Music for Wexford: 2013

I am indebted to Music for Wexford for a plenitude of reasons, best encapsulated by introducing me to a new way of listening to music, achievable solely by the quality of the performer and the pedigree of the programme.

Music for Wexford taught me to expect the unexpected at its concerts, such as the occasion one summer Wednesday afternoon when I first heard Spiegel im Spiegel : I was ensconced in a rear pew in St. Iberius Church beside my Music for Wexford fellow devotee Senan O’Reilly, and I remember thinking: not a single note too many.

This response to music is best articulated by Arvo Part: the spirit of the listener is the prism which separates the colours inherent in the white light of music. It isn’t a mystery to me why some compositions appeal and other don’t, but I have Music for Wexford to thank for focusing my energies on the journey, and not the destination.

What Part intimated about the role of the listener as a catalyst for whatever magic is brewed at a performance has been underscored at almost every performance by the Music for Wexford-promoted Ensemble Avalon.

This dynamic trio (Ioana Pectu-Colan, Gerald Peregrine and Michael McHale) extended the innovative remit of Music for Wexford by performing new and not necessarily well known piano repertoire during their annual concert.

Through Music for Wexford and Ensemble Avalon I encountered the work of Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, whose A space of life between was premiered at St. Iberius by Ensemble Avalon.

And when Pectu-Colan guided the RTE Orchestra through the three movement Violin Concerto by Philip Glass at Wexford Opera House, the ‘white light’ of Arvo Part evolved into a cathartic experience.

I cannot, with any insurable clarity, recall my earliest Music for Wexford concerts, but it was at a time when I didn’t take notes, more’s the pity.

That changed in or around the Spring Festival 13 years ago, when I was blown away by the St. Matthew Passion at Rowe St. Church, with the Orchestra of St. Cecilia and three choirs, a trinity of atomic sonority deployed to heighten the profundity of the story Bach wished to unfold in solos and choral fantasias. Scribbling in the aftermath helped me make sense of what I had just heard.

Personally, the reward of being a listener is the discovery of new sensations. It happened this year with a munificent performance by pianist Philip Martin, and with the opening chords of Gottschalk’s Havana Melody, I felt as Keats must have done prepping  On First Looking at Chapman’s Homer.

Gottschalk, about whom I knew zilch, suddenly, courtesy of Martin’s playing, segued the gap between New Orleans Creole music and New Orleans jazz. He foreshadowed ragtime before it became popular forty years after his death, and this I learned at a Music for Wexford concert.

In conclusion, what the following composers – Messiaen, Poulenc, Blavet, Gaubert, Duparc, Milhaud, Breval, Farrell, Franck, to name but a mere few – have in common for me is that I first knelt at their altar at a Music for Wexford concert. The most creative thinking in the arts often occurs in unlikely spots far from the madding crowd, and so it continues to be with Music for Wexford.

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Wexford Festival Reviews: 2013

Il Cappello di paglia di Firenze

Nino Rota

 

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.

 

Cristina

Foroni

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

Balfe

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.

L’Elisir D’Amore

Donizetti

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.

Losers

Richard Wargo

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.

 

Therese/La Navarraise

Massenet

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.

 

Wexford Sinfonia: 2015

Wexford Sinfonia

Overture to Zampa (Herold)

Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major KV 364 (Mozart)

Symphony No 2 in C minor Opus 17 (Tchaikovsky)

National Opera House

1993 was a seismic year for conductor Fergus Sheil: he was honing his craft with the annual Wexford Festival Opera, and Wexford Sinfonia held its first rehearsal.

The opera to which he was attached, Ferdinand Herold’s Zampa, left a lasting impression on the young conductor, so much so that he opened Sunday afternoon’s concert with its rousing overture.

1993, in retrospect, was a vintage year for artistic director Elaine Padmore and the Festival: she unearthed the Canadian conductor Yves Abel – who conductedZampa – and resuscitated a little known opera, but a gem, Cherevichki, by a composer who was also on Sunday’s programme, Tchaikovsky, directed by the soon to be great Francesa Zambello, at her fourth and last outing at Wexford.

