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Reviews

Wexford Festival Opera, 2017
28 Oct 2017

Wexford Festival Opera 2017

‘What’s the delay? A little wind and rain are nothing to worry about!’ The villagers’ indifference to the inclement weather which occurs mid-way through Jacopo Foroni’s opera Margherita - as the townsfolk set off in pursuit of two mystery assailants seen attacking a man in the forest - acquired an unintentionally ironic slant in Wexford Opera House on the opening night of Michael Sturm’s production, raising a wry chuckle from the audience.

Wexford Festival Opera, 2017

A review Claire Seymour

Above: Anne Sophie Duprels (the closing image of Risurrezione)

Photo credit: all images by Clive Barda

 

Battered by Hurricane Ophelia during the preceding weekend, this south-east tip of Ireland had suffered power cuts lasting several days, leading to disrupted and abandoned dress rehearsals and countless administrative complications and obstacles. With the power still down just a day before curtain-up on the 66th Wexford Opera Festival, there must have been doubts whether there would be an Opening Night at all. As it was, only the fireworks fell victim to the prevailing gusts and hail (and have been rescheduled for the closing celebrations). This Festival, the tenth in the National Opera House, promised much and did not disappoint, although the hits did not always come from the quarters that one might have expected.

Jacopo Foroni (1825-58) has given Wexford one of its biggest successes in recent years: Stephen Medcalf’s 2013 production of the composer’s Cristina, regina di Svezia garnered great accolades from audiences and critics, and became the deserving winner of the ‘Best Rediscovered Work’ category at the 2014 International Opera Awards. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Artistic Director David Agler has decided to plunder Foroni’s slender operatic catalogue in search of another winner. In the event, Margherita, Foroni’s first opera (composed in 1848 when he was in his early twenties), is no match for Cristina’s musical invention, remarkably coloristic orchestration, stirring characterisation and dramatic persuasiveness; but, it is melodically rich, balances vivacity and comic drollery with theatrical tension, and was given a slick and entertaining presentation by director Michael Sturm and set/costume designer Stefan Rieckhoff.

Giorgio Giachetti’s libretto, based upon Eugène Scribe’s op éra-comique, Marguerite (originally intended to for François-Adrien Boieldieu), has a characterful cast, a central story of frustrated love, and rather too many subplots. Roberto uses his connections to the newly appointed mayor, Ser Matteo, to badger the pretty Margherita, a rich orphan, to marry him. Margherita, however, is in love with the soldier Ernesto; when the latter’s regiment returns from the wars, Ernesto’s sister Giustina begins to plan the forthcoming nuptials. Her preparations are disrupted, however, when Ernesto’s cap is found at a ‘crime scene’ and he is accused of having attacked Count Rodolfo, his colonel, and is arrested; in fact, he was trying to help the Count avoid a duel arising from his own amorous entanglements. With Ernesto holed up in the town gaol, Roberto seizes his chance to bully Margherita: he will engineer her lover’s release if she agrees to marry him. To save Ernesto from the scaffold, she submits to this demand. At a timely moment, Count Rodolfo re-appears and reveals that Ernesto is innocent; the latter is freed but is dismayed to learn that Margherita has proved faithless, until Giustina enlightens him and the lovers are reunited. At which point, the Count once again saves the day when he recognises Roberto as his assailant: the marriage contract is declared null and void, and Roberto is carted off to prison leaving the villagers to sing in praise of the strength of true love.

margherita-adj-clive-barda-resized.jpgThe cast of Margherita.

Rieckhoff’s set, fronted by a semi-transparent drop which adds detail and perspective to the street-corner interchange, cobble-stone piazza and imposing façade of the Church of the Blessed Virgin and Martyrs behind, ingeniously conjures post-WW2 Italy. The girls’ frocks and the chaps’ shirts are a clatter of primary colours as they whizz about on bicycles, gather in the piazza to welcome home the troops, dance and cavort during a celebratory street party, and jostle in the town-hall court-room. Sturm’s choreography is excellent: despite the fact that the stage is often crowded, there is never clutter or stasis, only naturalistic energy and movement. And, he is ably aided by the neat shifts and transformations of Rieckhoff’s set: a tree descends and the backcloth is bathed in night-blue light to evoke a ruined castle; a square of patterned wallpaper is lowered to create an intimate bedroom interior; the chorus nonchalantly carry chairs, beds and tables on and off, creating merry-go-round scene-changes. And, the Wexford Festival Chorus were in fine voice (on 20th October), particularly in the first 20 minutes or so, during which the drama unfolds in a swiftly moving sequence of ensemble scenes (although thereafter Foroni has a tendency to mimic Verdi in rum-te-tum mode).

