31 Oct 2013
Wexford Festival 2013
At this year’s Wexford Festival — the 62nd operatic gathering in this small south-eastern Irish town - the trio of operas on show present many a wretched battle between duty and desire.
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
At this year’s Wexford Festival — the 62nd operatic gathering in this small south-eastern Irish town - the trio of operas on show present many a wretched battle between duty and desire.
Doomed love and desperation inevitably drive many of the operatic protagonists to commit tragic acts, but, alleviating the despair, one man’s determination to be married results in a mad-cap dash around Paris in search of a Florentine straw hat.
The real ‘find’ of this Festival is undoubtedly Jacopo Foroni’s Cristina, Regina di Svezia, (seen on 25th October) first performed in 1849 and rarely heard since. Foroni was of Veronese birth but spent most of his working life in Sweden, introducing the Swedes to the latest works by Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi, before his own untimely death in 1849 during a cholera epidemic. On the evidence offered by Stephen Medcalf’s outstanding production of Cristina, Foroni was just as blessed with melodic and orchestrational gifts as were his better-known Italian compatriots.
Cristina was presumably intended to endear him to audiences in his newly chosen land. Set in the Tre Kronor castle in Stockholm, the opera presents the historic events leading to the abdication of Queen Cristina of Sweden in 1654, and depicts a knotted web of unrequited and frustrated love.
Cast of Cristina, regina di Svezia
The Lord High Chancellor, Axel Oxenstjerna, accompanied by his son, Erik, has brokered a peace treaty to end the Thirty Years’ War, and at a public celebration of peace, Cristina rewards her loyal servant by announcing that Erik is to be given the hand of Maria Eufrosina, the Queen’s cousin, in marriage. Maria and her beloved Gabriele de la Gardie are less than delighted with this arrangement, but when Gabriele, who is himself the object of the Queen’s affections, suggests that they should elope, Maria desists, reminding Gabriele of the loss of honour that such an act would occasion. Maria’s hopeless weeping is interrupted by the Queen’s arrival; despatching Maria before the latter can explain the cause of her tears, Cristina then tells Gabriele of her hopes that they can rules Sweden together; she is unaware that Arnold Messenius and his son, Johan, are secretly plotting to overthrow her.
At the wedding, Maria is unable to go through with the ceremony and confesses that she loves another; when pressured by the Queen, she identifies her beloved as Gabriele. Furious, Cristina vows that Gabriele will be exiled; Messenius and his son now hope to recruit Gabriele to their seditious cause.
Meanwhile, Carlo Gustavo, Cristina’s cousin and the heir to the throne, has heard of the planned treachery and arrives on the island of Öland to infiltrate the conspirators, who now include Gabriele. Axel urges Cristina to accept Gustavo’s love and rule with him, but the Queen has become despondent and tells Axel of her wish to renounce the throne. When the rebels storm the castle, Gustavo declares that he will defend Cristina; subsequently, Gabriele, Messenius and Johan, are brought before Cristina who condemns the traitors, including Gabriele, to death. She tells Gustavo of her plan to abdicate in his favour and live the rest of her life in Italy; he tries to discourage her, and of his wish that they should marry and rule together, but she is adamant.
In the Grand Council chamber, the intriguers are sentenced, but as they are led away to their execution Cristina enters and publically forgives Gabriele, declaring that he may now marry Maria. She announces her own abdication, and places the crown on the reluctant Gustavo’s head. The people swear allegiance to their new monarch.
The life of the real Cristina was certainly filled with events of operatic proportions: thrust into public office from a tender age, following the death in battle of her father, Gustavus Adolphus II, when she was just six years old, she was a strong monarch but an unconventional one. By no means a beauty, and with a hunger for culture and learning considered ‘unfeminine’ during this period, she was stubbornly nonconformist; she refused to marry, dressed in a masculine fashion and indulged her interests in religion, alchemy and science. When she abdicated in 1654 she stunned her country by renouncing her father’s Lutheran faith and converting to Catholicism; however, Cristina did not lose her appetite for power and prestige, attempting to become Queen of Naples in 1656 (she made sure that the man who betrayed her plans was executed), and later seeking the Polish throne.
