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Performances

Wexford Festival Opera 2012
10 Nov 2012

Wexford Festival Opera 2012

Wexford Opera’s 2012 trio of rarities, seen on the opening three nights of the Festival, spanned a mere twenty years but offered operatic idioms ranging from verismo to pantomime, operetta to Wagnerian love-death apotheosis.

Wexford Festival Opera 2012

A review by Claire Seymour

 

The reputation of Francesco Cilèa (1866-1950) rests largely on a single operatic number — the plangent lament, ‘È la solita storia del pastore’, favoured by Pavarotti et al. But, this performance of the composer’s L’Arlesiana, which houses the tenor’s showpiece, confirmed that Cilèa has more to offer than nostalgic melodising — although director Rosetta Cucchi’s highly stylised staging does not present a dramatic range to match the musical depths of the score.

Composed in 1897 L’Arlesiana combines the melancholy pathos of La Bohème with the inflated melodrama of Tosca. An over-anxious and over-wrought mother, Rosa Mamai, anguishes about her son, Federico, who neglects the virginal Vivetta for the alluring enticements of L’Arlesiana. Increasingly obsessed with the temptress from Arles, Federico is distraught when Metifio arrives bearing a letter which ‘proves’ that L’Arlesiana loved him until urged by her parents to make a more advantageous marriage with Federico. Continuing to disregard her younger, retarded son, L’innocente, Rosa encourages Vivetta to use her erotic charms to divert Federico’s attention from the reputed harlot; although her efforts at seduction are unsuccessful, Federico vows to marry Vivetta in an attempt to forget the unworthy L’Arlesiana. However, learning of Metifio’s plan to kidnap L’Arlesiana, Federico becomes increasingly despairing; the two men fight until, delirious and deranged, Federico imagines he can hear L’Arlesiana’s cries and, evading Rosa’s attempts to save him, throws himself from the hayloft.

Designer Sarah Bacon’s sets were towering and impressive, although the forward placement of the ivy-clad wall of Act 1 reduced the stage space available and further exaggerated Cucchi’s deliberately limited gestural palette. Cucchi confined the singers to stock poses and postures: perfect illustrations perhaps of captions from a silent movie — ‘the distressed mother’, ‘the deserted heroine’ — but the result was a drama that was certainly ‘up close’ but not very ‘personal’.

Forced to adopt such stock gestures, Annunziata Vestri, as Rosa Mamai, struggled to communicate the human side of the mother’s anguish but revealed a dazzling mezzo soprano — her dark, impassioned tone was matched by a notable stamina. Despite the tiresome tortured hand-wringing and head-clutching — she spent Act 3 grasping an over-sized white perambulator, just in case we hadn’t cottoned on to the fact that a mother’s overbearing love is the cause of the tragedy — Vestri demonstrated a bold stage presence and impressive technical prowess: her Act 3 ‘Esser madre è un inferno’ was the undoubted highlight of the night.

Mariangela Sicilia’s radiant sheen complemented Vestri’s duskier shades, particularly in their Act 2 exchange. But, Sicilia was a one-dimensional Vivetta, an unconvincing ‘temptress’, stripping to a white shift when instructed to ‘tighten your corset and loosen your headscarf’ by the agonized Rosa (and what was in the plastic box that Sicilia clutched all evening?).

The Russian tenor Dmitry Golovnin successfully conveyed Federico’s grim emotional disintegration, but his unalleviated doom-laden demeanour was a little wearing.

Golovnin made excellent use of his warm, round tone in the famous lament, even though Cucchi placed him horizontal on a kitchen table, beneath which slept his younger brother — perhaps a juxtaposition of the peaceful tranquillity of the innocent and the disturbed unrest of the suffering.

As L’innocente, Eleanor Greenwood sang sweetly but was required to traipse incessantly and redundantly after her brother, curling into a ball in response to his grief-stricken outbursts. Quentin Hayes’ Metifio was a black-clad stock villain, but competently performed.

