foroni’s historical-lyrical drama was bespoke for a singer of the calibre and range of Australia soprano Helen Dix. She emerged molten cool for the role from the off.
This opera succeeded on so many levels that it seems unfair to portray Dix as the foundation to a quite superb production, but you cannot imagine it reaching the heights without her.
She may not be the best actress in the world, but God loves a trier, especially with a voice that parades phenomenal coloratura, and has the torque of a million dawns rolled into one.
It’s quite eerie to hear the Dix throttle awaken from its disguised slumber, an approaching thunder fuelled by the amphetamine of a westerly, but she dominates the stage like a Caesar.
Dix aside for a moment, Wexford’s take on Foroni’s version of Christina, a Swedish version of Elizabeth I (a religious zealot married to the throne), is transferred seamlessly to World War II, a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Once she abdicates, the permafrost of State terror inches closer to the surface.
News reel footage did not distract from the aesthetic merits of Statkowski’s Maria two years ago, and is used throughout by director Stephen Medcalf and designer Jamie Vartan, the team behind the sumptuous A Village Romeo and Juliet.
Medcalf and Vartan like to use every inch of the stage, transmogrifying it whenever the libretto allows, so that the reward is a visual stimulation before the unfolding of aural delights.
They are also partial to appetizing dancing, which lent A Village Romeo and Juliet much of its pastoral charm, and – surprise, surprise – they were reunited with its choreographer Paula O’Reilly in Cristina.
The one considerable advantage of a choreographer with a preference for the epic, such as O’Reilly, who is never tedious, is a feeling of wholesomeness about the production.
Cristina is a wonderful spectacle, as was A Village Romeo and Juliet, although one sensed a non too subtle nod to The King’s Speech, especially with the address of Dix to the nation.
Medcalf ensures that his cast becomes acquainted with every nook and cranny of the stage, but even his skill cannot soften the overwhelming power of Dix’s lusty lustre, and if the theatre were bathe in darkness you wouldn’t care, such is the focused tenderness of the abdicating queen, or the ferocity of the scorned lover, her voice the unsheathed claw of vexed cat.
The music, a gorgeous overture which is revisited in the prolonged musical introduction to key scenes, is conducted with exceptional care and, one might say love, by Sergio Alapont. The role of Cristina is Shakespearean in that one character dominates, but Lucia Cirillo, David Stout and Patrick Hyland are amply gifted as thespians to resist the gravitational pull of a quiet awesome Dix. To my knowledge, only one recording of the opera exists (Gothenburg Opera), which makes it a revival of a lost masterpiece.
The Sleeping Queen
Wexford in 2013 remembers its roots, with a nod to both Balfe (The Sleeping Queen) and Donizetti (L’Elisir D’amore), two safe pair of hands that artistic directors have revisited when the cupboard was bare, or in need of a non-perishable quality.
However, The Sleeping Queen fits the bill as a genuine curiosity and is ideal for the ShortWork programme, daily drawing full houses to the Presentation Secondary School, which adapts itself well to the burst of migration from down town.
The Sleeping Queen, a one act operetta, cleverly opens with the cast abridging the life and times of Balfe in the year of the 250th anniversary of his birth and how he came to be synonymous with Wexford, even if The Bohemian Girl to a younger generation is better known today as a Main Street hair salon.
With performers as charming and as at ease as Johane Ansell, Christina Gill, Ronan Busfield and Padraic Rowan, the net effect is an audience ripe for anything, and designer Sarah Bacon contributes imaginatively to Sophie Motley’s direction to add a pantomime-esque background to what was a hastily written farce by Balfe, whilst aping Rossini. But because it is Balfe, it is not without attractive coloratura for the soprano.
Presumably because of its brevity, and written for piano and harmonium, and so frivolous and thus unbecoming of the sensitive Balfe, The Sleeping Queen never sees the light of stage, but it is another prism with which to view the composer who seems to have regretted its first incarnation, later adding an orchestra, a chorus and recitatives.
Wexford was the first staged production in Ireland in living memory and in mood and tempo both cast and crew were pitch perfect. It is a charming piece and it is a wonder why it is not performed more often. Wexford took a 19th Century relic, put it in the microwave, and defrosted it.
In his programme notes, the irrepressible director of L’Elisir D’Amore, Roberto Recchia, was asked to do a traditional staging, but he went one step further by suffusing the production at Presentation Secondary School with warmth and – his trademark – comic empathy.
Many of us would have grown up listening to our parents’ version of L’Elisir D’Amore with Sutherland and Pavarotti, when their voices were still heavenly sent. Recchia is always his own man and was never going to be tethered to a classic interpretation: he sought an alternative to the coldness and discomfort of other older productions he was acquainted with.
And because Wexford’s L’Elisir D’Amore was closer to an hour and forty minutes in length, Recchia had to keep this ShortWork engaging for an audience whose behinds on hard seats had the shelf life of about an hour and fifteen minutes.