Eleanor Lyons, Fillipo Adami and Owen Gilhooly in Il Cappello di paglia di Firenzie
Foroni’s Cristina is less petulant and extreme - the unruly hair, men’s shoes and epicurean habits are not in evidence - and the focus of Giovanni Carlo Casanova’s libretto is on the loneliness which arises from the burdens of public duty. Indeed, the principals all suffer this inner tussle between personal fulfilment and honourable obligations; thus, during the opening moments of the overture, the passionate embrace of Maria (Lucia Cirillo) and Gabriele (John Bellemer) is interrupted by the arrival of stern officials, and all stiffly assume their places upon imposingly straight-backed Rennie Mackintosh chairs, facing the screen that will shortly announce the momentous political events. Medcalf and his designer, Jamie Vartan, have transferred the action to London during the 1930s, a time when such emotional conflicts would certainly have been recognised by a nation whose monarch had recently put love before duty, thrusting a reluctant sibling onto the throne.
Film sequences during the opening act effectively showcase the parallels. First we have Neville Chamberlain waving the Munich Agreement before grateful crowds; then, reversing the historical chronology, the coronation of George VI. The decision to replace seventeenth-century Swedish court life with a more familiar era, and one characterised by formality and decorum, also allows for some superb tableaux - and for some striking Downton Abbey-style costumes. Thus, the curtain rises on an impressively attired chorus of noblemen, soldiers, officials and servants, frozen for the briefest moment before the whirling celebration of peace ensues. Similarly cinematic effects are strikingly deployed in the wedding scene where Maria’s emotional disintegration is charted by a series of flash bulb freeze-frames which shockingly capture her growing despair. Only the archive film of bombing raid fires, shown in the moments preceding the storming of the castle, seemed a little too lengthy.
Vartan’s sets are engaging and ingenuous. After the imperious ceremony of the opening scenes, Act 2 finds Cristina in her private chambers, reflecting on the futility and destructiveness of power, and the art deco panelling, furniture and globe economically whisk us to a 1930s interior. Later, as she determines her future, and that of her nation, we see the Queen seated in her office, raised aloft, thereby emphasising her distance from her subjects and her emotional isolation.
Claudia Boyle and Fillipo Adami in Il Cappello di paglia di Firenze
In many years of visiting Wexford, I don’t think I have ever heard the Wexford Festival Chorus sound better; Foroni’s choruses combine Verdian vigour with occasional contrapuntal complexity, and the massed voices were on top form, producing a rich Italianate tone and singing with total commitment. Paula O’Reilly’s choreography is excellent, making full use of the stage, and the numerous personnel moved with fluency and naturalness. The arrival of Gustavo at the start of Act 2, his parachute descent wittily foreshadowed by some historical war footage, is a masterstroke which drew a gasp of praise. Moreover, the brooding red haze of Paul Keogan’s lighting design throughout the conspirators’ scene looks ahead ominously to the rebellious invasion of the Queen’s castle.
Foroni offers the singers some wonderful cantabile melodies and the cast relished them. As Maria, mezzo soprano Lucia Cirillo displayed a sumptuous tone and crafted beautifully balanced phrases. John Bellemer, who impressed as Sali in Medcalf’s production of A Village Romeo and Juliet at last year’s Festival, was similarly convincing as the impetuous, fervent Gabriele; as he sang of his love for Maria, his tenor was focused and intense, full of drama and feeling. Russian baritone, Igor Golovatenko was a strong Gustavo, resonantly exhibiting his love and loyalty for his Queen. (I had a small misgiving about the final tableau, however; would the steadfast Gustavo, however reluctantly endowed with royalty, immediately overturn Cristina’s last act of clemency and execute the pardoned conspirators - who had, after all, wished to promote Gustavo himself to the throne?)
Bass Thomas Faulkner and tenor Daniel Szeili acquitted themselves well as Messenius father and son respectively; Szeili displayed a tenor voice of great tenderness in a final aria of remorse which was truly moving. As Erik, Irish tenor Patrick Hyland showed great promise. David Stout’s Axel was particularly impressive during his Act 2 interview with Cristina, his well-rounded bass-baritone earnestly pleading with his Queen to marry Gustavo and remain monarch.