Revisiting the overture again, you can see the attraction for Sheil: it is infectious, lively, spontaneous, which explains its almost universal popularity – it has been recycled incidentally often in animation, Banquet BustThe Band Concert andTwo Gun Mickey – and is best described as happiness in eight minutes and 54 seconds, or there about. And because it opens at 90 mph, both orchestra and conductor are connected instantly, and the enthusiasm swiftly engages the audience, as the triumphal fanfare is addictive. Shame, however, about the rest of the opera.

The first time I saw violinist Ioana Pectu-Colan perform, outside of Ensemble Avalon, was with Philip Glass in Dundalk, and the last time was at Wexford Opera House, soloing in Glass’s Fifth Symphony, conducted by, who else, Fergus Sheil. She returned on Sunday for a musical mano e mano with Beth McNinch, in Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major KV 364, in which Mozart specified that the viola be tuned up a semi-tone and played in D major to counter balance the brilliance of the violin.

A most amiable joust, then. There are, as the programme noted, irrepressible high spirits, yet Wexford Sinfonia – no percussion – was sufficiently at one with Sheil’s sensitive guidance to embellish Mozart’s unstated poignancy, an enchanting palimpsest with the reversal of roles of the violin and the viola.

The composer intended that both instruments should soar, and Sunday’s concert was blessed by the performance of both Pectu-Colan and McNinch, the effortless virtuosity of whom was never in danger of being disassociated from the sensuous expressiveness of a large orchestra, from the opening tutti to the coda. In a word, magical, a performance framed by Sheil’s composure, which also attest to his warmth and breadth of vision.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Wexford Festival Reviews:2015

Koanga

By Frederick Delius

At the National Opera House

On reflection, Koanga by Delius contains some memorable passages of music, kept in the higher gear by conductor Stephen Barlow, but the promise on the page doesn’t fully translate to the stage.

The fault would seem to be with the deficiencies in the characterisation: the realisation of Koanga and Palmyra (Norman Garrett and Nozuko Teto, both superb), fully formed, is not extended by Delius to the villains, such as Jeff Gwaltney’s Simon Perez. They don’t appear to interest the composer.

The unbalance creates a vacuum on the ever busy stage where, with better material, they would have left an impression. But this is Delius, the master of atmosphere, but not, alas, text.

Because of his interest in the Proustian ideal of recapturing a significant moment of the past, and some of Delius’s best music is inspired by euphoric memories, it is arguable that in Koanga, as in his A Village Rome and Juliet, the role of untamed nature for the composer in crafting those memories, is important.

The challenge for the Wexford production team’s take on Koanga, set in a nineteenth century Lousiana slave plantation, is what to do exactly with the Delian atmosphere, conceived while the composer was sitting on a veranda in Florida, drinking a beer (it could have been cold tea, either.)

Director Michael Gieleta segues the indigenous African elements in the opera with the burgeoning African culture in the plantation, like La Calinda, the dance sequence, and the powerful Vodoo ritual which opens Act 3.

In moments such as these, sunrise in the epilogue and the hypnotic strings in the wake of Palmyra’s death, Koanga’s potential for sweeping sensuousness emerges from the shackles imposed by Delius’s text and a stage which kept coming and going, sliding this way and that.

This was a predominately South African interpretation of what has become a reductive theme – slavery in the plantations – and the aim was not just an operatic redivivus, but imbuing the opera with Delius’s radicalism. However, what Gielata and company considered to be intrinsic, Delius the dreamer might have thought otherwise.

 

Le Pre aux clercs

By Ferdinand Herold

At the National Opera House

For director Eric Ruf, modernising a space dripping with antiquity doesn’t interest him, and with a sumptuously staged Le Pre aux clercs, he remains faithful to his roots.

Ruf not only directed Le Pre aux clercs but designed the stage, for in this opera comique production, it is essential that both disciplines are on the same wavelength.

He is a director for whom the conventions of an old opera – the music and the libretto – are not to be treated with disrespect.

Le Pre aux clercs takes place in 1582 in France during the Wars of Religion, but Herold is more interested in the vagaries and vicissitude of his impressive cast of characters than their crude historical predecessors.

Marie Lenormand’s Marguerite de Valois is no more the blood thirsty Le Reine Margot of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, than I am Ernest Hemingway.

