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Maria Kanyova in Ghosts of Versailles, Wexford Festival Opera 2009 [Photo by Patrick Redmond courtesy of Wexford Festival]
29 Dec 2009

58th Wexford Festival Opera

David Agler must be feeling a trifle unlucky. Having in 2005 taken over the reins of a flourishing, internationally renowned opera festival, with a stylish new opera house in the planning and the Irish economy booming, his hopes must been high; but in the event the Canadian’s first few years as Artistic Director of the Wexford Festival Opera have been far from plain-sailing.

58th Wexford Festival Opera, 21 October — 1 November 2009

Above: Maria Kanyova in Ghosts of Versailles, Wexford Festival Opera 2009 [Photo by Patrick Redmond courtesy of Wexford Festival]


The re-build itself necessitated some inventive venue re-allocation, the Dun Mhuire Hall housing a reduced festival in 2006; while the logistics of transporting artists, punters, caterers et al. to St Johnston’s Castle for the June festival in 2007 must have caused a few headaches. Still, the giant space-age balloon in which that summer festival was — surprisingly successfully — housed, and the other difficulties, inconveniences and conundrums along the way, could all presumably be borne because of the light at the end of the tunnel: the stunning new opera house ingeniously constructed on the site of the old. However, just one year after its justly celebrated re-opening, Wexford found itself in the press for less appealing reasons — rumours of a proposed merger with Dublin-based Opera Ireland and the touring Opera Theatre Company (now, it seems, put aside, however temporarily). The problem: the global credit crunch and bankrupt Irish bankers. The result: a festival reduced to just 12 days, with one of Agler’s most successful innovations — the one-act matinées — abandoned or re-deployed as ‘replacements’ for previously proposed main works.

In the event, despite the gloom-laden reports in the weeks leading up to the 2009 festival, opera and music were still at the fore, and standards — of singing, playing and conducting — were pleasingly high, although this year’s three operas offered strikingly different theatrical experiences.

The festival opened with John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, a co-production with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, one which is hoped to be the first of many in an ongoing artistic relationship with the American opera house. Commissioned in 1980, completed in 1987, and first performed with a starry cast at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York in 1991, Corigliano’s gargantuan opera spans three worlds: the historical milieu of the French Revolution, the spirit world of those executed in its aftermath and who now haunt Versailles, and the theatrical domain of the third play in Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy, La Mère coupable, staged to entertain the ghosts. In this liminal hinterland, Beaumarchais re-writes ‘real’ and fictional history in order to spare Marie-Antoinette her bloody fate — and satisfy his own love for the tragic queen — only for her ultimately to acknowledge his love, refuse his aid and accept her destiny.

Confused? The antics of Susanna and Figaro as they seek to thwart the machinations of the political conniver Bégearss, the pantomime baddie, while retaining their own revolutionary integrity, interweave with the restaging of Marie Antoinette’s trial; indeed, Dr Who’s time-travelling antics seem rather tame in comparison. Theatrical and literary conceits abound, narrative frames accumulate, and when even Beaumarchais feels impelled to abandon his authorial rights, to enter his own story and manipulate events from within, we wonder just who is in the driving seat? Fortunately, James Robinson’s staging, with imaginative designs by Allen Moyer and James Schuette, brought some dramatic clarity where it seemed lacking in the libretto.

George van Bergin as Beaumarchais, was the dramatic mainstay of this performance. With a confident stage presence, sure sense of pace and timing, and assertive baritone which projected well, he kept the show on the road. Baritone Christopher Feigum enjoyed himself as Figaro, but was vocally a little underwhelming. The role of Marie Antoinette is an exhausting sing and Maria Kanyova acquitted herself well, in an often touching and always committed portrayal. A tender moment of reprieve from the melodrama was supplied by the beautiful duet for Cherubino (Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy) and Rosina (Sri Lankan soprano Kishani Jayasinghe).