In the title role, Australian soprano Helena Dix demonstrated enormous stamina and impressive vocal power and accuracy. Dix has a silky lyric tone and she soared effortlessly in the large choral scenes. But, while her voice has much nobility and poise, I felt that Dix would have benefited from greater direction, for her posture and movements were not always sufficiently ‘regal’; she presided with formality and pomp during the public ceremonial scenes, but was less persuasive during the more personal interactions with her subjects. Dix’s costumes did not help imbue her with imperial majesty. When all around her were attired in elegant evening dress or impeccable uniforms, the Queen was initially robed in a black tent-like gown reminiscent of Queen Victoria’s mourning attire topped off with a blue sash, rather like a pageant princess. Even allowing for insomnia and workaholic restlessness, it is surely unlikely that Cristina would conduct her private meetings in silk pyjamas? And, in the final Act, her dull brown fitted suit and Hartmann suitcase suggested that the Queen had fallen far following her abjuration of the throne. A pity, when there were copious visual delights all around her, and Dix’s own singing won her a greatly deserved ovation.
Conductor Andrew Greenwood had the full measure of the score, ensuring that Foroni’s varied orchestral colours were clearly heard and appreciated, and shaping the surges and lulls with passion and perceptiveness.
With such riches on offer, one wonders why Cristina was not more of a hit? Presumably the Swedes were none too thrilled to be reminded of a monarch who had rejected her people and their faith, while it seems the Italians did not take to Cristina all that warmly either. Hopefully this convincing, imaginative Wexford’s production will put an end to the unjust neglect that Foroni’s terrific opera has endured.
Desire and duty did battle once more in a double bill (27th October) which reminded us of Jules Massenet’s skills as a melodist and also revealed a starker, more brutal idiom than we might expect from this most lyrical of composers.
Scene from Thérèse
Set in Revolutionary France, during the Terror of 1793-94, Thérèse (1907) is a melodrama which pits public against private, loyalty against love. As with Foroni’s Cristina, the eponymous heroine is based on a historical figure, in this case, Lucille Desmoulins who was executed in 1793, eight days after her husband, Camille. In Jules Claretie’s libretto, Thérèse finds herself torn between her allegiance to her husband, André Thorel - a Girondist and man of the people - and her passion for her aristocratic lover, Armand, Marquis de Clerval, who has fled to escape the Revolution. Thorel, the former childhood companion of Armand (his father was the Marquis’ steward), has purchased the Clerval chateau in order that it may one day be returned to his friend. When Armand reappears, still deeply in love with Thérèse, she is torn between her amorous feelings and her fidelity to her marriage vows.
André offers Armand protection within the chateau, and then provides him with a letter of safe passage so that he can escape the revolutionary horror. Emotions rise both in the house and on the streets, and Armand realises that he must leave. As her husband fights at the barricades with the Girondists, Thérèse initially agrees to flee with Armand, but on hearing that André has been captured and is to be executed, she recognises her true duty and cries, ‘Vive la roi!’ Arrested by the incensed Revolutionaries, she is taken to the guillotine, to die by her husband’s side.
In true verismo fashion, the plot is taut and intense: the conflicts are clearly drawn, the emotions pure and deep. The Director-Designer team of Renaud Doucet and André Barbe offer a marked twist though: we enter the eighteenth-century revolutionary world through a painterly frame, as curators and conservators in a starkly lit museum restoration workshop, scientifically preserve and renovate ‘the past’ as depicted by the works of art. ‘Stepping out’ of the paintings, the figures from history re-live their former experiences, their desperate emotions and suffering presenting a destabilising contrast to the clinical detachment of the modern scholars as they go about their task of historical reconstruction and repair. This schism between the emotional experience of those in the foreground and the cerebral intellect of those glimpsed beyond is one of the strengths of the concept, and it is enhanced by Paul Keoghan’s arresting lighting designs, the glacial cool of the workshop strip-lights replaced, for example, by a nostalgic yellow glow as Armand and Thérèse recollect their former love. Similarly, the vibrant colours and luxurious fabrics of the eighteenth-century attire contrast robustly with the clinical uniforms and workday attire of the present.
