Experienced insider takes reins at Wexford Festival Opera

Rosetta Cucchi will succeed David Agler as artistic director

Rosetta Cucchi’s long connection to the festival goes back to 1995

Rosetta Cucchi’s long connection to the festival goes back to 1995

 

There’s been white smoke down in the southeast. Wexford Festival Opera has announced that Rosetta Cucchi will succeed David Agler as artistic director and 2020 will be the first festival she will plan. 

Cucchi’s long connection with the festival goes back to 1995 when the then artistic director, Luigi Ferrari, brought her in as a répétiteur. She also worked as accompanist in the lunchtime vocal recitals that Ferrari introduced (partnering Juan Diego Flórez in that capacity in 1996) and became a music director for the opera scenes. From 1999 she also directed opera scenes while retaining the duties of music director, and later directed opera scenes in her own right, without the responsibility for playing piano at these popular, piano-accompanied, cut-down productions of mostly popular operas.

She upgraded from opera scenes to the main stage in Ferrari’s last year, 2004, for Braunfels’s Prinzessin Brambilla, a production that was recorded live and issued on CD by Marco Polo. She also directed Pedrotti’s Tutti in maschera in 2008, Cilea’s L’Arlesiana in 2012, Mariotte’s Salomé in 2014 and Alfano’s Risurrezione in 2017. From the 2007 festival she was assistant to the artistic director, and has been associate to the artistic director since 2013. 

So, simply put, Wexford could hardly have found a more experienced insider to succeed Agler. The interview process for the job began in September, and although it was not completed until after the festival ended in November, the hot rumours during the festival were that Agler’s successor would be female and – sometimes separately, sometimes in tandem – that Cucchi was the woman who would get the job. 

Uncertain times

Last week I speculated that Wexford’s 2019 shift in repertoire to allow in as well-known a work as Weber’s Der Freischütz, and the decision to reduce the length of the festival, were essentially protective measures. Wexford has struggled and failed to restore the 18-day festivals that were its norm before opening the National Opera House, and these are uncertain times. Britain is Wexford’s largest non-Irish market and Brexit is a big and threatening unknown. The caution behind choosing a safe pair of hands is certainly prudent.

The 2019 choice is a far cry from the mid 1960s when the festival went through the trauma of parting company with its founding director Tom Walshe. His successor was to be Walter Legge, husband of the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and one of the greatest of record producers of his or any other time.

On January 7th, 1967, Legge wrote enthusiastically to a colleague, Dorle Soria, co-founder of Angel Records: “FASTEN YOUR SEATBELTS! I have accepted the artistic directorship of the Wexford Festival. Never heard of it? You will! The theatre is over 100 years old, seats 480 people and specializes in unfamiliar opera. They have given people like Cossotto, Aragall, and Sciutti their first steps to international fame.” 

Three weeks later The Irish Times’s front page carried news of Legge’s resignation on health grounds – he had had a heart attack. He cabled his resignation on a Thursday, and the Wexford Festival Council’s appointment of his successor, 25-year-old Brian Dickie, was in the newspapers the following Saturday. 

The decisiveness and daring of the mid-1960s is not a feature of today’s festival. Cucchi knows Wexford inside out and probably has a perspective from more levels within the organisation and over a longer period of time than anyone else who was in for the job. 

Change ahead?

She has been artistic director of another rare opera festival, in Lugo in her native Italy. She has an active directing career and has directed productions around Europe as well as in North and South America. She even has direct experience the professional orchestral world. From 1991 to 1994 she was principal pianist of the RAI National Symphony Orchestra in Rome.

Even though her appointment seems to have taken an unconscionably long time – applications closed in July – she still has more time in hand than either Luigi Ferrari or David Agler had when they took up the reins. Ferrari’s appointment was announced the March before his predecessor Elaine Padmore’s last festival, and Agler’s appointment just a month before Ferrari’s departure. 

There’s nothing much in Cucchi’s CV to suggest that she has had much engagement with baroque opera, an area of repertoire that Wexford exited decades ago, or that she has independently engaged with contemporary work and English-language work the way David Agler has – she has of course been fully engaged with Agler’s choices through her role as his assistant and associate at Wexford. 

My hope was that Wexford would hire an outsider who might take it in new directions. It is possible that new directions are exactly what Cucchi has persuaded the festival it needs. On the other hand, it’s said that the best predictor of future behaviour is relevant past behaviour. The festival’s formula has hardly changed in more than 20 years. Steady as she goes would seem to be the most likely outcome of the new appointment.

mdervan@irishtimes.com

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