Cilèa’s drama is heavily symbolic. Adapted from a short story by Alphonse Daudet, the action is ‘framed’ by the tale told by the shepherd Baldassarre — here sung in a rather unfocussed manner by baritone Christopher Robertson — to L’innocente, of a small goat which fights all night long with a hungry wolf before collapsing and dying at daybreak. The whole point is that ‘girl from Arles’ does not appear, and may not even exist; she is a mythic figure, originally an entrancing representation of an idealised Provencal past, latterly a tainted, degraded temptress. Cucchi, however, chooses to present a flesh-and-blood L’Arlesiana, in a series of mimes, commencing during the overture, dramatising Federico’s erotic dreams of love and betrayal, and his fears of Metifio’s malevolent, murderous passion.

Simon Corder’s lighting was effective, particularly in Act 3, and David Angus conducted the intense score with bravura and vigour. The cast were unanimously committed but, hindered by the distancing effect of the direction, struggled to engender much sympathy for the troubled fates of such angst-ridden personnel.

With Emmanuel Chabrier’s 1887 comedy Le roi malgré lui (The King In Spite of Himself) the following evening, there was an abrupt switch from turbulent tragedy to lunatic farce. Premiered at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in July this year, Thaddeus Strassberger’s production is manic, inventive, visually resourceful but ultimately rather cluttered and lacking in cohesion.

One thing that Chabrier’s highly contrived comedy needs is clarity of presentation. Henri de Valois has, to his dismay, been elected King of Poland, and to distract him from his homesickness — and from his nostalgic yearning for a beautiful Polish woman he once rescued in Venice — his courtiers have transplanted an array of French comforts to Poland. While the Duc de Fritelli mocks the Polish people, Henri’s friend, the Comte de Nangis, is trying to raise an army to protect the King, for the Polish nobleman Laski is opposed to Henri’s rule. Nangis is enjoying Polish life, having fallen in love with Minka, Laski’s slave. On the eve of Henri’s coronation, Laski mounts a coup. Declaring Nangis to be the King, Henri intends to get himself thrown out of Poland, so he can return to his beloved France (and somehow manages to communicate this strategy to Nangis); but, his plan goes awry when Laski declares that the King must be assassinated and Nangis (the King in disguise) is chosen by lot to do the deed. An opportune intervention by Minka allows (the real) Nangis to escape. Meanwhile, an innkeeper, Basile, is preparing to welcome the new King of Poland. One by one the principals assemble: Henri seeking a horse to escape the mob, Fritelli tactlessly praising the French, Minka lamenting for Nangis, and Fritelli’s Polish wife, Alexina, disguised as a maid and searching for her former lover. Eventually disguises are dropped, identities revealed, couples reunited; Henri, exhausted — as are the audience — by his efforts to evade his fate, accepts the Polish crown.

Chabrier’s convolutions and substitutions seem to have inspired imaginative hyperactivity in the Wexford design department. Set designer Kevin Knight gives us a continental gamut ranging from the boudoirs of Versailles to twentieth-century Polish game shows, garnering everything from shipping containers to gondolas along the way — one piece of scenery was reputed to weigh nine tonnes. Mattie Ullrich’s gaudy costumes are similarly eclectic, courtiers’ powdered wigs rubbing shoulders with sharp Italian designer-wear and the imprisoned Comte de Nangis’ Guantanamo-orange boiler suit, the King’s flannelette pyjama-suit giving way to glitzy Strictly ball gowns.

Past and present are brought together through the filter of a television screen, projected at the start, through which an unnamed viewer observes the action. Act 2 is thus rendered as a Polish TV show à la Eurotrash — complete with Antoine de Caune-style presenter. The irony is furthered by the side-of-stage presence of the anonymous television viewer, who becomes increasingly irritated and frustrated by the intermittent transmission signal and resultant fuzzy screen. The Act 2 waltz is a Come Dancing extravaganza of floating gowns and natty footwork — expertly played and sung by the Wexford Festival orchestra and chorus, who were on top form throughout the three performances seen. Zany and visually engaging perhaps, but this surfeit of directorial inventiveness didn’t help to elucidate the already over-complicated action.

