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.