02 Nov 2010
Wexford Festival Opera 2010
After a rather lean 2009, the 59th Wexford Festival Opera season almost felt like a return to generous days of old.
Richard Taruskin entitled his 1988 polemical critique of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the context of historically informed performance, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’.
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
After a rather lean 2009, the 59th Wexford Festival Opera season almost felt like a return to generous days of old.
The Festival was extended from last year’s slightly reduced calendar to fifteen cram-packed days, the afternoon ‘Short Works’ programme was restored, and staged at the recently-refurbished, hyper-swish White’s Hotel — evoking memories of previous shows at the former ‘White’s Barn’, with queues of eager locals snaking down the narrow Wexford streets. The main productions were complemented by a diverse Fringe programme, and the 2010 seemed to offer something for everyone, from international opera aficionado to Wexford schoolchild.
Indeed, the uniformly strong casts, excellent orchestral playing and typically warm hospitality might have made one forget the backdrop of national austerity and frugality against which this improbable but uplifting Festival is mounted. Almost, but not quite. Built on the back of a seemingly buoyant economic outlook and fully justified operatic ambition, when it opened in 2008 Wexford’s stunning new opera house promised not only improved access, comfort and auditory richness, but also more opulent and adventurous stagings. However, while traditionally a forum for repertoire commonly classified as rare, unknown or unjustly languishing, this year quite understandable commercial pressures seem to have compelled Wexford to it play safe, offering lower-risk, even ‘child-friendly’ productions. Well-staged and enjoyable such shows may be, but a lack of ‘edge’ was palpable; and not all of this year’s repertory seemed entirely apt for a Festival which has spent sixty years establishing an idiosyncratic ‘niche’ in the international opera world.
Moreover, economic expediency has encouraged (forced?) artistic director David Agler to build on the relationship with Opera Theatre of St. Louis which was initiated by last year’s staging of The Ghosts of Versailles: two of this year’s productions have a link with St. Louis, and one imagines that there may be more co-productions in the years ahead.
Smetana’s Hubičke (‘The Kiss’) will be performed at St. Louis in 2012. A fairy-tale village romance, tinged with darkness — albeit of the faint, easily-dispatched kind — Smetana’s opera is a tuneful, folk-inspired affair seldom heard outside the composer’s native land, but previously staged at Wexford in 1984.
Following the death of his wife, Lukáš finds himself free to marry his childhood sweetheart, Vendulka. However, despite the qualified approval of her father, Paloucký Otec (who fears that the two lovers share a stubborn temperament which will jeopardise their happy union), and her own willingness to become a loving mother to Lukaš’ child, Vendulka is possessed by a powerful ethical impulse which drives her to refuse Lukáš’ kiss until after their marriage — thereby impelling her drunken ‘fiancée’ to seek solace in the open arms of the village tavern coquettes. Faced with such inconstancy, Vendulka determines to join a gang of local smugglers — as one would … Reprimanded by his brother, Tomeš, a repentant Lukáš’ vows to beg for Vendulka’s forgiveness. His promises are overheard by Matouš, the leader of the contrabands, who passes on the good news to Vendulka. Reassured, she eventually relaxes her stringent demands — only to find herself the victim of Lukáš’ own ‘moral integrity’, as he withholds, infuriatingly but only temporarily, his kiss.
Michael Gielata’s production, with sets by James Macnamara, somewhat gauchely recreates an ‘innocent’ rural world: strikingly green grass is skirted by an arching, panelled cyclorama which serves to hint at both domestic interior and forest enclave, effectively separating the intimate spaces from the open village milieu. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting juxtaposes vibrant oranges and cool blues, at times a rather simplistic reflection of day and night, but also effectively dramatising the abrupt changes of emotion as the central pair of lovers lurch from fervent passion to bitter alienation and back again.
Potentially there is much to appeal, musically, dramatically and visually; but there were several problems with this production. First, the costumes by Fabio Toblini were an odd mix of the formal and rustic: why were the men’s strictly knotted ties and smart business suits juxtaposed with the rural head-scarves, floral dresses and agricultural boots of the women? Moreover, this may be a ‘simple tale’, but that doesn’t mean that choreography is superfluous: yet, in the absence of any meaningful stage direction, the chorus floundered, lingering redundantly in straggly lines, clutching plastic sunflowers, or struggling to control giant strings of slippery smuggled sausages.
