Wexford Festival Opera Review: Don Bucefalo

Too much commotion and too many gags sometimes smother the froth of the music

 Filippo Fontana in Don Bucefalo. Photograph: Clive Barda/ArenaPAL

Filippo Fontana in Don Bucefalo. Photograph: Clive Barda/ArenaPAL


Wexford Festival Opera
Don Bucefalo 

Antonio Cagnoni’s Don Bucefalo, is not new to Ireland. Alfred Loewenberg’s Annals of Opera lists a Dublin production for September 1860, and the Theatre Royal performances were advertised in this newspaper.

It seems unlikely that the whole opera was performed. It was not the only work on the Dublin bill, but was sandwiched between Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (“First time in Dublin”) and the last scene of Bellini’s La sonnambula. One of the advertisements helpfully summarises the opera as “a Composer at his first rehearsal”.

Don Bucefalo, which was premièred in Milan in 1847, held the stage in Italy for four decades, and Cagnoni was well enough regarded in his own day to be one of 13 composers (including Verdi) who contributed to a Requiem in memory of Rossini in 1869.

Don Bucefalo is a comic tale of crossed lovers interwoven with the friction and vanities that arise during the mounting of an absurdly amateurish amateur opera production.

The work was the 19-year-old Cagnoni’s graduation piece and shows a precocious grasp of Italian comic opera style. There’s an abundance of charm, vocal fireworks aplenty, and some felicitous orchestration. The lighter moments work better than the sentimental ones, and the high point is the music-master Bucefalo’s rehearsal of the real orchestra and the scatter-brained performance which follows.

Director Kevin Newbury and designers Vita Tzykun (set) and Jessica Jahn (costumes) update the work to the kind of sport cum theatre, multi-purpose recreational centre Newbury remembers from the amateur theatricals of his Maine childhood in the 1980s and 1990s.

The production is busy to the point of fussiness - too much commotion and too many gags sometimes smothering the froth of the music by layering too much action on top of it.

Under conductor Sergio Alapont the principals - Filippo Fontana (Don Bucefalo), Marie-Ève Munger (Rosa), Matthew Newlin (Belprato) and Jennifer Davis (Agata) - take to their tasks with brio and glee, with Munger providing the evening’s show-stopping vocal acrobatics.

Michael Dervan