Wexford Festival Opera: Curtain up on a historic 70th year

Director Rosetta Cucchi is looking forward to anniversary celebrations after a tough lockdown

It's been a tough 13 months in the arts, not just in Ireland, but also in Italy, where Wexford Festival Opera's artistic director, Rosetta Cucchi, lives. "With the theatres closed it hasn't been easy," she says. "But, actually, I've recently completed a very exciting project. We made an opera movie, of Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur. " The opera, which dates from 1902, is named after the 18th century French actress Adrienne Lecouvreur, who was celebrated for the naturalism of her style. "We put together the worlds of opera and theatre. We were working in the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, and we decided to use not only the stage but the whole theatre. We turned the whole space into our set, the corridors, the boxes, the foyers. We made a real movie in the 18th century theatre. It was a step forward in the idea of making movie from an opera."

At the moment she is working on La Griselda by Alessandro Scarlatti (father of Domenico, celebrated for his harpsichord sonatas) for performance in July, "and we will at last be able to do it before a live audience" she says. "We are also planning to do a short movie about Griselda that will take place in the streets of Martina Franca [in the heel of Italy], a beautiful place, all white like Lecce [which is known as the Florence of the South], and makes you feel you're in the past. Now that the world is moving again, this is a relief for artists. It's like fresh air."

Italy, she believes, was very pro-active in putting together shows and streaming. In the first period of the pandemic, “the theatres never stopped. They couldn’t allow the public to come in. But concerts and operas continued. It was great for Italian artists and European artists to be able to work, to have the experience of being on stage. You need to be very careful, but theatre is a safe place”. She contrasts work in theatre with the large crowd jostling in Milan’s Piazza del Duomo in celebration after a recent Inter football victory. “More than 50 people worked on Adriana Lecouvreur. No one got infected.” She’s not sure that theatre will ever be the same again, “but we cannot stay closed”.

Operatic life, obviously, has been seriously affected, even in the country where opera was born. “Singers could have thought about becoming waiters,” she says, “but the restaurants are closed. They had to reinvent themselves. Singers with a career at a certain level were fine. But singers at the beginning of their careers really were in big trouble”.

She was on the jury at an audition, recently, where she heard a lot of young singers: “The quality has gone down. At first I couldn’t understand why, and then I got it. For a year they have not really been operating their instrument. It’s like a footballer or a gymnast who may have exercised but not done it properly. The level of their technique has dropped. It’s very important that they have the opportunity to start working immediately. Otherwise it will continue to affect them.”

Wexford Festival Opera was very lucky last year. The pandemic was declared in March and there was time to adjust and regroup for the festival’s dates in Octover. The festival rescheduled the 2020 programme to 2021, and put an online and outdoor offering in its place.


The original, Shakespeare-themed 2020 schedule has again had to be compacted to take account of likely restrictions. “My arrival as artistic director in Wexford to plan the 2020 festival was a baptism of fire. And the day after we finished last October, Ireland closed again. We were really lucky to have been able to put something that the numbers for streaming and views say was successful.”

For 2021, “I needed to be optimistic,” she says. “Well, relatively.” She has kept last year’s original three operas, “but in reduced versions. We don’t know where we’re going to be in August, September or October. But certainly if I wait until July to decide, it will be too late. Show-business has to be planned earlier.” Audiences of 200 are as much as she is expecting to be able to accommodate when this year’s festival opens on Tuesday, October 19th.

Of this year's operas, the one that's closest to her heart is Edmea (1886) by Alfredo Catalani, the composer whose most famous opera, La Wally, provided the iconic aria for Jean-Jacques Beinix's 1981 movie, Diva. She has decided to give it a full staging, influenced in part by it's being due for performance in Parma in 2024 as part of a co-production deal.

"There's no direct connection with Shakespeare in the work beyond the fact that Cucchi herself finds the story very Shakespearean." She's also glad to give it a full production, because "it's conducted by our principal conductor, Francesco Cilluffo, who hasn't been really that lucky. We appointed him last year, and then all he got to conduct for us in 2020 was concerts".

French composer Ambroise Thomas's Le Songe d'une nuit d'été (A Midsummer Night's Dream) of 1850 "is a beautiful opera, and I'm so sorry not to be able to put it on fully-staged. We'll do it semi-staged, which will allow us to enjoy a real show. Maybe with a smaller set, but with set and costumes and movement". The opera is not based on the Shakespeare play but, to the consternation of many critics over the years, has Shakespeare himself as a character as well as Falstaff and Queen Elizabeth I. It has the distinction of being produced at the Théâtre Impérial de Compiègne in 1994 to mark the inauguration of the Channel Tunnel. Wexford presents the work in a revised version from 1886.

Karl Goldmark’s 1908 Ein Wintermärchen (A Winter’s Tale) “is the most Wagnerian of the three operas. The vocal lines are so beautiful in themselves, I thought let’s do it in concert form”.

Lunchtime concerts

Cucchi has commissioned a staff of musicologists to re-orchestrate the three operas. This is to observe social-distancing regulations in the pit of the National Opera House, where they don’t have the option for the players to swell out into space normally taken by seats in the stalls. The work that’s being done on the three scores, she says, “is not a reduction. It’s a proper re-orchestration”.

Beyond the three operas originally planned for 2020, there is another Shakespeare-themed work. Bellini’s 1830 I Capuleti e i Montecchi will be given in a production cast from the singers of the Wexford Factory, the festival’s professional development academy. She has decided to “bi-annualise” the factory, so the team of singers will be the same as last year, and some of them will also be appearing in smaller roles in the main operas.

I Capuleti e i Montecchi will be staged, but with a new version of the score for string quartet and piano made by the conductor Giuseppe Montesano. This production, which is directed by Conor Hanratty, may sound like one of the festival's short, afternoon presentations. But it's not. It's a full-length offering, and will get four performances on the main stage, two in the afternoon, two in the evening. "For the first time," she jokes, "the main stage will be like Vienna, with one production in the afternoon and another in the evening."

American soprano Angela Meade, who made a sensational Wexford debut in 2010, is returning for a special concert. Getting her back, says Cucchi, was not difficult. The singer has very special memories of her time in Wexford, because that's where she met her husband.

The series of lunchtime concerts, one of the festival’s features, is getting what might be seen as a major upgrade and will move from the intimacy of St Iberius Church to the main stage of the opera house. The move is to accommodate socially-distanced seating so that the singers can have a decent-sized audience.

This year, of course, is Wexford’s 70th anniversary, and Cucchi has planned a year of activity to begin in September. It will involve the current Wexford Factory, “and, eventually, the new Factory”, for which auditioning will take place in December or January. Her vision for the Factory is to broaden it to include stage managers and other opera professionals, including répétiteurs, “a category that is still thin in Ireland”. This fact is almost certainly explained by the limited amount of work that has historically been available. As Cucchi says, “the singers are only the first step”.

Wexford’s extended anniversary celebration will also include events around Europe, and Cucchi wants to use the anniversary “to enhance our long history. We need to be proud of it and use our history to look to the future. Just as we need to look at last year’s festival to bring what we have learnt from it to the future, we need to look at the 70 years young festival, to see what we have and haven’t learnt from this history, and make it better for the future”.

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