Fortunately, the singing was more engaging, not least the Vendulka of South African soprano, Pumeza Matshikiza, who may be a little unpolished, but who possesses a fresh open tone, and sincere dramatic commitment. She earnestly conveyed the honesty and fierce independence of the zealous peasant girl, and the Act 1 lullaby, when Vendulka vows to nurture Lukaš’ motherless child, truly touched the audience’s heart. As Lukaš, Slovak tenor Peter Berger - first passionate, then petulant, finally penitent — confidently strode the stage and easily dealt with the demands of the role, powerfully and clearly projecting to the far reaches of the auditorium. Mezzo-soprano Eliška Weissová was an assured Martinka (Vendulka’s adventurous aunt, who entices her into a smuggler’s career), focused and warm, avoiding stereotype; Russian soprano Ekaterina Bakanovà soared with clarity and conviction as Barče, the Maid who dreams of the freedom of the skylark; American bass Bradley Smoak was strong in the cameo role of Matouš. The only ‘weak link’ was BJiri Pribyl, as Vendulka’s father: an acclaimed young bass, he was perfectly adequate vocally, but his caricature of the aging patriarch — stooping, shuffling and posturing — was reminiscent of the worst of amateur dramatics.
The coordination between stage and pit was not always perfect, but conductor Jaroslav Kyzlink drew fine playing from his band, not least from the woodwind section, whose oboes and bassoons deftly recreated a folk ambience.
Sadly, despite spinning many an appealing melody, Smetana does not sustain conflict and momentum, and this production struggled to create sufficient dramatic energy in Act 2. Lukáš’ final ‘trick’ is over before one knows it, and there is no musical complement for the brief dramatic discomfort when he unsettles his betrothed by mimicking her own conscience-driven restraint. Overall, this was a pleasant enough evening on the ear, but presented little to convince one of the enduring merits of the work.
The second of the St. Louis collaborations was Peter Ash’s The Golden Ticket, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The story is comfortingly familiar — the composer and the librettist, Donald Sturrock, have essentially stuck to Dahl’s narrative — but the idiom is more disconcerting: for this work does not really know whether it wants to be opera, music theatre or pantomime.
Ash’s score assembles and arranges snatches recalling an array of twentieth-century composers, from Britten to Bernstein, Ravel to Sondeim. In Act 1, the woodwind/brass-dominated ensemble presents some punchy, percussive rhythms and textures, creating energy and pace as Charlie’s search for one of the five ‘Golden tickets’, which will allow him to enter Wonka’s fabulous factory of confectionary delights, becomes ever more desperate. Tender string solos add a sentimental touch. But, in Act 2 the score descends into schmaltzy mawkishness; flattened sevenths and rising appoggiaturas convey thwarted yearning, leaping major sevenths suggest worthy aspirations — all the ‘tricks of the Broadway trade’ are employed as Ash creates a syrupy orchestral slush. As the children journey through the factory’s secret chambers, the music abandons any dramatic pretensions and becomes simply a backdrop of assorted colours and flavours.
The purely decorative ‘busyness’ of the score creates additional difficulties: for while the singers tried hard to make themselves heard above the hectic textures — as conductor Timothy Redmond urged his brass section to ever greater brashness — even the amplified soprano of Michael Kepler Meo, as Charlie, was lost at times. Moreover, the amplification presented its own problems, as phrases which began in the lower register were entirely inaudible but frequently climbed to ear-piercingly strident climaxes.
Perhaps the inaudibility doesn’t matter too much, as Sturrock’s libretto is rather bland, drawing on Dahl’s own ‘Horrible Rhymes’ but not quite matching their disturbing surprises. Set to music, Dahl’s startling rhyming juxtapositions are watered down, and the lines lose their rhythmic bite. An incessant string of rhyming couplets offers little to shock — Augustus Gloop loves “indulging/see how my fat tummy’s bulging”; and “Nasty Veruca’s such a brute/We’ve thrown her down the rubbish chute”. The children have temper tantrums (“Daddy, I want one of those — Now!”) and, Disney-style, are comforted that all will be well if they just “close their eyes and imagine”.