The casting of Thomas Faulkner – a very fine actor – was inspired, because from the moment he appeared as Dr Dulcamara the English baritone gave the production its heart: his absence from the stage thereafter, as Donizetti intended, is keenly felt and, naturally, anticipated.
His patter song – the greatest number of words in the shortest possible time – is accompanied by a typical Recchia juxtaposition of video, an inventive montage, knitted together with wit and imagination by the director, and immediately, what started out as a conservative opera, was lifted above the mundane. Recchia is capable of Technicolor strokes which keep you on your toes.
A larger than normal cast for a ShortWork, only a handful get a chance to shine, such as Ian Beadle, while Patrick Hyland, in a principal role, was always in command of his brief on a busy stage, is a very capable performer and is one to watch in the future.
Hyland’s Adina, credimi was also a special moment for this Irish tenor . Productions of L’Elisir D’Amore are legion where a very good Nemorino, or an Adina, a Belcore or a Dr Dulcamara, because they are so well written by Donizetti, have stolen the show, and the garlands in this instance go to Faulkner’s interpretation of the latter, followed closely by his English compatriot, Beadle. Recchia always has a judicious eye for the small detail, so it was gratifying that the ensemble playing excelled.
You could be mistaken for thinking that Losers would be a blood relative of Winners, whose premiere in Wexford in 2010 was attended by the affable composer, Richard Wargo.
However, inspired by Brian Friel, who wrote the plays upon which the operas are based, Wargo took a new path with Losers so that he was both faithful to the source and yet free of it.
Director of this strong production, Conor Hanratty, in his programme notes makes two disputable claims: the characters are presented without mockery and Wargo paints with brighter colours than Friel.
Eleanor Lyon’s Mrs Wilson is a one dimensional harridan, while the histrionic fundamentalism of her sister in religious arms, Kate Cassidy (a superb Kristin Finnegan), would leave the Taliban in the half penny place.
And if it is true that Wargo paints brighter than Friel, the Vatican Fugue and Another Step Nearer to Thee are inspired, this production – before a note is sung – is overwhelmed by the suffocation of the claustrophic stage, with religious iconography left, right and centre.
This isn’t to negate Losers which is much more easier on the ears than Winners – at core a play aping opera – but to posit the possibility that Hanratty’s intention was slightly lost in translation, or perhaps not.
That they are almost cartoonish in their religious fervour and the efficacy of their devotion doesn’t distract from strong performances by Nicholas Morris and Catia Moreso as the unlikely Mr and Mrs Tracy, who never forget that Losers is essentially a comedy in which some scenes are specifically written for laughs.
Singing in the Spiegeltent, Donovan reminded his audience, which didn’t need reminding, that a lot of his songs have women’s names in the titles. Somebody should have told him: ‘so does Massenet.’
And Wexford, over the years, has hosted quite a few of them – Cendrillon and Sapho – for no opera festival enjoys a strong female lead quite like Wexford, and we’ve been lucky: Virginia, Sapho, Orleanskaya deva, Zaza, with extraordinary performances by exceptional singers: Karen Notare, Giuseppina Piunti, Angela Meade, Elizabeth Futral and, of course, Lada Biriucov.
To this list of outstanding talent we can now add two more names from the 2013 season, soprano Helena Dix (Cristina) and mezzo-soprano and Wexford veteran Nora Sourouzian, both of whom took their operas by the proverbial scruff of the neck, and made them their own.
While Dix arrived with great expectations, Sourouzian came under the radar. Though David Agler is supremely gifted at casting leads, even he must have been surprised by what Sourouzian achieved in this Massenet double bill in two contrasting and hugely challenging parts.
Women in Massenet operas always steal the show, and because of the composer’s empathy for the better sex, female parts are deeply layered, a matrix of fidelity, passion and, often fatefully, honesty.
Sourouzian’s acting is the equal of her singing, and as both the parts of Therese and Anita mirror the descent into societal mayhem, she had to dig deepest to unfurl the sacrifice of one and the madness of the other. By my estimation, she was only off stage for ten minutes for the duration of both operas, which were also gifted by the presence of Philippe Do, Brian Mulligan and Damien Pass.
Taken as a whole, I don’t think I have ever seen as complete a performance at Wexford as Sourouzian, certainly not since Biriucov, or even Notare, but to segue two contrasting roles in one evening was a remarkable and, if you were fortunate to be present on Saturday, frankly miraculous undertaking. In the last scene of Therese, Sourouzian appropriates her death while defiant to the violence that spurred it. She gave us beauty, rapture and madness.
That ability to morph from one to the other as seamless as water, from Revolutionary France to Civil War Spain, transfigured Therese in particular which looked – on paper – as exciting as chess, but Andre Barbe’s magnificent sets – epic and grandiose – and conductor Carlos Izcaray, who brought dash, drive and control to the orchestra, airlifted both the drame musicale and episode lyrique.
Barbe, with subtle use of David’s Marat and portraits of Danton and Robespierre in Therese, and wholesale deployment of Picasso ‘s Guernica in La Navarraise, endowed the stage with visual munificence thus adding to the narrative, as all good set designs should.