As the eponymous beauty, Alexandra Volpe revealed a mezzo-soprano that can convey both integrity and mischief: reunited with Ernesto she removes her stocking suspender to adorn his hat with a memento of her love. Margherita’s extended Act 2 aria was a highpoint of the evening: Volpe used the layers of velvety warmth in her voice to make us feel the maligned, sacrificial innocent’s suffering; she was complemented by a beautiful violin obbligato. Giuliana Gianfaldoni was a lively counterpart as the breezy Giustina, relishing her role as the community’s source of gossip and direction. Gianfaldoni’s soprano has enormous power and clarity; and, just when I was beginning to find these qualities a little unalleviated, she reduced her voice to the most exquisite wisp of a pianissimo in the Act 2 duet with Margherita.

GG -clive-barda-resized.jpg Giuliana Gianfaldoni.

Andrew Stenson was a little ‘wooden’ as Ernesto, but perhaps that’s the nature of the role; his tenor was bright and true, however, and one could feel his delight when he nailed the top Cs beautifully in his Act 2 aria, poised on the scaffold, anticipating an undeserved, tragic end. Yuriy Yurchuk gave a masterclass in how, with scant time and space, to inject a role with a profundity not immediately apparent in the action, or indeed the score. Count Rodolfo’s Act 1 aria was both nuanced and psychologically weighty.

As Ser Matteo, the fittingly named Matteo d’Apolito milked the overture-accompanying mime to amusing effect, wandering insouciantly into the piazza swinging a leather briefcase from which he pulled a flask of piping hot coffee and a newspaper, settling himself comfortably into a chair to declare, as the townsfolk celebrated his new appointment, that he’s the perfect job: he intends to stroll, eat and drink and do nothing! The Mayor’s Act 1 duet with his scheming nephew Roberto is engagingly choreographed with both d’Apolito and Filippo Fontana’s indignant Roberto indulging in a panoply of deft comic gestures. Fontana has shown us his comic nous before at Wexford ( Cagnoni - Don Bucefalo ; Nino Rota - Il Capello Di Paglia Di Firenza ) and it’s clear from this performance that he continues to sharpen his skills and his ability to darken his bass as required.

Conductor Timothy Myers kept things bustling along, even when the score lacked originality, and the Wexford Festival Orchestra entered into the spirit of the drama with lightly enunciated playing that was punctuated by exuberant dramatic motifs. At the close, the greying long-johns and vests which had dangled from the overhead clothes’-line at the start were substituted by a primary-coloured fashionable array - all wars, of state and of love, are truly over.

Another, perhaps the biggest, enticement of this Wexford Festival was the prospect of hearing Lise Davidsen sing the title role in Fiona Shaw’s production of Cherubini’s Medea, for which the Norwegian soprano had whetted our appetites at the Wigmore Hall earlier this year. Davidsen was, as anticipated, a towering force blending epic fury, violence and indecision. Sadly, her statuesque grandeur and gravity did not really find a happy home in Shaw’s ‘concept’ of the opera, in which the mundane outweighed the mythic and petulance triumphed over perspicacity.

Davidsen Barda.jpgLise Davidsen.

Shaw seems to have striven to wipe the slate clean of her own, acclaimed theatrical interpretations and embodiments of Euripides’ tragedy: indeed, in an interview reproduced in the Festival programme book she remarks, ‘It’s useful to have Euripides in the hinterland, but I’m starting from scratch, without preconceptions.’ Nothing wrong with that, but alarm bells started ringing when I read that Shaw, anxious not to let her experience of performing (during 2001-03) Deborah Warner’s vision of the play (for which Shaw received the Evening Standard Award for Best Actress and a Tony nomination), had decided to delegate the determining of the visual ‘concept’ to designer Annemarie Woods - do not visual and narrative elements go hand-in-hand?; and, that initial plans had involved turning the preparations for Jason and Glauce’s wedding, which form Act 1, into a ‘hen night’. This idea and setting had then been jettisoned in favour of a gymnasium. And, because the aftermath of the French Revolution was at the forefront of Shaw’s mind - the opera was premiered in 1797 - the obsessive fitness fanatics cum wedding guests swapped their lycra for mock-eighteenth-century hoops, silks, flounces and wigs.