One certainly could not accuse the cast of lack of commitment and there were some very fine performances, not least from bass-baritone Wayne Tigges in the prime role of Willa Wonka-Mr Know (the latter — Wonka’s alter ego who gently guides Charlie towards his destiny — being the creators’ only significant addition to Dahl). Tigges’ strong, buoyant bass and engaging stage presence provided a much-needed musical and dramatic focus. Of Charlie’s four grandparents, only Grandpa Joe is really distinguished from the other ancient, bedridden crones, and American tenor Frank Kelley successfully communicated Joe’s grandfatherly affection and still-youthful, lively wit. Enjoying their caricatures, the other geriatrics also doubled as the children’s grisly parents: Bradley Smoak (in the third of his four Wexford incarnations) was a convincingly indulgent Mr Beauregard; Canadian mezzo soprano Leslie Davis doubled as Mike Teavee’s hapless mother; and Irish soprano Miriam Murphy displayed a pure, ringing tone in Mrs Gloop’s long lines of despair as her Bunter-esque boy was swallowed by the confectionary canal.
There’s always a risk that adults playing petulant, pouting children will fail to convince, but here all four singers — all from across the Pond — gave persuasive, engaging performances. Soprano Kiera Duffy, as the gum-chewing cowgirl, Violet Beauregard, and mezzo soprano Abigail Nims, as the obnoxious spoilt Brat, Veruca Salt, were credibly appalling, rising to the vocal challenges of their respective roles with aplomb. American tenor nOah Stewart rolled convincingly around the stage, as the spherical chocoholic, Augustus Gloop. As commando-costumed, machine-gun slinging Mike Teavee, David Trudgen, a Canadian countertenor, startled with the power and precision of his striking coloratura flourishes and stratospheric runs, creating a disturbing vision of what a passion for violent video games and an obsession with TV-fame can do to a young boy.
Kepler Meo was an engaging Charlie — innocent, imaginative, curious, and justly rewarded with the keys to Wonka’s weird domain. His ‘apotheosis’ was superb — the never-before-pressed ‘Up and Away’ button lifting Charlie and Wonka aloft on the power of their dreams — but was unfortunately followed by an anti-climactic reunion scene, in which Charlie’s grandparents voiced their reluctance to leave the bed where they have resided for fifty years (visual echoes, perhaps, of Beckett’s Nagg and Nell, ensconced in their dustbins?) and Charlie yearned to tell Mr Know all about his adventures. Charlie may dream of sparkling blue balls which metamorphose into delicate pink birds perched on the end of one’s tongue, but The Golden Ticket ends in more mundane fashion.
Bruno Schwengl’s sets and Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are clever without being overly complex, and visually entertaining without being wearisome: projections of swirling Smarties and whizzing lollipops capture the zany weirdness of Wonka’s world; snaking chocolate rivers and exploding human-blueberries infer a hint of dark humour; garish colours and gaudy fabrics highlight the tasteless coarseness of the over-indulged youngsters. Props and stage furniture were pushed on and off by stage hands — remember you have to use your imagination to transform the ordinary to the fantastical …
Yet, despite the vocal prowess of the cast and the creativity of design team, this work fails to fully ensnare its audience, young or old, for it is not entirely sure if there is real danger in the darkness or whether it’s all just good old harmless fun. Despite its ‘happy ending’, Dahl’s novel leaves us wondering just what does happen to children who drown in chocolate rivers or disappear into the juicing machine … children are amused by the brutal nastiness and comforted by the slick neatness of the ending, but adults remain alarmed by the vicious violence. However, Ash and Sturrock dispel all doubts and fears: Act 2 begins with a chorus of Oompa Loompas reassuring us that, despite the cruel events which are about to unfold before us, no real harm will come to the children whom we see punished for their avarice and gluttony.
There is more genuine maliciousness and menace in Hansel and Gretel. Here we are presented with a simple moral fable, illustrating the dangers of materialism and consumerism — modern perils which make you fat, bad and dangerous to know. Man can only be saved by the power of his imagination; unfortunately there was not quite enough imagination at work here to genuinely bewitch us.
Undoubtedly pre-eminent among this year’s productions was Mercadante’s Virginia. Although musically unexceptional — the composer was drawing on styles and conventions which were already out-of-date when the opera was premiered in 1866 — the recitative-aria-cabaletta format certainly satisfies one’s expectations without ever quite taking one’s breath away. Mercadante knew how to please the crowds, and this was a musically and theatrically appealing performance, well-paced by conductor Carlos Izcaray who coaxed a rich palette of textures and colours from the talented and responsive Festival orchestra led by Fionnuala Hunt.
