Has Wexford hit the high notes?
From an opera not performed since 1855 to the town’s favourite composer, MICHAEL DERVANreviews Wexford Festival opera productions
La cour de Célimène
Ambroise Thomas (1811-96) had to wait a long time for the best-known of his operas, Mignon, to be heard at the Wexford Festival. Mignonreached the Wexford stage in 1986. But his La Cour de Célimènehas had an altogether more extreme wait. When it opened this year’s festival on Friday, in commemoration of the bicentenary of the composer’s birth, it was being performed on stage for the first time since its initial run in 1855.
On the face of it, this seems entirely unfair. The music is tuneful, with lots of show-off moments for two sopranos. The frothy plot tells of a cold-hearted 18th-century countess manipulating her many admirers in revenge for her late husband’s infidelities. She is, however, engaged, eyes wide open, to a man who doesn’t love her – he just wants to tie the knot to share her property. Add to the mix a morally upright sister, a rival young admirer, oodles of vocal display, and the well-worn mix-ups of an opera plot, and what’s not to like? Well, the courtly ancien-régimesetting didn’t add to the work’s appeal in mid-19th-century France. The fact that it’s an opéra-comique,with lots of spoken dialogue, is a hindrance elsewhere. And, although it’s a beautifully-turned score, there’s not much in it that’s original or particularly memorable.
Stephen Barlow’s new production, with Paul Edwards’s picture-book designs placing a tilted set within a picture frame, is as frothy as you could wish for, though the matched timing of stage movement and music sometimes takes a trick too many from the world of Hollywood cartoons.
Conductor Carlos Izcaray is a willing co-conspirator. He conducts with lots of fizz, though he sometimes becomes a little unyielding in sustaining pressure to ensure that the froth keeps foaming.
The real stars of the evening are the two female leads, Claudia Boyle’s coolly commanding Comtesse, fluttering with graceful ease through acrobatic demands, and Nathalie Paulin, as her sister, La Baronne, often partnering impressively in her vocal flights.
Bass John Molloy’s worldly Commandeur de Beaupré takes on the mantle of being a stiff dullard rather too well (and Molloy’s usually reliable comic timing here misfires), though tenor Luigi Boccia’s Chévalier de Mérac is more immediately ingratiating.
The comic chorus of 12 lovers, caught like puppets on a string, are wittily portrayed, dragged through the most extravagant of poses by their own vanity as well as the controlling presence of the Comtesse.
Operas hardly come any more obscure than the second of this year’s Wexford Festival offerings, Maria,by the Polish composer Roman Statkowski (1859-1923).
Statkowski’s first opera, Filenis,written in 1897, won the London International Opera Competition of 1903. The following year he entered a Warsaw Philharmonic competition for an opera on the 1825 epic poem Mariaby Antoni Malczewski. He won the prize, and although Mariawas performed in 1906, productions in the composer’s native land have only been sporadic, and the new Wexford production marked the work’s first appearance abroad.
The recent upturn in Maria’sfortunes began with a Polish radio broadcast and subsequent CD release of a 2008 concert performance, which brought the opera to the attention of Wexford’s artistic director, David Agler.
The work wears its musical sources in Tchaikovsky and Wagner very clearly, and there are even moments which sound less a matter of influence than of borrowing.
Conductor Tomasz Tokarczyk played the music for all it is worth, and showed that it can pack a pretty powerful punch. At the same time, though, you have to allow for the effect of a near-contemporary of Mahler, Puccini, Debussy and Strauss writing in the mode of an earlier generation, Mariapost-dates Tosca, Pelléas et Mélisande,and Salome,though it often sounds like the work of a much earlier satellite of Tchaikovsky.
In Maria, Statkowski doesn’t come across as a natural dramatist. The music doesn’t always work effectively through the voices and their words or the situations. It reaches is most potent expression when the orchestra is left on its own free course. The major exception is Act II’s searing choral declamation of the hymn Bogurodzica, Dziewica, during which the orchestra remains silent.
Michael Gielata’s new production brings the piece up to date through a relocation from the original 17th century to the 1980s, placing it in the context of the struggle between the Communist government and the Solidarity movement. On the one side is the murderous Count Palatine and his estranged son Waclaw, on the other the District Governor and his daughter Maria (who’s in love with Waclaw). The Count Palatine’s attempts to keep his son from marrying Maria leads to the deaths of both lovers.
Gielata and his video designer Andrzej Goulding present a wide range of striking contemporary images, and the designs by James Macnamara (sets) and Fabio Toblini (costumes) evoke the period effectively. The new frame of reference provides a degree of focus that the music on its own might lack.
Italian soprano Daria Masiero is a not quite sympathetic Maria, but Polish tenor Rafal Bartminski is a powerhouse of thrilling vocal ardency, firing the music with a personal passion that the rest of the cast don’t rival. Krzysztof Szumanski’s Count Palatine makes less of an impression than the District Governor of Adam Kruszewski.
All in all, then, an interesting if only fitfully compelling resurrection.
Gianni di Parigi
The third of this year’s Wexford Festival operas prolongs the longest love-affair the festival has ever had. Donizetti was prolific and reliable and he’s been heard more than any other composer at Wexford. Don Pasqualeeven featured twice, and one of his works was done in two different versions, as both L’ajo nell’ imbarazzoand Don Gregorio.
His Gianni di Parigi, promising audiences more of what they already know they love, has sold more seats than either of this year’s other offerings.
The Wexford production, a handsome looking affair directed by Federico Grazzini, with sets by Tiziano Santi and costumes by Valeria Donata Bettella, is not actually new. It was seen at the Festival della Valle d’Itria in Martina Franca in July 2010, when the ticket prices ranged from €14 to €30 rather than Wexford’s €25 to €130.
The setting is updated from the inn of the original to an early 20th-century hotel – think Visconti’s Death in Veniceand you’ll be on the right track – where the staff are comically balletic, and the hotel’s resources are being sought by two different parties.
The Principessa di Navarra (on her way to marry the Dauphin of France) actually has a booking, and late arrival Gianni di Parigi (actually the Dauphin in disguise, wanting to check her out in advance of the wedding) is ready to pay anything to see how she’ll respond to unwelcome disruption.
But, surprise, surprise, she’s actually been warned about his ploy in advance, plays sweet and compliant – much to the disgust of her steward – and all works out happily in the end.
It’s the kind of thing one imagines that Donizetti could have written in his sleep, and the Wexford production is kept lively in the pit by Giacomo Sagripanti (though the sparkle is limited) as well as on stage.
Soprano Zuzana Markova is a capable, vocally agile and high-flying Principessa, altogether more appealing in delivery than the Gianni di Parigi of tenor Edgardo Rocha, ready and secure in his high notes, but tending to press where he needn’t, and showing little real lyricism.
The vocal attractions in the secondary pair of lovers, soprano Fiona Murphy (as the hotelier’s daughter, Lorezza) and mezzo soprano Lucia Cirillo (in the trousers role of the Dauphin’s page, Oliveiro), go the other way, with Cirillo’s musical alertness winning the day. There’s also a nice turn from bass Alessandro Spina as the hotelier, Pedrigo.
Festival continues until November 5