A superb cast of principals made significant amends for the barmy antics. As the disinclined monarch, baritone Liam Bonner was fittingly cocksure and confident, his voice as smooth as his preening and posing. Bonner has a big voice but used his power judiciously and sparingly, making Henri’s moments of haughty imperiousness the more telling. A pre-curtain announcement made apologies for Luigi Boccia’s ill health but while his voice was a little light-weight at times and flagged somewhat in Act 3, Boccia sang with flexibility and naturalness as Henri’s alter ego, the Comte de Nangis.

Argentinean soprano Mercedes Arcuri despatched Minka’s Act 2 Chanson tzigane with aplomb, revealing a glittering, crystal clear coloratura, and Nathalie Paulin was a comic, vivacious Alexina, blending beautifully with Arcuri in their Act 3 duet. Moreover, Paulin’s gondola-sited barcarolle duet with Bonner was an alluring respite from the surrounding helter-skelter shenanigans. Frédéric Gonçalvès (Duc de Fritelli), Quirijn de Lang (Laski) and Thomas Morris (Basile) all gave accomplished performances, and Jean-Luc Tingaud conducted with verve and panache, delighting in the brilliant orchestral colours and lithe rhythms of Chabrier’s vibrant score.

The third of Wexford’s offerings, Frederick Delius’s 1907 A Village Romeo and Juliet, directed by Stephen Medcalf, made a truly convincing case for the theatrical presentation of a work so often dismissed as six discrete ‘tone poems’ which lack dramatic momentum and coherence.

In contrast to Chabrier’s chaotic elaborations, Delius’ libretto, drawn from a short story by Gottfried Keller, is blessedly simple. Two farmers, Marti and Manz, feud over a narrow strip of ground that separates their fields. The land has run wild since the death of its former owner, for his illegitimate son, the Dark Fiddler, cannot inherit. The farmers forbid their children, Sali and Vreli, to have anything to do with each other, and undertake a long-drawn out legal dispute which bankrupts both families. But, Sali and Vreli continue to meet secretly and as their friendship blossoms into love, the Dark Fiddler appears and tempts them to join him in his life of bohemian freedom. When they are discovered together by Marti, Sali becomes enraged and strikes the older man, whose mind is damaged by the blow. The young lovers vow eternal devotion; falling asleep, they dream of their marriage and upon awakening determine to spend a single day together, at the fair where they will be unknown. When they are recognised by the local crowd, Sali suggests that they should go to the Paradise Garden where they can dance all night. In the garden the Dark Fiddler and his friends are drinking and carousing; again he tempts the lovers to join him but they desist, choosing instead to drift down river in a gradually submerging boat, resigned to the Tristan-esque double suicide which must follow.

Formed of six separate scenes or ‘pictures’, each with its individual colour and mood, Delius’ opera is Wagnerian also in its use of leitmotiv and in the primacy of the orchestral fabric in delineating the internal narrative which develops within the protagonists’ hearts and minds. For, though the external action is minimal, the opera presents powerful emotional events, and Medcalf found ingenious, affecting ways to convey these conflicts, passions and dreams. With graceful choreography, the Scene 4 dream-sequence was effectively staged: the visual enactment of the imagined joyful marriage strengthened both its credibility and the lovers’, and our own, hopefulness, thereby deepening the sorrow of disillusionment upon awakening. The well-known instrumental sequence, ‘The Walk to Paradise Garden’, was similarly inventive, two dancers superbly articulating the purity and power of the lovers’ passion. Most touching of all were the transcendent final moments when Simon Corder’s evocative, shimmers of green light enwrapped the house in the shifting waters which embrace the fated pair.

Jamie Vartan’s wooden, sparse set — which seemed to extend effortlessly from the warm wooden interior of the auditorium, drawing us all into the ensuing drama — served to emphasise the opera’s focus on elemental philosophical questions. Small details conveyed much: thus, Vreli’s over-turned pram and broken doll, damaged during the children’s argument in Scene 1, remained littering the stage, a reminder of the essential roots of the tragedy and its inescapability.

