In late October it takes something big to draw the attention of opera lovers away from the activities of the Wexford Festival. But it does happen. Last year it was the tour of the NI Opera/Wide Open Opera production of Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest, which went on to win the director and designer Antony McDonald the prize for best costumes in The Irish Times Theatre Awards.
This year it was a star singer at the National Concert Hall, someone with a Wexford connection that goes back nearly 20 years. It was in 1996 that the then little-known Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez appeared in the role of George in Meyerbeer's L'Étoile du Nord.
This was one of the Wexford productions that made it on to CD through the festival's relationship with the Marco Polo label. So you can still check out his amusing alternation of repeated high notes with soprano Darina Takova's Prascovia at the end of act one. It will probably bring a smile to your face, and maybe a hankering after the rather more famous and altogether more impressive string of high notes in the notoriously challenging aria Ah! Mes Amis – with its nine high Cs – from Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment.
I’m sure many of Flórez’s admirers at the NCH on Saturday were hoping for that aria to come their way as an encore. But, even though it would have fitted into the French theme of the evening (arias by Bizet, Delibes, Massenet, Donizetti, Berlioz, Gounod, Offenbach), it was not on offer.
However, no one can have gone away feeling short-changed. Flórez’s stage presence is modest rather than flamboyant. He is the antithesis of a showman. His voice has a pleasing immediacy. His tone is forward and highly focused, as responsive as a sports car. The delivery is stylish, dramatically apt and musically true.
The effect is not, as with many a singer, that Flórez seems to take control of and dominate the music. Instead, he – or, rather, his voice – fully becomes the music.
The RTÉ Concert Orchestra played like angels for conductor Sebastiano Rolli, not just in the shape-changing adaptability of their partnership with the singer, but also in the verve and colour they brought to the evening's orchestral fillers. And if the audience didn't get quite the dose of high Cs they might have been hoping for, they did get a perfectly timed and sculpted off-topic Italian classic, Verdi's La Donna è Mobile.
On the subject of L'Étoile du Nord, I remember hearing around the time the CD came out that the compilation of the recording from the live performances in Wexford involved about 5,000 digital edits. And that brings to mind a statistic that has stuck in my head for years: that the editing of Georg Solti's 1969 studio recording of Richard Strauss's Rosenkavalier for Decca ran to 2,000 man hours.
A great show missed
Getting back to Dublin from Wexford to hear Flórez meant that I missed one of this year's Wexford Festival ShortWorks productions, Rossini's La Cenerentola, directed by Roberto Recchia. I was given a strong recommendation to go, on the strength of the performance of Kate Allen in the title role, and reports suggest that the recommendation was spot on.
Sadly I didn't find much to get excited about in the other ShortWorks productions, a double bill of Holst's The Wandering Scholar and Gilbert & Sullivan's Trial by Jury (directed by Conor Hanratty), and Puccini's Il Tabarro, sung in Italian with surtitles (directed by Dafydd Williams).
Puccini’s tale of the tragic love of Luigi (Alexandros Tsilogiannis), a Parisian stevedore, for Giorgetta (Maria Kozlova), the wife of a barge owner, came off better in the pared-back staging in White’s Hotel, with piano accompaniment from Andrea Grant.
The Holst and Sullivan were oversold by the singers, with too much effort, too much sound and not enough clarity. I’m always reminded of small-engined cars when I hear this kind of singing, and find myself wishing for a higher gear to ameliorate the high-revving stress that doesn’t quite deliver the goods. The pattern and patter of Gilbert’s witty words, and Sullivan’s intentionally doggerelish accompaniments depend on deft rhythmic control and sharp comic timing to make their full effect. One of the consequences of what you might call heavy elbow-grease vocal production is to remove that precision.
Let us in on the secret
One of the mysteries of the Wexford Festival over the years has been the secrecy surrounding the details of its upcoming repertoire. It used to be that the end of each festival saw the announcement of the following year’s repertoire, and any leaks in advance of that were strongly frowned upon.
If the festival felt it was guaranteed to sell out year after year – as it seemed to be for a while – then the game probably made a certain amount of sense. Keep the fans in suspense, build up tension, and maybe create a rush for tickets.
In recent years, even in its reduced format (down to 12 days from 18), the festival has had to work harder to sell its seats. And having publicity material about next year’s repertoire available from the start of the festival, as is now the practice, is a good idea. At the very least it gives the operatic community at this year’s festival a chance to exchange impressions and opinions and whet their appetites for what’s coming up.
The 2015 festival will open on October 21st, with a second Wexford outing for English composer Frederick Delius. His Koanga, set on a Mississippi plantation in Louisiana, has a cast that includes voodoo priests, and was first produced (in German rather than English) in Elberfeld in 1904.
Pietro Mascagni began his Guglielmo Ratcliff while still a student, in 1882, and worked on it for six years before he put it aside. He didn't actually complete it until 1894, four years after the success of his Cavalleria Rusticana had established his international reputation. Guglielmo Ratcliff will be the fourth of his operas to be heard in Wexford.
The final work in the 2015 line-up is Ferdinand Hérold's most highly-regarded opera, Le Pré aux Clercs, written in 1832, a year later than his Zampa, which featured at Wexford in 1993. Casts and creative times will be announced at a later date, and general booking will open on March 28th.