It sounded, and subsequently looked in realisation, somewhat random - and almost entirely trivial. Myths are not simply ‘history’ or ‘stories’; nor is myth a singular mode of thought. Watching this production, I was put in mind of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s remark that myths ‘get thought in man unbeknownst to him’. Surely, there must be some pattern of conceptual thought evident as the mythic tale unfolds? But, Shaw and Woods gave us simply gimmicks, hyperactivity and frippery. Having filled the gym with a display of exercise and rowing machines, they deemed it imperative that all of them be used, incessantly, creating constant visual distraction from the establishment of character and narrative. Champagne was quaffed with abandon. When Medea entered, spoiling the engagement party, she squirted detergent at Creon in a pique of anger, contempt and frustration: perhaps, a single gesture of this nature would have made its mark, but when kitchen-cleaner spray becomes the perennial weapon of choice, disenchantment ensues.

Acts 2 and 3 are set in a dingy bedsit/children’s bedroom which is dominated by a huge rock - described by Shaw as ‘representing the problem of the failure of Jason and Medea’s marriage’ - on which the ghost of Medea’s dead brother is splayed. Volcanic passions, perhaps? This accident-trap is later draped with a red wedding-carpet … only for a cleaner to appear with a carpet-sweeper, thereby puncturing any sense of dignity and regality. As Medea contemplates her revenge she bounces a basket-ball and essays a shot at the hoop - it seems fitting that she misses the target.

Some potentially interesting pathways are opened up at the start. During the overture, Medea’s children play a mime-game which, along with a few words on the house curtain and some childish drawings and squiggles on a white front-drop, fills in the ‘back-story’ - the murder of Medea’s brother, the theft of the Golden Fleece. The latter is given a Damien Hirst-treatment: a glass rectangular box containing the formaldehyde pelt is wheeled on, it’s brown-paper wrapping peeled away for the children’s delectation. Subsequently, however, it’s just a sheepskin rug to be carelessly tossed around.

Thankfully, the cast provided vocal splendour to assuage the visual mish-mash. Davidsen used every inch of her height and every ounce of her vocal heft to convey the all-encompassing force of Medea’s aggrievement, grief and conviction. She was a still centre amid blustery stage business. At times, I questioned the wisdom of such seemingly relentless vocal capaciousness, wondering whether a little less might have been more; but, then the Norwegian soprano turned up the volume still further - what for most would be an effort and an extreme is, for Davidsen, entirely natural. And, she did not neglect Cherubini’s lyricism; moreover, she balanced Medea’s nobility with her very human hesitancy. Davidsen worked hard to make us understand why Medea behaves as she does; the pathos of her final murderous act, the smothering of her children, was deepened when she dragged their pitiful bodies onto the rock, to prevent Jason claiming possession of his dead children. In a different production this would have been a towering performance in all dimensions.

As Medea’s slave, Neris, Raffaella Lupinacci really impressed, singing her Act 2 aria with a haunting penetration which suspended the dramatic haste; her mezzo is beautifully appealing - one wondered how Medea could resist Neris’ pleas, full of both sadness and affection, for her to leave the city of Corinth. Ruth Iniesta’s Glauce was appropriately wary and disturbed in Act 1; Iniesta has an alert lyric soprano, and displayed vocal assuredness, well-centred intonation and strong projection.

Sergey Romanovsky held his own against Davidsen in the two duets for Jason and Medea, finding an almost baritonal colour to match the soprano’s vocal strength. Adam Lau had just the right balance of weight and flexibility as King Creon and - despite his mundane garb - established a regal presence. The children were excellent, never once slipping out of character and, when murdered, lying still with almost unnatural self-discipline for ones so young!

Lise-Davidsen-Rioch-Kinsella-Anthony-Kenna-in-Medea-by-Cherubini-WFO-2017-photo-by-Clive-Barda1-700x455.jpgLise Davidsen, Rioch Kinsella, Anthony Kenna.

Cherubini’s opera is a tragédie lyrique: a noble and elevated drama presented in arias, spoken dialogue (in French), and with opportunities for choruses and ballet. But, in recent times it has become best known to us in the bastardised form performed by Maria Callas: an Italian version, with the original dialogue replaced by the recitatives which Franz Lachner composed thirteen years after Cherubini’s death in 1842. Conductor Stephen Barlow declared their intention to do Cherubini’s original ‘lean, sharp and elegantly classical articulations’ justice: and, the orchestral playing was indeed incisive and pointed, though having adopted the Italian version, the decision to include the odd line or two of spoken dialogue ‘when we believe this is justified - including an extended melodrama of dialogue spoken against and over music when the marriage ceremony is happening offstage’ produced questionable results, tending to hold up the dramatic momentum.