Drawn from Livy’s History of Rome, Cammarano’s libretto dramatises the animosity which existed between patricians and plebeians in the early days of the Roman Empire. Appio Claudio has issued an edict forbidding marriage between the two classes, only to find himself enamoured by Virginia, the daughter of a plebeian soldier. Initially consumed with self-disgust, Appio is unable to resist her charms and sends his murderous henchman, Marco, to bribe and seduce Virginia, and to ‘remove’ Ilicio whom, inconveniently, Virginia loves. Failing in his mission, Marco constructs a tale, before the Forum, that Virginia was born to one of his slaves, and is thus his own possession. Before she is handed over to her new master, her father, Virginio, asks for one final embrace with his daughter — a request that, with mock generosity, Appio grants. Virginio draws his dagger and stabs Virginia, who dies declaring that in granting her death rather than dishonour, Virginio has proved himself to be her true father. Appalled by his abuse of power, the crowd fall upon Appio.
Director Kevin Newbury has chosen to focus on the political overtones of the work, juxtaposing the grand arenas of patrician public life — the business and pleasures of State and Church — with a humble domestic kitchen, the heart of the plebeian private dwelling.
However, Newbury’s conception is not entirely clear at the start. We begin, apparently, at a raucous Roman festival, the arena ornamented with black marble and gilded lions: the chorus, somewhat disconcertingly, are decorated with gaudy Carnivalesque face-paint and entertained by three almost-naked dancing cherubs, the latter’s blushes saved merely by some judiciously hung clusters of golden grapes. The licentiousness is interrupted by the arrival of the Mafiosi, suitably menacing in sharp suits and shades, before we are transported to a 1980s kitchen in which the devoutly religious Virginia mourns the death of her mother. It only subsequently becomes evident that what seemed like a gratuitous excuse for on-stage male nudity and debauchery was in fact a fancy-dress party. However, once the confusing anachronisms have been explained, things move entertainingly along; and this is due in no small part to outstanding performances from all three principals.
For the role of the eponymous tragic heroine, Virginia requires a soprano of considerable power and stamina, able to sustain long, flexible bel canto lines and to rise deftly to vertiginous heights, retaining lightness throughout the extensive decorations. Although she made her professional debut just two years ago, American Angela Meade is a dramatically assured and technically accomplished performer; she displayed outstanding flexibility throughout the protracted ornamental flourishes, astounding athleticism, and delicate sweetness even at the very top of her range. Her breath control was superb: Virginia is a long, taxing sing, but Meade was clear and strong in the final scene, scarcely taxed by the excessive demands of the preceding three acts. Possessing an easy grace on stage, she will surely be greatly in demand in the nineteenth-century bel canto repertoire.
Moreover, Mercadante’s opera requires not one tenor but two, and Wexford was fortunate in both Ivan Magrì and Bruno Ribeiro, who delivered the goods, high notes ringing true. Slim, handsome and athletic, both looked the part too. Portuguese Ribeiro’s tone is the more ardent, and his representation of the impulsive, temperamental Icilio was exciting and engaging. Sicilian Magrì had no trouble adopting the strut and swagger of a mafioso thug, and he was ably abetted by Italian Gianluca Buratto as his henchman, Marco, whose booming bass struck just the right note of menace and bluster. As Virginia’s father, Virginio, Canadian baritone Hugh Russell presented a credible account of paternal devotion and despair, but was a little woolly in tone and employed a wide, continuous vibrato which diminished the dramatic variety and nuance. Irish soprano Marcella Walsh (Tullia) and American tenor John Myers (Valerio) completed the strong line up. The chorus, although a little ragged in the opening scene, tightened up as the action progressed and produced some thrilling dramatic singing in the later ensemble scenes.
Complementing the three main productions, Wexford mounted three ‘Short Works’. These afternoon performances have, in various years, taken the form of either seldom-performed short operas, lasting perhaps 60-90 minutes, or ‘potted operas’; that is, reduced versions of well-known full-scale works: the former appeal to the devotee eager to sample the rarely-heard, while the latter attract members of the local community eager for to experience renowned operas for the first-time. This year we were presented with both approaches: Pergolesi’s witty, one-act La serva padrona; Puccini’s evergreen La bohème; and a new work, Winners, with libretto and score by American composer Richard Wargo, based on the first part of Brian Friel’s play, Winners and Losers.
