Is Wexford opera back in full voice?


English-language productions are once again a feature of Wexford Festival Opera, with some lesser-spotted works given the full festival treatment, writes MICHAEL DERVAN

IT IS normal service at Wexford Festival Opera this year. There is opera every night, and the focus is on the kind of repertoire that the festival has been presenting for decades. The festival’s relatively new home, the Wexford Opera House, has been showered with praise since its opening in 2008. But the combination of Western economic woe and the extra seating of the new house created problems that the festival has only managed to resolve by contracting from 18 days to 12, a return to the form of the late 1980s.

The challenges facing the festival were exacerbated by artistic director David Agler’s crusade to present 20th-century opera in English, mostly by American composers. And, no, we’re not talking of John Adams, Philip Glass or Steve Reich, but rather Carlisle Floyd, Conrad Susa, John Corigliano and Peter Ash. Audience responses, as measured by the box office, were not always what the festival needed.

Agler’s achievement in this regard represents a particularly dogged commitment. The first 55 years of the festival saw seven operas in English, three by Irishmen, three by Englishmen, one by an American. The last eight years, with Agler in charge, have brought five operas in English, four of them by Americans, and, in the piano-accompanied productions that the festival bills as Shortworks, a further six, all but one by Americans. If only Agler had the same grá for Irish singers that he does for English-language opera – Irish voices are once again notable in this year’s festival by their absence.

The two English operas in Wexford could hardly be more contrasted. Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet, a “lyric drama in six scenes” on the main stage, was first presented in Berlin in 1907. It is a tragedy based on a story by the Swiss writer Gottfried Keller, which carries echoes of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Lennox Berkeley’s chamber opera A Dinner Engagement, with a libretto by Paul Dehn, is a frothy kitchen comedy with a twist, whose piano-accompanied production is in the auditorium of the Presentation Secondary School, a venue that’s actually bigger than the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh where the opera was first staged in 1954.

Delius, an exact contemporary of Debussy, was an Englishman out of sympathy with his native culture. His sympathies lay with German music, and he spent much of his life in France. And yet his music sounds quintessentially English, not least because Delius played such a part in defining what English music in the early 20th century actually sounded like.

A Village Romeo and Juliet, like a lot of Delius’s music, conforms to Rossini’s famous put-down of Wagner, that it has “good moments, but bad quarter-hours”. The best-known moment is the purely orchestral Walk to the Paradise Garden, the Paradise Garden being an inn where the lovers Sali and Vreli decide to take a boat on the river and drown together. The Walk builds up to one of Delius’s most glorious and rapturous moments.

The opera is full of magical moments, typically of a character of wilting tenderness or melting inwardness. The difficulty is the lack of momentum. There’s a kind of rhythmic inertia that can cause the music to lose its grip, as if the composer is so focused on the now that he can’t keep hold of the bigger picture, and ends up allowing things to drift.

That bigger picture holds up better on stage than it does on disc, at least in Wexford’s production, directed by Stephen Medcalf and designed by Jamie Vartan. The story is of lovers from families who feud themselves to ruin over an abandoned strip of land. But love survives, and, in the face of rejection by the community, triumphs in death.

Jessica Muirhead’s Vreli radiates purity, John Bellemer’s Sali conveys determination, and a special word of praise is due to the young voices of Jack Power and Stephanie Kinsella as Sali and Vreli as children. David Stout’s Dark Fiddler (the rightful owner of the disputed land, but dispossessed by his illegitimacy) is, if you’ll forgive the paradox, authoritatively enigmatic. Rory Macdonald conducts with a power that’s sometimes too blunt. But, then, Delius was trying to capture rather more than he could successfully encompass in his orchestral writing. And it’s only in the famous Walk that he fully reached his goal.