The third of Wexford’s 2017 productions, Franco Alfano’s Risurrezione (1904), rather slipped under the radar in the lead-up to the Festival but, for this listener at least, it was the ‘hit’ of the trio. Best known for his role in completing Puccini’s Turandot, and languishing in the shadow of Puccini and other verismo masters such as Mascagni, Alfano is in fact the composer of nine operas, of which Risurrezione was his first major success. He was in his mid-twenties, making a living writing ballets for the Folies-Bergère, when he read Tolstoy’s novel, Resurrection. Two friends, Camillo Traversi and Cesare Hanau, helped him devise a libretto and five months later the opera was completed.

Each of the four acts centres around an encounter between Prince Dimitri and Katiusha; the latter has been taken into Sofia Ivanovna’s house as a young girl, and has spent her childhood growing up beside her ward’s nephew, under the condescending eye of the servants. When Dimitri returns home, he seduces and then abandons Katiusha; finding herself pregnant and evicted from Ivanovna’s home - ‘contaminated goods’ - she waits at a train station for her beloved, hoping that he will return and redeem her. Espying him with a woman on his arm, she disappears into the snowy night. In Act 3 we learn that she has become a prostitute; wrongly convicted of murder she is awaiting transportation to Siberia when she is visited in prison by Dimitri who, assailed by guilt (he had been on the jury that convicted Katiusha), vows to make amends. Learning that the son she bore has died, the Prince offers to marry her, but the drunken, debauched Katiusha seems beyond redemption. Act 4 takes place in Siberia: Dimitri arrives bearing a pardon for Katiusha but she chooses to marry Simonson, a fellow prisoner, while admitting her unwavering love for Dimitri. Despite his own misery, Dimitri rejoices in Katiusha’s spiritual ‘resurrection’.

Whereas Tolstoy’s novel had, inevitably, a strong political dimension - a critique of the ills inflicted by Russia’s ruling elite - the opera focuses not on the spiritual and ethical rebirth of the noble Prince Dmitri [Nekludoff] but on the fall and redemption of the young girl whom he seduces and abandons - a spiritual ‘resurrection’ may prove discomforting and dissatisfying for the modern viewer. When Katiusha avowed her love for the man who has condemned her to a life of degeneracy, punishment and terrible suffering, her words - ‘You have always been so good to me’ - incited incredulity and irritation in this observer. The Prince has secured her pardon and given her a ‘free choice’: they are now united by their mutual love … but, still, such victimhood sticks in the throat! The final image offered to us by director Rosetta Cucchi and designer Tiziano Santi - a sun-drenched field of wheat in which Katiusha and her younger alter ego, the embodiment of lost innocence who has shadowed Katiusha throughout the drama, dance with freedom and joy - was just too saccharine for my taste, though probably true to Alfano’s conception. One can imagine Janáček being drawn to Tolstoy’s tale - but he’d have engineered a different ending …

On the whole, though, Santi’s sets are persuasive and emotionally probing. The red-glowing warmth of the Russian reception room of Act 1, in which Katiusha is beguiled by Dimitri’s deceitful charming, is replaced by the chill starkness of the lamplit bench on the station platform in Act 2. Impatient passengers loiter and bustle beside glimpses of train track and beneath the oversize clock - an emblem of the terribly slow passing of time experienced by the desperate, though still hopeful, Katiusha. One might have longed for Dimitri and his female acquaintance to have been held for just a fraction longer in Katiusha’s vision, to impress the pain of her abandonment and rejection. But, there was no doubting the biting nip in the air. A black box lined with rows of labour-desks recreated the brutal inhumanity of a Russian prison with discomforting realism in Act 3; one could almost feel the cold gusts piercing through the white cracks. No wonder the condemned women - superbly embodied by the Wexford Festival Chorus - found solace in cigarettes and vodka. Act 4 took us to the white wastes of Siberia, where the pitiless cold cleanses away all past lives and identities.

