David Agler's 15-year reign as artistic director of Wexford Festival Opera comes to an end this year. His length of tenure puts him on a par with the festival's founding artistic director, Tom Walsh. Walsh was at the helm a year longer, but in one of those years there was no festival while the Theatre Royal, the festival's then home, was closed for reconstruction in 1960.
Wexford did not settle on an annual offering of three productions until 1963, so Agler’s record of 45 productions dwarfs Walsh’s 29. That’s without including the Agler years’ piano-accompanied, ShortWorks productions, which usually come in threes, too.
Agler has had an assistant since his first festival in 2005. And that assistant, Rosetta Cucchi, was announced earlier this year as his successor. Cucchi's association with Wexford goes back before the Agler years, to 1995, when the then incoming artistic director, Agler's predecessor, Luigi Ferrari, had hired her as a répétiteur.
She explains her arrival in a way that will be well-known to anyone familiar with the nature of the festival’s home on Wexford’s High Street. “Luigi heard me in Reggio Emilia playing Candide. He asked me to work in Pesaro, where he was artistic director as well [at the Rossini Opera Festival] and then to come to Wexford. In 1995 I arrived in the town, went to High Street, and couldn’t see any theatre.”
The festival’s original venue, the Theatre Royal, was invisible in the streetscape, and the entrance to its 2008 replacement, now called the National Opera House, has been kept just as inconspicuous. “I thought I was in the wrong place. Then I went inside and it was wonderful.”
Rossini is a kind of curse in my life. He's always there. Or a benediction. I don't know.
She worked on Mascagni’s Iris, and was one of the pianists in a concert performance of Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle. Her passion for the stage, she says, had ignited already. “It had studied theatre at university. I needed to do something different. Luigi gave me the opportunity in a ShortWork, though they were called Opera Scenes at that time. I did La scala di seta by Rossini, and then, later, La traviata. Rossini is a kind of curse in my life. He’s always there. Or a benediction. I don’t know.”
In 2004, Ferrari's last season, she directed one of the main operas, Prinzessin Brambilla by German composer Walter Braunfels (1882-1954), whose works featured on the Nazi's list of degenerate music. His 1920 opera Die Vögel, was recorded in the 1990s for Decca's highly-regarded Entartete Musik series, which focused on composers whose work was banned in the Third Reich.
Agler invited Cucchi to become his assistant, and her production of this year’s double bill — Andrew Synnott’s La cucina and Rossini’s Adina — will be the sixth time her work has featured on Wexford’s main stage.
She describes herself as “very attached” to her Irish festival. “It’s very different from Italy. The people are different and the same at the same time. It’s a different culture. But there’s the same attitude about being warm and welcoming. This I like very much.”
She says her arrival in Wexford was “like coming to my Brigadoon, my special Brigadoon? You know what a Brigadoon is? You remember the musical where somebody went into the woods, and suddenly a beautiful little village appeared on the path. And in one night it disappeared as well. It’s like Wexford. Appear, and then disappear.”
In Italy she became artistic director of the Lugo Opera Festival and of what she calls "my orchestra in Italy" — the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini run by the Arturo Toscanini Foundation in Parma. "It brought me to a lot of symphonic music, and also a lot of operatic music". The orchestra plays at the annual Festival Verdi Parma, in that city's Teatro Regio.
She thinks she landed her new Wexford role “because in my person they could bring together two things. The knowledge of what Wexford is, the knowledge of the inside things of Wexford, the volunteers, the management, the tradition, and the spirit. And in the vision that I gave to them, they also saw an innovative way of thinking about Wexford. The two things combined was my winning ticket.”
She was still in Wexford, at last year’s festival, when she got the news of her success. “I went on the stage of the theatre, and you know there is a superstition that you have to knock three times on the wood of the stage before you leave the house. There’s a ghost who will be upset if you don’t. So I knocked three times, and experienced a flood of memories of the new theatre and the old Theatre Royal, more than 20 years, you know. It was emotional.”
