Wexford Festival reviews 2014

Salome

(By Antoine Mariotte)

National Opera House

 

Decapitations feature prominently in Western art: the mythical Perseus holding aloft the head of Medusa, the biblical David bringing Goliath down to size.

Whilst Cellini’s bronze sculpture of Perseus in Florence and Caravaggio ‘s David with the Head of Goliath in Rome are graphic, they are devoid of the sadistic glee of, say, the treatment by European artists of Judith beheading Holofernes.

In this Salome, Artistic Director Rosetta Cucchi, eschews the blood sporting Holofernes route and, in the wake of recent events in the Middle East, chose well.

It does mean, however, that the most iconic image of this well trod story, Salome kissing the bloodied head of John the Baptist, doesn’t put in an appearance. Instead of Salome triumphant with her dripping gobbet, we have a cat toying with an invisible mouse.

But Cucchi wisely tackles the thorny issue of Iokanaan’s potential gore feast from the opening scenes, by evoking the poetic and mythical qualities of the opera and milking the occasional Wagnerian symbolism:seven portals on stage, seven silent kings, seven crowns etc

For example: the chastity of her silver moon is in direct contrast to the profanity of Herode’s court, and the seven deadly sins are embroidered into the dance of the seven veils. Salome’s canter isn’t seductive but Cucchi doesn’t intend it to be. Her Salome isn’t warts and all, but a new take on an old tale in Tiziano Santi’s imprisoned set.

Whether it succeeds or not depends on what floats your boat: Na’ama Goldman’s Salome does not seduce, she possesses. Her elixir is not hip swagger and pout, but alchemy like verdigris. As a predator, her saurian eyes have more menace than her hips.

Cucchi sees her as a tree slowly diseased by her environment, and, unlike Herodias or Herode, who are fully formed, the chimerical Salome spirals to an inevitable gore fest from the moment Iokanaan triggers her gossamer.

Cucchi could have taken the road well travelled with her take on Salome, but she has a poet’s eye and refuses to pander to expectations. So no squeamish head held aloft with dangly bits a la Cellini’s Perseus, no matter how much we expect it, even bay for it, and no alluring Dance of the Seven Veils. After all, what’s the point? We’ve been down that road before.

Instead, and in tandem with Mariotte’s rich orchestration, woven warmly by David Angus, and with strong performances by Nora Sourouzian, Scott Wilde and Igor Golovatenko, this thoughtful Salome by Cucchi should not be disconnected from the world around us, and I appreciate how she urges us, whilst seeking beauty in art, to be mindful of the sense of reality that comes from dreadful things.

With the horrific death of Iokanaan, less is more on stage, and that is how it should be in our encounter, as an audience, with the dreadful, which is all around us. It can’t have been easy to physicalise a character like Salome with all the trappings of familiarity, but Na’ama Goldman never wavers and unearths an emotional valency that is probably outside our comfort zone. A courageous production, with luscious music too, one should add.

 

Silent Night

(Kevin Puts)

National Opera House

 

It is often said that the arts can enlighten through narrative: the Wexford Festival has never been afraid to embrace the zeitgeist of a moment, and deliver a tour de force of its own.

Consider Sarlatan by Pavel Haas, staged for the first time since 1938 at the Wexford Festival on October 16, 1998, on the 54th anniversary of the day its composer Pavel Haas was sent to Auschwitz and later murdered: nor was the symbolism of the fate of Haas and other Prague composers lost on Festival audiences, as Wexford was commemorating the bi-centenary of the 1798 rebellion, in which 30,000 lives were lost.

The Festival should, once again, be commended for having the audacity and the courage to stage an opera about World War I, in the midst of centenary commemorations, just weeks before Remembrance Day, a global conflict which, need we add, polarised Irish opinion for decades.

Against a backdrop of local indifference to centenary commemorations – neither Wexford Corporation or Wexford Co. Council will this year acknowledge the deaths of almost a thousand Wexford soldiers in the conflict – the Wexford Festival is the first and only cultural institution in Ireland of note to meet the spectre of the Great War head on.

Everything about Silent Night ticked the right boxes: Mark Campbell’s parsimonious libretto effectively transformed the screenplay of Joyeux Noel into an opera comprising a multitude of scenes in two acts; Kevin Puts’ award winning music was, ironically, cinematic in its scope, the sepulchral timbre dictating the extraordinary events which took place in the trenches on Christmas Eve in 1914; Erhard Rom’s set had to multitask, from domesticity in Scotland, France and Germany to the quagmire of No Man’s Land; Tomer Zvulun’s direction of the big scenes, the bearing of the dead, for example, or the carpet of poppies at the end, was fundamental to the mood within Wexford Opera House from the opening note to the last: the sound of silence.