Much of the success of this production was due to Anne Sophie Duprels’ unwavering commitment in the role of Katiusha. Twice, recently, I have admired Duprels’ unstinting vocal and theatrical integrity ( La Voix humaine ; Zazà ) and here she again excelled and astonished. Scarcely absent from the stage, she encompassed the challenging vocal and dramatic range of the role with assurance, spiralling from gauche impressionability to incipient passion, from abysmal desolation to transcendental ecstasy. Alongside the heart-rending cries and virulent ripostes, Duprels floated some exquisite pianos. She balanced radiance with harshness, and fortitude with vulnerability. This was true singing-acting: no wonder Duprels looked exhausted, overcome and elated in equal measure at the close.

Anne-Sophie-Duprels-Chorus-in-Risurrezione-by-Alfano-WFO-2017-photo-by-Clive-Barda1.jpgAnne Sophie Duprels and Chorus.

At times the drama struck me as Hardy-esque: Katiusha is a sort of hybrid of Madame Butterfly, Pushkin’s Tatiana and Hardy’s Tess; even the opera’s ‘happy ending’ seems a parallel of the uncomfortable marriage of Angel Clare and Liza-Lu at the close of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. So, it seemed fitting when tenor Gerard Schneider first entered, debonair in boots, breeches and blue frock-coat, looking unnervingly like a cross between Terence Stamp’s Sergeant Troy and Leigh Lawson’s Alec Stokes-d’Urberville! Schneider sang with honeyed warmth - in fact, so beautiful was his tone that at times it was difficult to remember that Dimitri has behaved with selfish, reckless irresponsibility. Perhaps that’s the point: Schneider just about pulled off the difficult task of making us feel some sympathy for the abusing aristocrat; after all, as he says when he finds Katiusha in prison, debauched, degenerated, utterly ‘spoiled’, it is his Calvary that begins here too.

Dmitri and Katiusha.jpg Gerard Schneider and Anne Sophie Duprels.

Given that he had only moments to establish Simonson’s character, baritone Charles Rice gave an astonishingly captivating performance as the compassionate prisoner and his Act 4 aria was incredibly moving. Louise Innes (Sofia Ivanovna), Veta Pilipenko (Korableva/Vera) and, especially, Henry Grant Kerswell (Kritzloff/Contadino) were all dramatically persuasive. Romina Tomasoni made a strong impression as Ivanovna’s supercilious housekeeper, Matrena Pavlovna, and as Katuishka’s confidante, Anna. Her performance was all the more admirable given that Tomasoni had stepped in at short notice just a few hours before to replace the indisposed Andrew Stenson, presenting a stunningly vibrant lunchtime recital in St Iberius Church. Tomasoni’s programme ranged from a Vivaldi lament and Handel’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ (Almira), which showcased her idiomatic and expressive ornamentation, through embodiments of Cherubino, Charlotte (Werther), Carmen and Rosina ( Il barbiere). But, it was Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne - suavely phrased with imperceptible registral shifts and richly layered tone - which brought the house down: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a singer performing a lunchtime recital at Wexford receive a standing ovation before the final item.

Although one feels the shadow of Puccini resting on Alfano’s score, the composer undoubtedly had an unerring instinct for the telling melodic motif which could push down the dramatic and emotional accelerator - often to the floor! - and under conductor Francesco Cilluffo the WFO played with impassioned richness and deep, vibrant colour. At the close, I would happily have gone back to the beginning for a repeat performance.

Wexford also offered us the customary three Short Works (performed in Clayton Whites Hotel) and, again, one couldn’t confidently place a bet where the riches might lie. Perhaps the most enticing proposition was Andrew Synnott’s new double bill of two of Joyce’s stories from Dubliners, ‘Counterparts’ and ‘The Boarding House’, directed by Annabelle Comyn and designed by Paul O’Mahony. (This is a co-production with Opera Theatre Company which will be performed at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin, 9th-11th November.) The performance I attended (20 th October) received a very warm, appreciative reception, and my own slight misgivings probably stemmed from my familiarity with the literary texts. But, any operatic adaptation inevitably necessitates alterations and shifts in emphasis, and both design and delivery were strong.

Joyce’s ‘Counterparts’ focuses on the economic and emotional stagnation that results from meaningless, repetitive working-life in early-twentieth-century Dublin. The title refers to the endless/pointless copying of legal documents undertaken by those such as the protagonist, Farrington, an infinite repetition that is echoed in the ‘rounds’ that are bought in the public house after work each evening, paradoxically, to assuage the Dubliners’ paralysis. O’Mahony’s clever set shifted almost imperceptibly from the claustrophobic office where Farrington is bullied and humiliated by his superior, Mr Alleyne, to the public house where he is humbled by the arm-wrestler, Weathers, the typewriters whipped from the marble topped tables and replaced by a tumble of glasses and bottles.