Purporting to be a ‘grand opera bouffe’ — a first hint of genre dysfunction, perhaps — The Ghosts of Versailles is an eclectic pick-and-mix encompassing a multitude of dramatic modes: comedy and tragedy, melodrama and farce, satire and sentimentality. Corigliano has adopted a similarly diverse range of musical styles — are they intended to complement the action, or simply to demonstrate his own facile imitative skills? There are snatches of pseudo Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Wagner, Barber, Britten … and, as the programme reveals, ‘Gregorian chant, North African Arabic traditions, the late eighteenth-century alla turca operas, French grand opera, Broadway and serialism’. In short, there is just too much on offer for the eye and ear. Though cleverly assembled, this is a musical hotch-potch. Parodies and pastiche wear irritatingly thin; in particular, the burlesque Turkish finale to Act I, originally written as a vehicle for Marilyn Horne, was repetitive, ridiculous and dramatically superfluous. What of Corigliano’s own music? There are a few modernist twists and clichés, some atmospheric orchestral interludes poignantly suggestive of the ghosts’ spiritual terrain, but on the whole the writing is repetitive and bland. Synthesiser does not sit happily alongside harpsichord. By turns intriguing and imaginative, perplexing and irksome, this was certainly a committed, intelligent and engaging staging of a work which ultimately fails to convince.

The double-bill, Une education manqué by Emmanuel Chabrier and La Cambiale di matrimonio by Rossini, offered an opportunity to hear two seldom performed but richly deserving works. Originally planned as one-act matinées in the Short Works programme, the scrapping of the latter saw the works placed on the main stage. Theatrically slight but musically neat, there is no reason why this double-bill, sharing themes of sex and marriage, should not succeed, but it needs a surer hand than director Roberto Recchio was able to offer.

The Chabrier in particular has a charming score, and conductor Christopher Frankin made the colours sparkle to match the glitter and glamour of Lorenzo Cutuli’s stylish set and Claudia Pernigotti’s elaborate period costumes. And we were once more treated to the sweet blend of Kishani Jayasinghe and Paula Murrihy, as Gontran and Hélène, the innocent newly-weds who are uncertain as to what should happen on their wedding night. Jayasinghe enjoyed the trouser role of Gontran, and as Master Pausanias, the tipsy tutor who has neglected to instruct his charge in the essential matters of life, bass baritone Luca Dall’Amico blustered and bluffed suitably. The attractive staging owed no small debt to Rosenkavalier but, despite some pleasant singing, the characters themselves lacked genuine sympathetic qualities. The lifeless, wooden acting murdered any hint of sexual frisson or sophistication in Chabrier’s score. Moreover, the diction was dreadfully poor — it was hard to determine the language let alone particular words — which makes one wonder why French singers were not engaged.

If Recchio’s Chabrier was direction-less, his account of Rossini’s one-act farce La Cambiale di matrimonio suffered from a surfeit of directorial manhandling, much of it totally unfathomable. Rossini sets out to ridicule the commercial motives underpinning the nineteenth-century bourgeois marriage. The blank matrimonial bill of the title is sent to the English merchant, Tobias Mill, by an eccentric Canadian businessman, Mr Slook. Mill tries to marry off his daughter, against her wishes; her penniless lover, Edoardo, endeavours to thwart the plans, while Slook gets increasingly fed up with the European way of doing things. It’s a case of the Old World versus the New; but this doesn’t explain Recchio’s decision to update the action to 2049, flashing quotations from Miranda’s ‘Brave New World’ speech from The Tempest and snippets from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World across the backdrop and plastering the singers’ foreheads with barcodes. Everything and everyone is presumably ‘up for sale’; but who would buy these ugly, garish specimens, with their ghastly metallic costumes and clunky robotic movements. The muddled ensembles suggested that the singers didn’t understand what it was all about either. The singing was pretty poor too. As Fanny, Pervin Chakar shouted at full volume throughout, while Vittorio Prato’s Slook could hardly be heard. The genetic modification of this opera produced a real monster.

Thank goodness, then, for the last of Wexford’s productions, Donizetti’s late opera Maria Padilla, which confirmed what previous Wexford Festivals have suggested: that this composer can always be relied upon to provide the goods when an ‘unjustly neglected master-piece’ is required.

The opera tells the tragedy of Maria Padilla, seduced by the cruel Don Pedro of Castile, to the despair of her father, Don Ruiz, whose complaints about his daughter’s loss of honour earn him a bloody beating by the royal henchmen. Maligned by the King’s courtiers, Maria is finally betrayed by the regent himself, when he marries a French princess in order to meet the popular demand for a more politically acceptable union.