Yet, there are aspects of the staging that are less effective. The interactions between the figures from the past and present at the start of the opera are somewhat confusing and, having immersed ourselves in Thérèse’s fate it is disconcerting to be yanked back to the present when she is carried off to the scaffold not by the Revolutionaries but by technicians in white lab coats. Barbe and Doucet declare their intention to ‘explore the influence of painting on life’, but Thérèse is about life, not art. The strongest juxtaposition in the opera is between the inner life of the private heart and the external world of public politics and strife; it is an opposition which is embedded in the score and one which this production does not make sufficiently evident.
Brian Mulligan and Nora Sourouzian in Thérèse
At the heart of the score are the passionate exchanges of Thérèse and Arnaud, and French-Canadian mezzo soprano Nora Sourouzian and French tenor Philippe Do prove that they possess the stylishness, lyricism and sensitivity to convey the poetry of these scenes most beautifully. Do has both the strength, though the voice is never forced, to bring a fierce ardour to the passionate high-points and a floating mezza voce which can modulate the emotional fire with sensitivity and lightness. Thérèse’s Act 2 aria, ‘Jour de juin, jour d’été’ was deliciously sweet and exquisitely phrased. Brian Mulligan, as André, made a considerable impact, demonstrating fine stage presence and singing with an open, burnished tone. Damien Pass was very competent in the small role of Morel.
The four principals showed their fortitude and versatility when they returned for the second half of the double bill: La Navarraise, another opera in which the personal and political intertwine, and one which at times seems more characteristic of Mascagni than Massenet.
First performed at Covent Garden in June 1894, La Navarraise is based on a short story,La Cigarette, by Claretie, which the author adapted, in collaboration with Henri Cain. Anita, a poor girl from Navarre, and Araquil, a soldier in the Spanish civil war, are in love but are forbidden to marry by Remigio, Araquil’s wealthy father, unless Anita pays a dowry of two thousand duros. The commander Garrido learns that his friend has been killed by the enemy commander, Zuccaraga, and declares his hatred for the latter; Anita proposes that she will kill Zuccaraga for a sum of two thousand duros, and although he is suspicious of her motives, Garrido agrees. As she approaches the enemy camp, protected by her statue of the Virgin Mary, Anita is observed by the soldier Ramon, who, assuming that Anita is a spy, tells Araquil; the latter fears that she has is visiting a secret lover. Having killed Zuccaraga, Anita runs through the gunfire and collects her reward from Garrido, who makes her swear not tell anyone of her deed.
Araquil, who has been mortally wounded during his search for Anita, demands to know where she has been, but her oath prevents her from speaking out and all she can do is show him the money in the hope that the realisation that they can now marry will quell his anger. Araquil, however, assumes she has prostituted herself, which she vehemently denies. As Remigio arrives with a doctor to tend his son, bells are heard in the distance, and Remigio explains that they are tolling for the assassinated Zuccaraga. Finally understanding the truth, Araquil dies. Anita becomes hysterical, wildly speaking of her forthcoming marriage which she thinks the bells foretell. Desperately seeking a knife with which to commit suicide, she realises that she lost it at the murder scene; all she has is her statue of the Holy Virgin. Before the horrified onlookers she erupts in crazed laughter and falls senseless, as Garrido laments ‘La folie’, the poor mad child.
Nora Sourouzian and Phillipe Do in La Navarraise
Doucet and Barbe once again filter the tale through art, transforming the museum workshop to the Atelier des Grande-Augustins where Picasso painted Guernica. Created in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque village in northern Spain, by German and Italian warplanes at the behest of the Spanish Nationalist forces in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, Guernica does indeed provide fitting visual frame for Massenet’s opera, for both works show the violence and chaos of war, and the suffering that it inflicts upon the innocent.
The stage is a collage of out-sized fragments from the painting: the wide-eyed bull; the horse falling in agony, a spear in its side piercing a gaping wound; a human skull and other dismembered body parts; a stigma; flames. Above, the projection of a gilded eighteenth-century chandelier has been replaced by a blazing light bulb in the shape of an evil eye.
