Brilliant and shallow music


Riccardo Zandonai (1883-1944), composer of I Cavalieri di Ekebu, is the best-known of the three composers featured in the main programme of this year's Wexford Festival. The powerful publishers, Ricordi, regarded him as the natural successor to Puccini, and his d'Annunziobased Francesca da Rimini (1914) is still performed in his native Italy.

I Cavalieri di Ekebu (1925), after a novel by the Nobel prize-winning Swedish writer Selma Lagerlof, is about the fate of an alcohol-sodden expastor, Giosta Berling. His ultimate redemption is achieved in spite of bartering his soul with the devil and an investiture as one of the Knights of Ekebu. This motley crew runs a forge under a strange dominatrix-like woman, La Comandante, who has herself agreed a satanic pact to sacrifice a knight a year in return for her worldly power.

With Francesco Calcagnini's spare, black sets (miniature scenic representations hanging in display-cases), an odd mixture of costumes by Hilary Lewis (what is it that brings those girls to stand in their slips in the snow?) and the typically challenging obfuscation of Vincenzo Raponi's lighting, Gabriele Vacis's direction doesn't actually do a great deal to illuminate the opera's intricacies of narrative or relationship.

The principals, tenor Dario Volonte as Giosta and mezzo soprano Francesca Franci as the riding crop-equipped La Comandante, sing with lusty urgency, mostly registering only emotions above a high level of intensity; Volonte, thrilling in climax, does spend uncomfortable moments off the note. Soprano Alida Barbasini as the love interest, Anna, is more pliable, and two Russians, the stentorian baritone Victor Chernomortzev and the bass Maxim Mikhailov, offer vivid characterisations as the leading knight, Cristiano, and the grim reaper figure of Sintram. In the small role of Liecrona, Maltese tenor, Joseph Calleja, handles himself with a musicianly lyricism that serves to remind one how narrowly attitudinised most of the rest of the singing actually is. And the chorus, when it feels called to, carouses with the unalloyed enthusiasm of Welsh rugby supporters.

Zandonai stirs up the heady ingredients of the plot with filmic glee. Daniele Callegari conducts the cunningly orchestrated concoction with such sweep that you would think the NSO playing in the pit was twice as large as the number that can be accommodated there. The composer may have set himself a less demanding task than either Gomes in Fosca or Haas in Sarlatan. His music is both brilliant and shallow. But its immediacy and effectiveness are undeniable. The Wexford Opera Festival continues until November 1st. To book, phone 05322240.