The singing was uniformly superb, but in the title role, the American soprano Barbara Quintiliani earned every superlative. Quintiliani needed all the resources of her formidable technique for this incredibly demanding role; and she positively relished the fiendish coloratura, while descending easily into a dark chest register. Her varied palette was equalled by a full emotional range. Indeed, she seemed totally at ease throughout, spinning a stream of golden sound, effortlessly negotiating leaps and extremes, and demonstrating superhuman stamina and breath control. Quintiliani deserves superstar status: unfortunately her physical size may not endear her to a media which prefers their sopranos more svelte and photo-shoot-friendly, but such a talent can surely not be kept in the shadows for long. She was admirably partnered here by mezzo-soprano Ketevan Kemokldize, singing the role of Ines, Maria’s sister, and the accomplishments of the ladies were matched by the two male leads, Italian baritone Marco Caria as Don Pedro and Welsh tenor Adriano Grazini as Don Ruiz, whose idiomatic bel canto singing was stylish and assured, if a little unvaried. The role of Ruiz is an interesting role, for it is surely one of the few for an elderly tenor in this repertoire. Grazini excelled in Act 3, in a powerful and affecting scene where Maria futilely attempts to comfort him in the madness which has followed his punishment and humiliation.

Sadly the director, Marco Gandini, seemed determined to dilute the emotional power and dramatic intensity of the work. The set designs of Mauro Tinti cluttered the set, first with a mountain of masonry and debris, then with endless rows of chairs and finally in Act 3 with some bizarre floating corpses … all of which necessitated much obstacle-climbing and prop-shifting, weakening the dramatic focus and momentum.

The staging of the ending was equally perplexing. The programme tells us that when Maria confronts Don Pedro in the final scene he renounces his French princess, only for Maria to fall ‘lifeless at his feet’. Not here though. Gandini obviously thought he knew better than composer and librettist: he decided that it was Pedro’s new queen, Bianca, who should die — presumably in shock at the sight of Maria — thereby enabling a fairy-tale reconciliation and ‘happy-ever-after’ resolution, an incongruous conclusion accompanied by music which speaks of menace, despair and death. Fortunately, the conductor had the measure of the work. This was controlled, confident conducting from David Agler, who demonstrated impressive command of both the whole dramatic shape and the musical details. It was by far the most musically satisfying offering of this year’s festival.

The Short Works may have fallen by the wayside but there was plenty of other musical fare on offer — including the daily lunchtime recitals in St. Iberius’ Church. Kishani Jayasinghe enjoyed her opportunity to entertain the locals, revealing a dusky lower register in Britten’s song cycle On This Island and, despite some problems with diction, an instinctive feeling for the syncopated, jazz-inspired rhythms. She indulged her vivacious sense of fun with idiomatic renditions of the lighter end of the repertoire, ‘Somebody Loves Me’ and ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’ being well-received.

During their shared recital, Irish singers Owen Gilhooly (baritone) and Paula Murrily (mezzo-soprano) delivered outstanding renditions of songs by Brahms and Duparc, before inviting the audience to join them in some more homespun melodies — fortunately for Gilhooly, the amateurs knew the words better than he did!

There were some innovations too. A ‘Postcard from America’ was one of three such location-inspired entertainments (Prague and Italy being the other geographical hotspots) performed in the upper gallery at Greenacres, the local wine emporium/art gallery. This was an impressive venue for a superbly compiled sequence, put together by Curt Pajer (Head of the Music Staff of Wexford, Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Toledo Opera), which gave many of the young singers a chance to indulge their more smoochy, glitzy sides — we were treated to a string of hits from Bernstein, Weill, Gershwin, and wowed with the impassioned final chorus from Candide, a fittingly triumphant end which raised the roof of Greenacres.

With announcements that next season’s festival will be similarly curtailed, it’s worth remembering that such ‘small-scale’ music-making is the heart, and often the best, of Wexford — local enthusiasts, young talent, everyone obviously relishing the music-making Long may it continue!

Claire Seymour

Click here for a gallery of productions.

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