So it’s the desire for beauty inherent in the libretto and music which Ruf so successfully fishes for and lands in a production which married recitative and pure singing with unabashed joie de vive, but on an epic scale.

Large casts require intensely dramatic scenes (dancing, fighting etc) in opera comique, so the orchestral score is marked by colourata and accelerando, hinted at in the overture, conducted like a river in spate by Jean-Luc Tingaud.

Though Lenormand and Magali Simard-Galdes (making her stage operatic debut) were impressive, it is Marie-Eve Munger as Isabelle de Montal who is as bright as the North Star with two quite gorgeous arias, Souvenirs du jeune age and Jours de mon enfance.

For a centuries old production to have wheels you want a director to exhume characterisation  from the aspic of the written word, and then have it mobilised by the music so that the conductor can emit emotions, both heart wrenching and playful.

Tingaud and Ruf did both in spades, and this is a production to live on in the memory.

 

Portraits de Manon

By Jules Massenet

White’s Hotel

Unlike Tosca, this production of Portraits de Manon came without sur titles, which was unfortunate because the story does not unfold with the same clarity as Puccini’s.

Director Rob Kearley and his strong cast, including Stephen Anthony Brown and Eunhee Kim, in the absence of sur titles, do their best to disentangle the convoluted plot, the abridged version of which now follows: old and alone with his thoughts, the Chevalier des Grieux is obsessed with the spectral memory of his lost love, Manon.

But the ailing Des Grieux has little empathy for his nephew, Jean de Moncerf, who has the hots for Aurore, indefatigably pretty but without a penny to her name: Des Grieux only relents after he learns that Aurore is in fact the niece of Manon, and so abundance of beauty prevails over paucity of shekels

To put meat on the bones of what must have been a threadbare concept to begin with, a short scene from Act 2 of Manon was appended, ostensibly to revisit and explain the flawed relationship between the protagonists – Manon and Des Grieux – from the earlier opera.

This is a reminder of how much the relationship between Manon and Des Grieux suffered fatally from social mores: with Manon long dead, Des Grieux  has nothing but  memories of his lost love to occupy his dotage.

The Manon scene is rooted in Paris at the height of the belle epoque, and Le Portrait de Manon on the cusp of World War I, a conflagration which will claim millions of young French men like Jean, who, by pursuing Aurore, proves the apple doesn’t usually fall far from the tree.

The story of Manon has been centre stage at Wexford on two occasions, with the less than memorable version by Auber as recently as 2002: an opera comique, like Le Pre aux clercsPortraits de Manon was illuminating, but not electrifying.

 

Tosca

By Giacomo Puccini

White’s Hotel

Unusual for a ShortWork at White’s, the production team didn’t take too many liberties with one of the most famous and compelling operas.

Suffused with gorgeous music and arias immortalised by Callas, Tosca appeals on so many levels musically that it would take an act of genius to make a dog’s dinner of it, and Wexford didn’t.

Director Dafydd Hall Williams prefers an unfussy stage, confident in Eunhee Kim’s ability to deliver a resounding and ceiling shattering Vissi d’arte, which she did like she was born for it: Vissi d’arte conquered, the audience can relax, as the holy grail is in the right hands.

Alexandros Tsiliogiannis is a satisfyingly tragic Mario Cavaradossi, and has a dramatic bag of tricks to bridge the Recondita armonia and E lucevan le stelle, as he prepares for death.

Because the arias are so well known, so well worn, you are more than happy if both soprano and tenor suffuse the performance with tone and intensity: the only danger is that Vissi d’artewill always interrupt the natural flow of the drama.

If there is one quintessential opera where the tenor and the soprano need to be of almost equal strength to balance the drama, it’s Tosca. Get the voices right, and everything else is wallpaper.

With the piano mimicking the words of the arias, it wouldn’t really matter if the setting was Disneyland and not the fabled Castel Sant’ Angelo, but the production team borrow heavily from Rossellini’s Rome, Open City.

Though Tosca as written takes place in a 24 hour period in 1800, Wexford’s adaptation is fast forwarded to Rome under the Nazi occupation: Cavaradossi is executed sitting on a chair (like Don Pietro in Rome, Open City) and the final scene is the still shocking still from the movie of a murdered Pina, played by Anna Magnani.