The stage space is in fact so cluttered with these artistic fragments that there is hardly room to move, and the personnel are confined to a narrow strip at the front of the stage. The coral, dusty pink and cinnamon hues of the costumes and lighting summon up the rugged mountainous terrain of the region, but overall the ambience feels rather too static and confined.
The singing was, however, as committed as before the interval, with Do and Sourouzian once more a formidable duo, as Araquil and La Navarraise. Sourouzian’s lustrous high register was in evidence, in her Act 1 lament that she will not be able to marry her beloved Araquil; and she had real presence in the fiery outbursts which result in her mad demise. Do, too, showed his resourcefulness, creating a sincere portrait of a man of great strengths and all too human weaknesses; his final words, ‘the price of blood! how horrible!’, as Araquil realises the terrible lengths to which Anita has gone to secure his love, were chilling. Damien Pass was imposing as Remigio, while Brian Mulligan was a credible Garrido.
In the pit, Carlos Izcaray conducted with control, verve and attention to detail; the lyrical stream of melody - there was some lovely solo cello playing - was complemented by timbral bite and dynamic punch.
The third of the Festival’s trio of offerings provided some light relief from the afflictions of social responsibility and unfulfilled love. The Italian composer, conductor, pianist and academic Nino Rota is best known for his film scores, notably for the films of Fellini, Visconti, Zeffirelli, and for the first two films of Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy. Extraordinarily prolific, in addition to his considerable body of film work, Rota composed ballets, orchestral, choral and chamber works, and ten operas, one of which, Il Cappello Di Paglia Di Firenze (1955), director Andrea Cigni presents this year at Wexford (seen 26th October).
The libretto, adapted by Rota and his mother, Ernesta, from a vaudeville by Eugène Labiche and Marc-Antoine-Amédée Michel, Un chapeau de paille d’Italie, and which had been filmed in 1928, has a plot which makes the last act of Figaro seem the epitome of clarity and good sense.
On the morning that Fadinard is to be married to Elena, his horse eats a straw hat which belongs to a woman who has evaded the jealous watch of her vicious husband in order to rendezvous with her soldier lover. Confronted with Anaide (distraught - she cannot return home without her hat) and Emilio (her threatening and protective paramour), Fadinard realises he must find a replacement hat, and so sets of on a zany chase across Paris on a mad hatter treasure hunt, dragging deaf uncle, bumptious father-in-law, Nonancourt, and troupe of inebriated wedding guests behind him. Sent by the milliner to the Baronessa di Champigny’s residence, he is mistaken for a violin virtuoso; the Baroness has given the hat to her friend, the wife of Beaupertuis - Anaide - and so, unwittingly, Fadinard is thrown into the enemy’s den. While it rains champagne, the wedding partygoers are happy to party where their dancing shoes whisk them; but when it really rains misery sets in, especially when they are arrested for trespass.
Scene from La Navarraise
Just when all seems lost - when faced with a cancelled marriage, a husband’s pistol and a prison cell - Fadinand is saved by deaf uncle Vézinet’s announcement that his wedding give is a Florentine straw hat - the perfect substitute for Elena’s chomped bonnet, and just what is needed to convince Beaupertuis that she is a wrongly accused innocent. The wedding of Fadinand and Elena can go ahead - and we hope that their future matrimony is not marred by further millinery machinations.
Director Andrea Cigni and Designer Lorenzo Cutùli present us with a front-drop carte postale dated 18th September 1958 which when raised reveals a sloped postage stamp stage, embraced by an assemblage of film and theatre posters which reference aspects of the farce to come: Halle Chapeaux, L’Infidèle by Sheridan and Scott, Chansons sous la pluie, Follies, High Society, Gaines’ Scandale, Revel: Parapluie. All very eye-catching but not much assistance in creating actual locales for the itinerant hat hunters.
Rota’s score is pure opera buffa - referencing the originals, Rossini and Donizetti, and throwing some sardonic twentieth-century spice à la Prokofiev and Stravinsky. Musical quotations and self-quotations abound, the orchestration is sassy, and it all zips along frothily if rather superficially - indeed, one feels that a lot of rhythmic energy is expended with little forward motion.