After the minimalist simplicity of the first four scenes, the shift to the fairground setting in Scene 5 was appropriately jarring and disconcerting; here the bright artificiality of Vartan’s inspired costumes and the lack of naturalism emphasised the capricious unreality of this world.

As Sali and Vreli, John Bellemer and Jessica Muirhead were unfailingly sympathetic. Bellemer brought just the right touch of impetuousness to the role, his buoyant tenor conveying the optimism and conviction of the young lover, while Muirhead’s clear ringing soprano combined burgeoning ardour with eloquent innocence. There were strong performances too from Quentin Hayes (Manz) and Andrew Greenan (Marti), the latter particularly effective in establishing character and motivation. Stephanie Kinsella and Jack Power acted and sang convincingly and confidently sweetly as the young Vreli and Sali, never overwhelmed by the dense orchestral fabric.

Dressed in shabby white, looking every inch the unruly vagabond, David Stout’s Dark Fiddler was a suitably menacing presence although Stout’s baritone did not quite have the ominous resonance needed to fully evoke the threatening air of intimidation which exudes from the Fiddler. The smaller roles — the fairground characters and the Fiddler’s friends — were deftly characterised, and once again the Wexford Festival Chorus was in fine form. Rory Macdonald conducted with great skill and sensitivity, creating translucent textures and forward momentum. I cannot imagine a more thoughtful and illuminating staging of this opera.

As ever, in addition to the three operas performed in the main house, the 2012 Festival offered vocal recitals, instrumental concerts, lectures and films in the Jerome Hynes Theatre and various offer venues around the town, as well as a lively Fringe programme. The ‘Short Works’ have been rather itinerant in recent years, finding a home in venues such as the Dun Mhuire Theatre and White’s Hotel. This year they travelled to the auditorium at the Presentation Secondary School, a short walk from the opera house, and although there were some initially teething problems which briefly delayed the start of Lennox Berkeley’s one-act opera, A Dinner Engagement, the performance was certainly worth waiting for.

Lord and Lady Dunmow have fallen on hard times after WWII, and decide to solve their financial difficulties by arranging an advantageous marriage for their daughter, Susan. They invite the wealthy Prince Phillippe of Monteblanco and his mother, the Grand Duchess, to dinner, but do not reckon on Susan’s distaste for being valued solely as a family funds-raiser, or on the Prince’s predilection for the kitchen. A sharp social comedy — imagine a more sophisticated and satirical Albert Herring — A Dinner Engagement is packed with sharp observations about class, money and hypocrisy, culminating in a joyous ending celebrating our human capacity for resourcefulness and survival. Berkeley’s score — dexterously performed by music director Adam Burnette at the piano — is not particularly memorable but it is economical, energetic and witty, every musical gesture perfectly suited to the dramatic situation.

Director Caitriona McLaughin (having resisted the temptation to update the setting to modern Ireland, a country somewhat ‘down on its luck’ and in need of a bailout!) presents a slick comedy, making the most of the small period details which Kate Guinness incorporates into the set and costumes: the Countess’s delight when spying a whisk in the Dunmow’s kitchen — the first time she has seen such an object (or even been in a kitchen?) — was priceless, as was the Prince’s rather precious expression of revulsion when presented with a bottle of Heinz ketchup.

The performers’ diction was uniformly excellent; not a word, or joke, of Berkeley’s skilful, droll libretto was lost. Fine performances from Adam Gilbert as Lord Dunmow and Hannah Sawle as his wife established the hard-up aristocrats an honest pair who share a genuine affection; we can laugh at their short-comings but sympathise with their weaknesses. Laura Sheerin was a feisty Susan, pouting and flouncing, violently relieving her anger on some unfortunate vegetables, and rebelling against her parents’ matrimonial machinations by plastering herself in lipstick — as if she had had an accident with the ketchup bottle. Sheerin displayed a strong technique, shaping her melodic lines clearly and intelligently, and, with tenor Alberto Souso’s Prince Phillippe, creating moments of tenderness and realism to balance the farce. Much of the hilarity resulted from Raquel Luis’s crisp comic timing as a ‘Hyacinth Bucket’-styled Grand Duchess, with Lawrence Thackeray contributing to the mayhem as the indignant delivery boy determined to be paid for his groceries.

