Wexford Festival Opera’s love affair with Massenet continues
Phillipe Do and Nora Sourouzian in La Navarraise. Photograph: Clive Barda
Wexford Festival Opera
Jules Massenet (1842-1912) has been well served by Wexford Festival Opera, and this double bill of his Thérèse (1907) and La Navarraise (1894) brings the festival’s tally of full-scale Massenet productions to nine.
Both works are set in a time of war, Thérèse telling the tale of a love triangle during the Terror of revolutionary France, La Navarraise dealing with parentally frustrated love during the third Carlist War in Spain a century later.
Both works were conceived as vehicles for a star mezzo soprano, Lucy Arbell as Thérèse, and Emma Calvé as Anita in La Navarraise – and it was actually Calvé, one of the greatest singers of her age, who sent Massenet the libretto, promising a London premiere if he could complete the work in double-quick time. La Navarraise was seen as a response to Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana of 1890, and was even dubbed Calvélleria española by some.
Wexford’s director and designer, Renaud Doucet and André Barbe, use the double bill to “try to explore the influence of painting on life”, setting Thérèse in the restoration workshop of a museum, and taking elements from Picasso’s Guernica for the imagery of La Navarraise, in which the costumes are a blood-soaked red, and the painter himself is given a mute, walk-on role.
Both productions are visually busy, the shifting around and showing of paintings by clinically efficient staff filling out Thérèse, the full display of Picasso’s heads and arms always attracting the eye in La Navarraise.
French-Canadian mezzo-soprano Nora Sourouzian is full and forward in tone in the roles of the two heroines, her eager, committed immediacy sounding at its best in La Navarraise. This is the more effective of the two pieces, as Massenet provided colourful sounds of war as he aimed to take his listeners by the scruff of the neck and not let go until his heroine, having killed for money but still lost her lover, reaches the extremity of madness.
French-Vietnamese tenor Philippe Do sounds too consistently pressured as Armand in Thérèse, but finds a better lyrical balance as Araquil in La Navarraise. US-Irish baritone Brian Mulligan, as André and Garrido, wins the hearts of the audience with his powerful projection. And Spanish- Venezuelan conductor Carlos Izcaray successfully stirs up the storms that Massenet ordered.
Still, it is not difficult to see why both operas languish. In spite of Massenet’s musical and theatrical skills, his characters remain cardboard in the context of the real historical backgrounds they’re set in. As George Bernard Shaw said of La Navarraise, “He has not composed an opera: he has made up a prescription.”