Director Roberto Recchia took charge of the first two offerings. La serva padrona began its life as a humble intermezzo, presented between the acts of a serious opera, although it is now best remembered for having triggered the famous Querelle des Bouffons in 1752 between supporters of the French comic style and promoters of the new lively Italian school. Drawing on centuries of comic theatrical conventions — from intermezzo, through commedia dell’arte, opera buffa and incorporating farce à la Chaplin — Recchia certainly made the most of the semi-theatrical, play-within-a-play origins of the work. In the mute acting role of Vespone, he began proceedings with a fifteen-minute spoken preamble which, in the absence of surtitles provided a useful introduction to the plot, but which also incorporated improvisations on the merits and demerits of the mobile ‘phone and the exigencies of health and safety legislation. Though brilliantly, effortlessly carried off, what was initially surprising and amusing, did become a little wearing — designed perhaps to divert the audience’s attention from the fact that the opera is itself only 45 minutes long…
The plot is simple. A scheming servant girl, Serpina, determines to trick her master, Uberto, into marrying her. He enlists the help of Vespone to help him find an alternative wife, but underestimates the wiles and will of the two accomplices: disguised as Captain Tempesta, Vespone demands a huge dowry from Uberto in exchange for Serpina’s hand, an exorbitant ultimatum which scares Uberto into promising to marry Serpina himself. Servant becomes mistress: mission accomplished.
Kate Guinness’ neat, minimal set, Uberto’s Café, mirrored the bar of White’s Hotel and enabled Recchia to suggest that such ruses and conspiracies are commonplace. Moreover, seating several audience members at café tables on the stage, and involving them in the action, further blurred the boundaries between artifice and reality. Indeed, alongside superb comic-timing, Recchia possesses a deft eye for detail and dramatic effect: Vespone avidly scoured the audience for potential wives for Uberto; moved by Serpina’s faux melancholy, he wiped a tear from his eye, only to wring bucket loads of water from his dishcloth, cynically indicating the depth of his trauma … While never fussy, this was a lively, alert production, requiring athletic and attentive performances from the two principal singers.
Bradley Smoak and Ekaterina Bakanovà relished the humour and verve of Recchia’s conception, the former breaking effortlessly into a jazzed-up karaoke, the latter convincingly creating mock pathos in her Pulcinella-style serenade. Smoak has a warm, focused sound and an appealing and relaxed manner, which aroused the audience’s sympathy for the incompetent Uberto. Bakanovà’s soprano is light, fresh and jaunty; she hit the high notes with ease and indulged in some unscripted, crystal clear coloratura flights. This was an accomplished, cleverly conceived production, self-knowing yet never glib.
Unfortunately, Recchia’s take on La bohème was less successful. Updating the action to the 1940s, the set (again by Guinness) was pleasingly uncluttered and the choreography well-considered but uncomplicated; the cast readily evoked a sense of easy camaraderie and bon vivo between close friends. However, Recchia preferred to focus not on the tale of friendship, loyalty and ill-fated love, but to inject a ‘political’ reading, paralleling the ‘deprivation’ of Puccini’s nineteenth-century bohemians with the suffering of the Jews in 1940s Paris. Thus, archive film sequences were projected between scenes (rather inappropriate perhaps, given the essential inconsequentiality of Puccini’s original tale), Musetta flirted with a German officer, Stars of David and armbands indicated the artists’ persecution and subordination, and Mimi died draped in a French flag. This all seemed rather unnecessary and distracting — none more so than in the final moments when, turning their back to the stage, the bohemians were shot for their Resistance to the German occupation.
Fortunately, some excellent singing from the young cast restored Puccini’s score to the foreground. As Mimi, English soprano Rebecca Goulden demonstrated a beautifully clear, fresh tone; her Act 1 aria was especially affecting. nOah Stewart’s Rodolfo was fervent and committed. When singing in the middle of his range at a medium dynamic level, Stewart produces a relaxed, charming sound to match his natural stage confidence and poise. Unfortunately, he has not yet learned to control his voice when power is required; an ugly ‘edge’ can appear in the higher fortissimo passages, and Stewart often struggled to manage his breathing and intonation. Marcello was well sung by Irish baritone, Gavin Ring, while Gianluca Buratto’s Colline was a touching portrayal.