The problem with this production is that in aiming to make us laugh through caricature, exaggeration and improbability, Cigni gets bogged down in stylisation and extravagance, and things grind to a halt. The tilted stage platform, while allowing for the suggestion of different floors within Fadinand’s house, doesn’t help matters: the slick physical interchanges that farce requires are simply not possible when the chorus is trying to dance on a postage stamp, or principals are negotiating awkward trapdoors. To compensate for the actual lack of physical movement, we have flashing lights and outsized platters of fruit and cupcakes, but this is not sufficient reparation for the lack of a real belly laugh.
That said, Cigni does effectively convey the sense of movement around the city, but he has to take the chorus off the stage and deposit them in the aisles to do so the rain-soaked, champagne-sozzled revellers made a pitiful trek through the auditorium, prior to the incarceration which would end their carousing. The female chorus excelled, both as hat-sewing seamstresses and resilient socialites.
Conductor Sergio Alapont failed to set things afire - though reliable, there was a lack of lightness and vivacity in the pit - but the singers did their best, although they did not look as if they were having much more fun than we were. Stepping into Fadinand’s shoes at the eleventh hour, tenor Filippo Adami revealed a clear, generous voice and a sure sense of comic timing. Slight of stature, Adami possesses significant stage presence; he played a noteworthy part in keeping the show rolling. His Elena, Irish soprano Claudia Boyle, was all glittery insouciance, prepared to tolerate her groom’s inexplicable goings-on with scarcely a complaint. Australian soprano Eleanor Lyons sparkled with faux naivety as Anaide, while Owen Gilhooly made a strong impression as Emilio, managing to be both menacing and sympathetic at the same time.
In the cameo role of Uncle Vézinet, tenor Aled Hall equipped himself well and exhibited a warm baritone and much dramatic wit; Salvatore Salvaggio’s Nonancourt was rather ponderous - his complaints about his pinching footwear and repeated cries, ‘It’s all off!’, did little to hasten the action forward. Filippo Fontana, as the bitter Beaupertuis, stayed the right side of parody and his focused bass baritone brought some depth to the role; Turkish mezzo soprano Asude Karayavuz enjoyed her turn as the outlandish Baronessa di Champigny, exhibiting a full, rounded tone and endearing comic waggishness.
In addition to the three main house productions, Wexford offered its usual diet of peripheral treats. Of the Short Works, Roberto Recchia’s L’elisir d’amore (26th October) was the most ingenious, transferring the action to a modern-day Irish Karaoke bar - one of the virtues of which was to provide a naturalistic raison d’être for surtitles! The PR media show, complete with Twitter links, which accompanied Dulcamara’s sales pitch was a scream - the only down side was that it distracted from Thomas Faulkner’s accomplished singing. Jennifer Davis relaxed into the role of Adina, singing accurately and with character; and while Patrick Hyland may not yet have the Italianate silkiness which ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ demands, his gentle, sensitive articulation was both intelligent and touching. Ian Beadle was an ostentatious Belcore, and Hannah Sawle produced an appealingly flirtatious lightness as Gianetta. After a slightly weighty start, Musical Director Richard Barker kept things flying along at the keyboard, although at over 90 minutes this was hardly a ‘short’ work.
In 2010, Richard Wargo’s Winners was staged in Wexford, and now we had the opportunity to hear the second part of the musical adaptation of Brian Friel’s two-parter, Losers. Set in the 1960s in the town of Ballymore, County Tyrone, Losers is a deliciously wry send up of religious fanatic fervour and the private destruction it wreaks - was it a coincidence that the premiere (27th October) coincided with the Festival Mass service ? Wargo employs an ear-pleasing idiom mingling Bernstein-like lyricism, the fluency of popular song and Britten-esque timbres (the women’s prayer recalls the soothing textures of the female quartet in The Rape of Lucretia). As the frustrated Hanna Wilson-Tracy, whose duty to mother and church must come before her natural affection for Andy Tracy (Nicholas Morris), Cátia Moresco aroused pity and affection, her heart-warming tone blending touchingly with Morris’s emotive baritone. Eleanor Lyons displayed musical precision and dramatic wit as the oppressive matriarch, Mrs Wilson; Kristin Finnegan and Chloe Morgan made up the fine cast, as the devout Kate Cassidy and her rebellious daughter Cissy, respectively, in a production which inspired mischievous laughs and resigned sighs alike.