She’s lived and worked through two very different artistic regimes at the festival. But she sees the goal as always having been the same, “the researching not only of rare opera, but also of good talent”.
She reels off a list of singers who sang in Wexford when they were young and now grace the stages of the world's great opera houses. "I remember Juan Diego Flórez when I arrived here. He was 21 and almost a nobody. Or Daniela Barcellona, or Joseph Calleja, or Ermonela Jaho. I did my first Traviata with Ermonela Jaho. And earlier this year she was in Covent Garden doing another Traviata. She phoned me and said, I still remember our first Traviata in the old White's Hotel.
“This is how you become friends with a singer. And the singers will be always faithful to Wexford, will come back, will remember Wexford for something which helped them to fly. I hope to continue to reach this goal, to continue to raise new young talent from everywhere, from Ireland and from abroad.”
Her vision is to be “faithful to the fact that Wexford is about rare opera. Our three main-stage operas will remain rare, probably even become more rare that now. I’m doing research in order to find jewels that have not been done before, or at least have only been done before in the distant past.” Agler’s last festival was originally to have featured Weber’s Der Freischütz, which would have marked a move towards much more mainstream work.
We are living in a world where opera is planned in advance.
“I will have a season theme, which has never been done before in Wexford. I can tell you that the theme of 2020 will be Shakespeare. I will plan further ahead, because for me this is very important, We are living in a world where opera is planned in advance. So I will plan in advance at least two years.” She’s ready with the 2021 programme but won’t divulge it yet.
Her other innovations are an academy for singers, and a composer in residence. She promises "great teachers" for the academy and has set up partnerships with the academies of Pesaro's Rossini Opera Festival (Pesaro is her home town) and Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre. She makes no bones about her pride in the speed with which these organisations agreed to the collaboration.
She's hoping to be able to generate touring activity from the academy, and the singers of the academy will also have the benefit of one of her other innovations, a composer in residence. The first composer, next year, will be Andrew Synnott, whose Dubliners was seen in the festival's ShortWorks strand in 2017, and who this year becomes the first living Irish composer to have a work on the festival's main stage. Cucchi herself directs the double bill of Synnott's La cucina (for which she also provided the libretto) and Rossini's Adina.
She would also love “to bring Wexford somewhere else. We do really peculiar productions of something that’s never been seen. It would be good at some point to say, Wexford is going to Japan. Ireland is presenting Wexford in China. I would love that. It’s not impossible. We have the quality to do it. It’s just about having the support to do it.”
Wexford has ventured away from the South East in the past. The 1982 production of Massenet’s Grisélidis was toured, with a different cast and conductor, to Limerick, Galway and Sligo in May 1983. The tour was a one-off, though, for a number of years from the late 1980s, festival productions were taken to London for concert performances at the South Bank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall.
I like the idea that Wexford is opera but not only opera. It is art. It is poetry.
Cucchi says she would like the festival “to be open to the arts in general. I like the idea that Wexford is opera but not only opera. It is art. It is poetry. This is why I chose such a specific theme. Shakespeare is not only music. Shakespeare is everything. I would love for Wexford to open this door.”
In fact, when the festival was founded in 1951 it was the Wexford Festival of Music and the Arts, and was only renamed Wexford Festival Opera in 1962. And up until the reign of Luigi Ferrari the festival had a sometimes wide-ranging series of chamber music concerts and instrumental recitals. Ferrari introduced instead a series of festival-long lunchtime vocal recitals, given by members of the company.
Cucchi is also eyeing a younger audience. Unlike Agler, who behaved like a hermit with an aversion to the world of Irish opera and theatre, Cucchi has been networking with Italian brio. She has noted how young the audience of the Dublin Theatre Festival is by comparison with Wexford. She wants to find a way to Wexford for those people.
“The idea is to have a sub-festival which I will call WFO, and which will also be for young people. It’s time to develop.”
Wexford Festival Opera runs from Tuesday, October 22nd, to Sunday, November 3rd. wexfordopera.com