The circumstances will never again arise for an opera of this magnitude, a homage to the horror of the first industrial war, to those who perished and to those who survived, on all sides. Wexford’s production excelled at so many levels that it would be churlish to isolate different aspects, but I believe that Tomer Zvulun’s fingerprints were all over this production, and for a good reason.

I can’t be certain, but he is more than likely the first director of an opera in the festival’s distinguished history to serve in an army on a permanent war footing, as he did in Israel as a medic in a combat infantry unit.

Zvulun learned to shoot, to fight, to run and to hide in the early 1990’s, having been weaned on a surreal diet of the Lebanon War, the first Intifada and suicide bombings in Tel Aviv and of course the endless conflict in Gaza. He gives Silent Night its serrated visual edge, and his direction mirrors the essence of Campbell’s libretto, each line no longer than half a dozen syllables, and that is humanity can be found in the small kindnesses which withstand the hurricane of war. As we know, the events of Christmas Eve 1914 were never repeated as the war entered its most inhumane phase.

In short Silent Night was fascinatingly scored and sung with warmth and no absence of understanding.

 

Na’ama Goldman recital

St. Iberius Church

The lunchtime recitals are akin to a buried treasure trove: you never know what you will find.

Na’ama Goldman’s concert was bookended by songs from a part she knows only too well, the Siren from Seville, but these were a mere teaser to whet the appetite of an audience uncertain of her range.

One need not have worried: Goldman, a mezzo-soprano with an infectious stage presence, removed the scales from our eyes with an exotic rather than erotic Habanera. But she was every inch Carmen, and we knew it, and she knew we knew it.

Quickly, the recital was game on, and with pianist Janet Haney predatorily on her shoulder, Goldman unearthed Ravel’s take on Habanera, followed by Una voce poco fa from The Barber of Seville, for which she begins rehearsal this week in, naturally, the role of Rosina.

The Franco-Spanish influence continued with her gorgeous rendition of Les Filles de Cadiz, a prime example of Delibes ever so slightly mimicing Bizet, and who could blame him, as it is quite picturesque, almost a precedent for our times’ La Vie en Rose, with which Goldman closed the recital.

In between we had the rare distinction of hearing two songs in Hebrew – surely a Wexford Festival first – with the cat’s aria from David Sebba’s Alice in Wonderland and Love Song to Tel Aviv by the great poet Leah Goldberg, whose live was as shaped by the events of World War I as any of the characters in Silent Night. The echoes and reverberation of Leah Goldberg sung by a blackbird in her native Hebrew in an ancient Wexford church: what more could you ask for?

 

La Cenerentola

(Gioacchino Rossini)

Wexford Festival ShortWork

White’s Hotel

A dramma giocoso by Rossini is as distinctive as a ShortWork directed by Roberto Recchia, one of the great unsung heroes of Wexford Festival Opera in the 21st century who, year after year, takes an old work and turns it on its head.

La Cenerentola is a slightly different take on Cinderella, but Rossini’s witty opera has interesting contrasts which the ever attentive Recchia exploited: Rossini’s opera is not a fairytale, so there are no supernatural elements.

Instead, which is often a comment feature in Recchia’s Wexford productions, there is deception and disguise. Nothing is as it seems. For a Rossini farce to work, ensemble playing is a prerequisite, and Recchia knows how to work a team.

La Cenerentola is vintage Rossini, who wrote it in three weeks, but Nacqui all’affanno, al pianto is a reminder of his gift for both dazzling vocal and lyrical writing.

Singers who can act, and act well, will always prosper in an opera directed by Recchia, who encourages daring with the rapid patter, and this production was well served by Kate Allen (Angelina), Eamonn Mulhall (Prince Ramiro), Davide Bartolucci (Don Magnifico), Filippo Fontana (Dandini), Ian Beadle (Alidoro) and Rebecca Goulden and Kristin Finnigan as the terrible sisters.

Naturally, the mise-en-scene was innovative and conducive to La Cenerentola’s tempo and mood, particularly the interactive montage, Recchia’s way of showing that Rossini’s comic operas are at their best – and we have seen ShortWorks interpretations of The Barber of Seville and Il Viaggio a Reims – when the productions makes the most out of the plot’s contrivance.

We love Rossini for his sheer exuberance and his exemplification of bel canto, and this production was fortunate to have at its disposal the richly coloured Kate Allen, a mezz-soprano

 

Don Bucefalo

(Antonio Cagnoni)

National Opera House

If the audience’s enthusiastic reception for an opera is a reliable barometer, then the dark horse of the 2014 season, Don Bucefalo, would be a front runner for this year’s most popular.

It is accepted that Silent Night was the best of the trio, justifying the hype which snowballed after the dress rehearsal, but Don Bucefalo, coming under the radar, like Il Cappello di paglia di Firenze last year, scaled impressive heights.