If the Wexford production presented A Vill- age Romeo and Juliet as a fascinating near-miss, the production of Chabrier’s 1887 Le Roi Malgré Lui took a scatter-gun approach. It’s as if the creative team – director Thaddeus Strassberger, designers Kevin Knight (sets) and Mattie Ullrich (costumes) – regarded the piece as being so weak, it needed a complete overhaul. The admittedly convoluted plot involves a French nobleman being elected king of Poland after the royal line dies out. He attempts to winkle his way out of the situation by having a friend take his place. The ruse misfires when a conspiracy against the new king that he has joined goes off the rails, and decides on an assassination.

It is all much more complicated than that, through various amatory intrigues and sub-plots. And Strassberger’s production, set in a television studio (cue visual jokes involving a viewer at home, and TV cameras looking like marauding Daleks in the studio) provides layer upon layer to bury the original.

Chabrier’s music is at times wonderfully rich (its admirers include Ravel and Stravinsky), but, perhaps compounded by the hyperactivity on stage, seems over-written for its purpose. And the work feels seriously over-long. The best moments in an evening that’s undoubtedly a technical tour de force come from the vivacious Minka of Mercedes Arcuri. The conducting of Jean-Luc Tingaud often seemed too forceful for the music’s good.

Unlike Delius or Chabrier, Francesca Cilea- has a work on the fringes of the regular repertoire. His Adriana Lecouvreur was last presented in Ireland by the Dublin Grand Opera Society in 1980, and his L’Arlesiana, based on a story by Alphonse Daudet and first produced in Milan in 1897, marks the first appearance of one of his works in Wexford.

Compared to the Delius, it comes across as thoroughly conventional, and even a presentation as consistently in your face as Wexford’s doesn’t prevent it being an effective piece of work. Director Rosetta Cucchi fussily leaves no stone unturned in trying to add psychological layers to Federico’s doomed obsession with a woman from Arles, who we never meet in the opera. Or who we should never meet in the opera, but who Cucchi presents in dumbshow at the start, and later parades in multiples. Nor does she fight shy of framing figures charting horrors in windows, or pawing through gauze walls to invoke derangement and terror. “I’m crazy, don’t you know that?” sings Federico at one point. Always was, says Cucchi’s production, with multiple underlinings.

The underlining extends to the insistence of the singing, with impressive voices – Dmitry Golovnin’s Federico, Annunziata Vestri’s Rosa Mamai – mistakenly taking vocal stress as a reliable indicator of emotional engagement. There’s very little light and shade in this production, and conductor David Angus adds to the effect of hysteria by stirring up excessive fire in the orchestra. The most rounded performance comes from Mariangela Sicilia as the rejected Vivetta, offering depth through contrasts of light and shade.

Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement is slight, sophisticated and witty, and director Caitriona McLaughlin and designer Kate Guinness put almost nothing in its way. Laura Sheerin’s Susan and Alberto Sousa’s Prince Philippe made a suitably unlikely pair of lovers, and the pronouncements of Raquel Luis’s Grand Duchess are suitably imperious.

Roberto Recchia came up with a nice conceit for the other Shortworks production, of Mozart’s Magic Flute. It’s all a dream. A student surfs the net, falls asleep on his bed, and dreams a strange dream about relations and friends. But the setup is effectively allowed to lapse, as if the energy or ideas weren’t there to keep it going.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was at the NCH on Wednesday, for an all-Russian programme under its conductor Riccardo Chailly. Lynn Harrell was the soft-toned soloist in Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto, one of those mysterious late works that seems to suggest any number of not quite decipherable subtexts. Harrell’s delivery was not as immaculate as I remember from earlier performances in Dublin. But the performance really gelled so that the enigmas were always absorbing. The sonority of Chailly’s orchestra is often glorious, and was consistently so in Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. But the meddling of the interpretative approach – lots of intrusive rubato, too many climaxes – was romanticised rather than romantic. Even the pealing bells effect in the finale, a Rachmaninov trademark, somehow got buried.

Wexford Festival Opera runs until Sunday.

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