The last of the three Short Works was Richard Wargo’s Winners. Set in the fictional Northern Ireland town of Ballymore, Winners intertwines the gradually unfolding tale of two young lovers, Mag and Joe, as narrated by two ballad-singers, with the lovers’ own dialogue as they reflect on their hopes and fears for the future. Mag is pregnant and they are to be married in three weeks’ time; the excitement of moving into their own home is juxtaposed with the problems which will face them: they are divided by class, ostracised by their community. In a sudden twist we learn from the sean-nos singers that this is the last day that Joe and Mag will be alive — yet, they are ‘winners’ because they will die with their love and hope intact, untouched by the disillusionment that the future would bring.
Uniformly committed and proficient performances from all four principals saved this rather humdrum score from cliché and monotony. As the balladeers, two young American singers — mezzo soprano, Jennifer Berkebile, and tenor Adam Cannedy — established a haunting stage presence, delivering their lines in an unaffected manner, clearly enunciating the text; their movements around and between the singers were carefully and effectively choreographed. Australian Kristy Swift was a fittingly excitable Mag, injecting a natural enthusiasm and energy into her bright, lively soprano, a pleasing complement to Robert Anthony Gardiner’s more pensive tenor.
David Stuttard’s lighting cast an eerie glow over Kate Guinness’ empty, raked hillside; Wargo attempts to enhance the uncanny ambience by the inclusion of recorded Irish pipes at the opening and close of the work. These pipes are, however, an unnecessary distraction; despite the significance of location in Friel’s play, the story of Mag and Joe is not rooted in place in Wargo’s telling, although the score is rather facilely coloured by traditional motifs and harmonies of Irish folk song, which intermingle with the conventions of the American musical. Winners may not be an entirely appropriate choice of Short Work for a festival which has prided itself on presenting the experimental and the cutting edge; but the audience certainly warmed to the young cast and appreciated their dedication and sincerity.
In addition to the Festival’s programme of choral and orchestral concerts, and lectures, recitals are held daily in St. Iberius Church, offering the audience a chance to hear members of the operatic casts ‘close up’, and giving the singers themselves the opportunity both to show off their talents and develop friendships formed during the Festival. Thus, Bruno Ribiero and Angela Meade teamed up to confirm their undoubted bel canto credentials. Ribiero’s renditions of Verdi were noteworthy for his superb breath control, ringing upper range and pleasingly burnished lower register; Meade offered a tender but powerful account of ‘Casta diva’, her stunning final note perfectly centred and endlessly, effortlessly sustained. Gershwin’s ‘By Strauss’ and ‘I want to be a prima donna’ revealed Meade’s relaxed, fun-loving side. The Act 1 duet from Don Carlos and the Brindisi from La Traviata provided evidence of the strong rapport that develops between so many of the performers at Wexford.
Irish soprano Miriam Murphy was naturally relaxed and at home among the Wexford crowd. She presented a thoughtful recital, including Beethoven’s Op.48 cycle, in which she skilfully manipulated colour to convey the depth of Beethoven’s emotions at a time when his deafness was worsening: the subdued sincerity of Murphy’s lower register in ‘On Death’ powerfully suggested the composer’s despair. Traditional Irish songs, such as ‘I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls’, provided a refreshing contrast; Andrea Grant was a sympathetic and nuanced accompanist throughout. One of the undoubted ‘stars’ of this year’s Festival was nOah Stewart who, despite some technical short-comings (which were as much in evidence in his lunchtime recital as they had been during La bohème), won the hearts of all Wexford ladies-of-a-certain-age. The departing crowd threatened to bring Wexford to a standstill as they lingered to shake the young singer’s hand or request an autograph! Certainly, Stewart has much charisma and is deeply serious about his performances. Considerable thought had been given to his recital programme which, including songs by Haydn, Reynaldo Hahn, Rachmaninov, Tosti as well as three American spirituals, allowed him to demonstrate his proficiency in a range of languages and national musical styles. It’s always risky to sing ‘O Danny Boy’ to the Irish, but Stewart pulled it off. There is no doubting his presence and appeal; but now some hard work is necessary to overcome the technical deficiencies.
The programme for next year’s Festival when, remarkably, Wexford will be hosting its sixtieth opera festival, will be announced in January 2011 — following crucial funding decisions and announcements. The Festival team have obviously worked hard to improve private sponsorship, and to make both international visitors and native audiences feel welcome — White’s Hotel was buzzing before, after and in-between performances; the Friends’ Room was opened up to opera-goers during the day; the Festival even arranged courtesy travel to and from Waterford airport for opera attendees. Let’s hope that when the mandarins tighten their belts, the remarkable ambitions and achievements of this small Irish fishing town are not overlooked or disregarded.