The Festival’s recital programme gives the Wexford audience an opportunity to hear both established and rising stars in more intimate settings. To mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Waterford composer, William Vincent Wallace, pianist Una Hunt and soprano Máire Flavin presented a programme of short piano works, songs and opera excerpts selected from Wallace’s 1854 American Music Album. Performed with fresh lyricism and characterised by melodic inventiveness, the varied works were introduced by Una Hunt, whose well-informed and engaging commentaries revealed her commitment to Wallace’s music which she has championed and recorded.

In the first of the Festival’s lunchtime recitals, in St. Iberius Church, tenor Thomas Morris — who, as he pointed out, is 100% French despite his Irish-sounding name — welcomed the chance to demonstrate the wit and theatricality which he had displayed as Basile in the previous evening’s performance of Le roi malgré lui. Morris revealed his accomplished appreciation of French chanson in works by Chabrier and Poulenc, which followed a lively rendition of Manuel Rosenthal’s Songs of Monsieur Bleu.

2013 will bring Nino Rota’s Il Cappello di Paglia di Firenze (The Florentine Straw Hat), a Massenet double bill of Thérèse and La Navarraise, and Jacopo Foroni’s Cristina, Regina di Svezia. I can’t wait.

Claire Seymour


L’Arlesiana:

Rosa Mamai: Annunziata Vestri; Federico: Dmitry Golovnin; Vivetta: Mariangela Sicilia; Baldassarre: Christopher Robertson; Metifio: Quentin Hayes; Marco: Andrew Greenan; L’innocente: Eleanor Greenwood; conductor: David Angus; director: Rosetta Cucchi; set designer: Sarah Bacon; costume designer: Claudia Pernigotti; lighting designer: Simon Corder.

Le roi malgré lui:

Henri de Valois: Liam Bonner; Comte de Nangis: Luigi Boccia; Le Duc de Fritelli: Frédéric Gonçalvès; Minka: Mercedes Arcuri; Alexina: Nathalie Paulin; Laski: Quirijn de Lang; Basile: Thomas Morris; Lincourt: Carlos Nogueira; D’Elboeuf: Lawrence Thackeray; Maugiron: Simon Robinson; Comte de Caylus: Owen Webb; Marquis de Villequier: Simon Meadows; Un soldat: Colin Brockie; conductor: Jean-Luc Tingaud; director: Thaddeus Strassberger; set designer: Kevin Knight; costume designer: Mattie Ullrich; lighting designer: Simon Corder; choreographer: Marjorie Folkman.

A Village Romeo and Juliet:

Manz: Quentin Hayes; Marti: Andrew Greenan, Sali as a child: Jack Power; Vreli as a child: Stephanie Kinsella; Sali: John Bellemer; Vreli: Jessica Muirhead; The Dark Fiddler: David Stout; Farm Men: Jamie Rock, Cozmin Sime; Farm Women: Eleanor Lyons, Angharad Morgan, Cátia Moreso; Gingerbread Woman: Iria Perestrelo; Wheel-of-Fortune Woman: Maria Miró; Cheap-Jewellery Woman: Mae Heydon; Showman: Leonel Pinheiro; Merry-go-round Man: Owen Webb; Shooting-gallery Man: Thomas Faulkner; Slim Girl: Hannah Sawle; Wild Girl: Kate Symonds-Joy; The Poor Horn-Player: Daniel Joy; The Hunchbacked Bass-Fiddler: Simon Robinson; Bargemen: Adam Gilbert, Quentin Hayes, Patrick Hyland; Dancers: Jan Patzke, Ryan O’Neill, Aaron Jones, Olivia Quayle, Jenny Reeves, Máire Dee; conductor: Rory Macdonald; director: Stephan Metcalf; set and costume designer: Jamie Vardon; lighting designer: Simon Corder; choreographer: Paula O’Reilly.

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