Cormac Lawlor was superb as Farrington: comically incompetent, pitifully vulnerable, shamefully irresponsible, tragically aggressive. Left alone in the office at the end of the day, Farrington’s lament about his lack of opportunity and money was especially probing; pathetically, he pawns his watch to buy the alcohol on which he is dependent, but which will not even provide him with the solace of inebriation. Arthur Riordan has adapted Joyce’s text and isolates particular phrases and lines to good effect: Farrington’s ‘Blast him!’ is rather over-used, but the protagonist’s riposte to his domineering employer’s question, ‘Do you think me an utter fool?’ - ‘I don’t think sir, that that’s a fair question to put to me’ - is effectively employed to create a vibrant ensemble of disdainful reflection.

Dubliners.jpgDubliners.

Andrew Gavin was a striking Mr Alleyne, pomposity and puerility embodied; and Gavin - like all the cast, taking multiple roles - needed barely moments, just a change of jacket, a loosening of tie, to transform himself into Farrington’s drinking partner, O’Halloran. Gavin had performed earlier that day alongside soprano Sinead Campbell, in a lunchtime programme, The Thomas Moore Songbook, compiled, presented and accompanied by Una Hunt, which showcased diverse settings of Moore’s songs, from authentic folk ballads to art songs by composers ranging from Stanford to Duparc. Gavin was at his best in Schumann’s Venetian airs, drawn from the composer’s Myrthen cycle, where the tenor’s strong sense of line and articulate diction was showcased; Campbell’s performance of Duparc’s ‘Élégie’ impressively negotiated the song’s wide range, extended phrases and sustained tones.

The need to alleviate the prevailingly male vocal roles in ‘Counterparts’ was accomplished by casting soprano Anna Jeffers as Weathers, a portrait of masculine conceit and arrogance, a role which she carried off with aplomb. Emma Nash was a vibrant presence as the rich client Mrs Delacour, the flirtatious barmaid, and as Farrington’s vulnerable, pyjama-clad son Tom who, having let the fire go out in his mother’s absence (she is at chapel), earns a beating from his father. Rory Beaton’s lighting was appropriately discomforting at this point. There was, however, little sense of Joyce’s bitter critique of Catholicism at the close, a significant dimension of the story, when Tom tells his father that if he stops beating him, he will say a Hail Mary for him.

Synnott’s score - for piano and string quartet - to some extent mimics Joyce’s representation of ‘paralysis’, comprising as it does a mosaic of ostinato fragments, assembled like a jig-saw; any one of which may be dramatically illustrative but which, together, do not really form a coherent whole. The text setting is Britten-esque which some effective rhythmic displacements, but multi-syllabic words tend to be rushed; when we need to hear the text, the accompaniment is appropriately and effectively reduced to a medley of sustained strings, piano chord punctuations and pizzicato interjections.

There was one major change to the narrative of ‘The Boarding House’ which significantly altered the perspective and satire, and reduced the ironic weight of the ending. In this story, unusually, Joyce takes us to a world dominated and organised by women: Mrs Mooney, a butcher’s daughter, is, Joyce tells us ‘a determined woman’: her husband ‘drank, plundered the till, ran headlong into debt’, and when he ‘went for his wife with the cleaver’, Mrs Mooney ‘went to the priest and got a separation from him with care of the children’. O’Mahony attests to Mrs Mooney’s background via the carcasses, cleavers and hand-saws that hang behind the glass, replacing the whiskey bottles of ‘Counterparts’; and the carving knife that rests menacing alongside the hunk of dinner-time meat tells its own tale. But, the libretto does not fully convey Mrs Mooney’s striking power, as a woman, in a patriarchal, Catholic society - a power which has led her to self-determination.