When you consider the dramma giocoso in three acts by Cagnoni to a libretto by Calisto Bassi which director Kevin Newbury had to work from, a minor miracle was created on the stage of the National Opera House.

Newbury, set designer Victoria Tzykun and costume designer Jessica Jahn moved the opera from mid-nineteenth century Italy to a late 1980’s-early 1990’s small town. The idea of community, perhaps mirroring the relationship between the Festival and Wexford, was key to Newbury’s adaptation, though the sets were closer to a John Hughes movie, (The Breakfast Club) than a Billy Roche play.

Remarkably, Don Bucefalo was one of two dramma giocoso at Wexford this year (Rossini’s La Cenerentola) and they shared a compunction for intricate ensembles and relentless pace, exemplified in Don Bucefalo by the excellent Filippo Fontana, equally memorable from his Wexford debut in the aforementioned Il Cappello di paglia di Firenze.

Dramma giocoso is just slightly madder than opera buff, and that theatrical buffoonery and anarchy finds its greatest outpouring when the orchestra, and remember Don Bucefalo is a play within a play, attempts to tune their instruments l’accordatura.

The pace, for dramma giocoso to be effective, must be relentless, so there is usually a seamless transition from one scene to the next, interspersed by wavering arias, most noticeably in this production by Jennifer Davis and Marie-Eve Munger.  The arias from both were consistently beautiful, and Davis was the ideal counterfoil for Munger.

An aspect of this year’s production, though not exclusive to this season, has been the excellent choral contribution, dramatically and theatrically so in Don Bucefalo, with conductor Sergio Alapont always eager to raise the temperature.

 

Dr. Tom Walsh Lecture with Dale Johnson, Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell

Jerome Hynes Theatre (supported by Victoria Walsh-Hamer)

Silent Night is the first contemporary opera at the Wexford Festival adapted from a screenplay and Kevin Puts became the first Pulitzer Prize winning composer to put in an appearance at the Wexford Festival, on the morning after, as it turned out,  the European premiere of his opera.

The Dr. Tom Walsh lecture has evolved over the years, and this year’s event was less a lecture and more a Q&A, but the end result was the same: light illuminates the work at hand.

Fortunately, Messrs Johnson, Puts and Campbell, still surfing the goodwill and universal elation the morning after the night before, were in good voice and modestly retraced the provenance of Silent Night, and the creative arc that brought it from Minnesota to Wexford, via David Agler, who can spot a lump of gold even when it’s dressed as coal.

Silent Night, about the famous truce in the trenches in the first Christmas of the war that was supposed to end all wars, was inspired by the French film, Joyeux Noel, which is not yet a decade old.

What the lecture revealed is that these guys work fast. Johnson (Minnesota Opera’s Artistic Director for ten years) acquired the rights to adapt the screenplay under three weeks, and once Campbell, a veteran of ten libretti, got his hands on the story, he had Act I dashed off in five days. Puts,  having never written an opera and little vocal music, was talent spotted by Johnson, long committed to commissioning new works, and so the libretto, from the librettist, was received by the composer ‘like a present.’

So far, so menage a trois.

From the off, Johnson sought a composer who could deliver a sonic take to what is visualised in the film, and found what he was looking for in Puts’ symphonies, and was happy to partner the composer with Campbell, ‘because Mark knows what to say in the least number of words.’

But, as the likeable Campbell can demonstrate, he has no shortage of words and illuminated the lecture with a workshop on the writer’s craft: the challenge with Silent Night was compressing a big story to leave room for the music to expand. His characters are more difficult than the film’s, and though he polished off Act I in record time, ‘Act II was trickier.’ Why so? ‘War is not sustainable when you come to know your enemy as a human being.’ Campbell is by his own admission parsimonious with his deployment of words, even to the extent of filtering his consonants and vowels. ‘Can this be three syllables and not four?’

As he didn’t want the five languages in the libretto to come across as fake, Campbell finished his script in English and, to the surprise of some, initially used the Google translation tool to do the rest. Campbell and Puts declined to use the carol Silent Night in the opera for fear that the audience would sing alone.

The opera is often at its most effective for the silences. ‘There is a moment in Act II where there is a long pause in the score before the bearing of the dead,’ explained the librettist. ‘It allows the moment to resonate, that we cannot forget!’

Puts wrote the music for Act I on paper (as opposed to computer). ‘With an opera, you know where you are going, but I like to be seamless, with no juncture. I loved the architecture of the libretto. There was an intuitive understanding of how the music would go.’ He lavished praise on the acoustics of the National Opera House, ‘where the orchestra can play to its heart’s desire and the singers can still sing.’ The annual Dr Tom Walsh Lecture continues to be enlightening yet free from academic flummery, and long may it continue.

 

 

 

 

 

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