Michael Balfe’s The Sleeping Queen was the most excitedly anticipated but perhaps the least satisfying musically of the three Short Works, despite the appealing designs of Sarah Bacon - all orange trees and trellised patios - and the atmospheric lighting of Pip Walsh. There was some fine singing from the young cast, not least from Johane Ansell as the Queen’s maid, Maria Dolores, and tenor Ronan Busfield as the love interest, Philippe D’Aguilar.
Lunchtime recitals in St Iglesias Church provided further musical sustenance. On 25th October Asude Karayavuz, accompanied by Andrea Grant, showed that she would make a fine Carmen, lustrous of tone and teasing of demeanour. In two arias by Massenet she revealed a sultry lower register and excellent French diction, later put to good use in Carmen’s Habanera and Seguidilla. Karayavuz’ Mediterranean sensibility was tapped in songs by Manuel de Falla, which she endowed with a folky silkiness and rueful melancholy. Damien Pass roved far and wide on 26th October, from Britten folk settings to authoritative readings of Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel, from Duparc’s settings of Baudelaire to Waltzing Mathilda. Pass’s diction was exemplary, in whatever language, and his tone striking - he is not afraid to indulge a whispered piano and can spin a narrative thread most effectively.
Casts and production information:
Nino Rota: Il Capello Di Paglia Di Firenza
Fadinard, Filippo Adami; Nonancourt, SalvatoreSalvaggio; Beaupertuis, Filippo Fontana; Lo zio Vézinet, Aled Hall; Emilio, Owen Gilhooly; Felicelen, Leonel Pinheiro; Elena, Claudia Boyle; Anaide, Eleanor Lyons; La Baronessa di Champigny, Asude Karayavuz; Achille di Rosalba, Leonel Pinheiro; La modista, Samantha Hay; Un caporale delle guardie, Nicholas Morris; Una guardia, Ronan Busfield; Minardi, Feilmidh Nunan; Minardi’s Pianist, Richard Barker; conductor, Sergio Alapont; director, Andrea Cigni; assistant director, Roberto Catalano; designer, Lorenzo Cutúli; lighting designer, Paul Keogan.
Jules Massenet: Il Thérèse
Thérèse, Nora Souzouzian; Armand de Clerval, Philippe Do; André Thorel Brian Mulligan; Morel, Damien Pass; Un Officier municipal, Jamie Rock; Un Officer, Raffaele d’Ascanio; Un autre Officier, Padraic Rowan; Une Voix d’Homme, Koji Terada; Une Voix de Femme, Christina Gill.
Anita, Nora Sourouzian; Araquil, Philippe Do; Garrido, Brian Mulligan; Remigio, Damien Pass; Ramon, Peter Davouren; Bustamente, Koji Terada; Un Soldat, Joe Morgan. Conductor, Carlos Lzcaray; director, Renaud Doucet; assistant director, Sophie Motley; designer, André Barbe; lighting designer, Paul Keogan.
Jacopi Foroni: Cristina
Cristina, Helena Dix; Maria Eufrosina, Lucia Cirillo; Axel Oxenstjerna, David Stout; Erik Oxenstjerna, Patrick Hyland; Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie, John Bellemer; Carlo Gustavo, Igor Golovatenko; Arnold Messenius, Thomas Faulkner; Johan Messenius, Daniel Szeili; Un Pescatore, Joe Morgan; Voce Interna, Hannah Sawle; conductor, Andrew Greenwood; director, Stephen Medcalf; assistant director, Conor Hanratty; set designer, Jamie Vartan; lighting director, Paul Keogan; choreographer, Paula O’Reilly.
Wexford Festival Opera, 23rd October - 3rd November 2013