Synnott and O’Mahony turn Mrs Mooney’s son, Jack, into our ‘narrator’ - a self-confessed cad who is, in his own words, as quick with his wits as he is with his mitts; but Jack doesn’t inform us of Mrs Mooney’s rapacious intent to marry her daughter off to one of their unsuspecting boarders - a Mr Doran, who is ‘not rakish or loud-voiced like the others’ - by demanding ‘reparation’ for the deflowerment of her daughter. Joyce presents marriage as a ‘trap’, sprung by a conniving mother and her daughter on a sober young man; whereas the opera presents Mrs Mooney as oppressive and disapproving of her daughter, Joyce makes clear that Polly has been nudged towards her fate by her mother. Mr Doran agrees to marry the girl he has, almost inadvertently, kissed, out of concern for conventional morality and fear of losing a lucrative position - not, as in the opera, because he fears the reprobation of his family. ‘[H]is instinct urged him to remain free’ and he ‘had a notion he was being had’, but he cannot face the realities and risks of action - he is another of Joyce’s paralysed Dubliners. At the close of Joyce’s tale, Polly has convinced herself that marriage will bring her happiness; at the close of the opera, recognising her husband-to-be’s sadness, she is served up like a sacrificial lamb. She is, in Joyce’s tale, sacrificed at the altar of her mother’s greed, but she does not realise it; hence, Synnott and Riordan deprive the tale of its most painful irony.

Despite this, we are again presented with a striking, swift dramatic skewering of pretence and hypocrisy. Anna Jeffers was a fearsome Mrs Mooney, Emma Nash a charming blend of ingenue and seductive opportunist. By repeatedly seating ‘Bob’ [Doran] (Andrew Gavin) with his back to the audience - as during Mrs Mooney’s interrogation of her daughter, or when Polly urges Doran to resolve the dilemma - Comyn mimics the reticence of Joyce’s narrator in revealing Doran’s feelings. The boot of Jack Mooney on the kitchen table was, I felt, an unnecessarily aggressive presence; the threat to Mr Doran’s public reputation at work and within the Church - Joyce tells us that ‘he had been employed for thirteen years in a great Catholic wine-merchant’s office’ and that the ‘recollection of his confession of the night before was a cause of acute pain to him’ - is sufficient to make a man of Mr Doran’s conformist inclinations cower. Overall, though, these were compelling dramatic vignettes: perhaps they might benefit from expansion - each story seems to hold a wealth of nuance and inference, worthy of a more extended treatment.

Rossini’s La Scala di seta (The Silken Ladder), a one-act farsa comica in fifteen scenes, is mostly known to audience for its spirited overture, and its panoply of secret rendezvous and mistaken identities promised more insouciant entertainment the following afternoon. Written in 1812 when the composer was only 20 years old, the opera’s plot and characters are rooted in the commedia tradition. Giulia, an opera singer, has secretly married Dorvil, against her guardian Dormont’s wishes, and each night lets down the eponymous silken ladder so that he may climb into her room. Dormont wishes his charge to marry Blansac; his old retainer, Germano, spies on the amorous intriguers. Much misunderstanding and meddling ensue but eventually Giulio tricks Blansac into falling for her cousin Lucilla and all ends well.

Luca Dalbosco’s over-elaborate set - more bordello than back-stage boudoir, with countless ladders draped in silk, a chaise-longue and an over-laden dressing-table crammed onto the platform - made things even more complicated than they need have been, and potentially treacherous for the cast. The overture (played by music director Tina Chang, who had accompanied Tomasoni with similar unassuming accuracy and grace just a few hours earlier), was neatly dramatised by director Nathan Troup. Germano (Filippo Fontana), crept in bearing the diva’s flowers and chocolates, and finding the latter to his distaste hastily shoved a half-eaten sweet back into the box before Giulia’s (Galina Bakalova) arrival. Bakalova donned a towering wig and passed through the stage curtain erected stage left, to perform to a posse of adoring fans whose slow-motion clapping and rose-throwing was visible through the open curtain. This swiftly established where the egos and eccentricities lay, but thereafter the crowded platform proved impractical for deft comic gesture. There were not many laughs to be had and it did not help that Rory Beaton’s red-hued, dim lighting seemed to cast a patina of grey over the characters, though perhaps that was just a peculiarity of the angle from which I was viewing the action.

The cast were rather uneven. Best of the bunch was Fontana, whose Germano was a mixture of drollery and dunceness. The role comprises a lot of recitative and here, and in the numerous duets with Giulia, Fontana proved himself a strong singer-actor; he had to wait a while for his aria moment, but when it came ‘Amore Dolcemente’ was full of lyric charm and accurately sung, with firm, full tone. Chase Hopkin’s Dormant was also a strong, convincing presence (despite being lumbered with a silly, spiralling goatee) and Cecilia Gaetani made much of the small role of Lucilla singing her aria, ‘Sento talor nell’anima’, with grace and clarity.

As Giulia, Bakalova acted with spirit and sparkle, but her soprano was often shrill and hard; she whipped through the coloratura precisely, but did not win our sympathy for the flustered diva. Ji Hyun Kim struggled with Dorvil’s ardent tenor aria, ‘Vedro qual Sommo Incanto’; the dynamics were unsubtle, the intonation strayed, and the bravura section went entirely adrift. I’ve heard and enjoyed the Korean tenor’s performances at the ROH, where he was a Jette Parker Young Artist, many times, so perhaps this was just a case of first-performance nerves.

Some of the ensembles were ragged, but the finale scene, which saw the entire cast tied up with the silken ladder before they wriggled free from Dormant’s clutches and accusations, bubbled nicely. Overall, though, the production fell rather flat. Thank goodness for Fontana who, despite Germano’s incompetence, proved an utterly safe pair of hands at the core of the drama.

That just left Rigoletto to complete the trio of Short Works. One might be forgiven for agreeing with director Roberto Recchia who, in his programme note, wrote of this most well-known of Verdi’s operas, ‘What is left to be said by the poor director?’ But, that would be to under-estimate Recchia who has proved year after year at Wexford that he can be relied on to distil the essence of a work and communicate it to the audience with precision, focus and impact. Here, his answer to his own question was pertinent: ‘Maybe nothing, if not digging as deep as possible into every character.’ And, Recchia was ably aided by his talented cast, most particularly by his hunch-backed, vengeful jester.

Together with his stage/costume designer, Dalbosco, and lighting designer, Beaton, Recchia offered a masterclass in just how much can be achieved with minimal means: and, the Act 3 Quartet was the pinnacle of such discerning visual and dramatic conception. Prevailing shadows and swirling mist conjured a sinister mien, which was intensified by the menacing carnival masks donned by the Duke’s courtiers - a threatening band of vicious rabble-rousers - and Rigoletto himself. Just two black blocks were required to evoke the ducal palace, raising Aidan Coburn’s preening Duke of Mantua to a position of worshipful elevation. As Recchia says, we all know ‘what happens’: and he foreshadowed the tragic outcome of Monterone’s curse in the opening visual image - a body-bag centre-forestage, over which a distraught figure bowed in grief before lifting his burden and bearing it through the curtain at the rear. The subsequent reprise of this image was replete with pain and pathos.

Occasionally I felt that Music Director Giorgio D’alonzo pushed the tempo along a little too impetuously in the ensembles; but, the pared-down performance, lasting 90 minutes, told a clear tale and the singers were well cast. Coburn has plentiful bright ring and rattled off ‘La donna è mobile’ with confidence and éclat. Thomas D Hopkinson was a forceful presence as Monterone, his dreadful bitterness apparent in the dark hues of Hopkinson’s bass. Toni Nežić has quite a light-weight voice for Sparafucile, but it’s an appealing sound and he acted convincingly; this was no cardboard cut-out villain, but a three-dimensional, conflicted rogue who retained some small sense of moral integrity. As Maddalena, Veta Pilipenko revealed a richly coloured full mezzo-soprano; when she begged Sparafucile to spare the Duke’s life it was easy to believe that she was motivated by genuine love. The minor roles - Giovanna (Vivien Conacher), Count Ceprano (Malachy Frame), Matteo Borsa (Simon Chalford Gilkes) and Marullo (Steven Griffin) were all more than competently filled.

Giuliana Gianfaldoni was the vocal and visual embodiment of ‘goodness’; Gilda’s love for her father was fiercely communicated; her silky, pure soprano caressed ‘Caro nome’, and the ornamentation was angelically clean and sweet. But, it was Charles Rice’s Rigoletto who held the audience rapt; this was a tremendously committed performance, as detailed vocally as it was dramatically. This Rigoletto held his crooked body at an angle from his condescending tormentors; masked or not, his face was bent slightly downwards - he never allowed himself to catch their eyes. Every word was clear and made to serve the characterisation. Rice’s baritone is full of different hues and textures, and we heard them all; perhaps a little more light and shade in terms of dynamics might have been the icing on the cake, but who could fault such a committed, captivating performance? Rice looked both overjoyed and overcome at the close; he fully deserved his ovation.

And so my 2017 Wexford Festival drew to a close all too quickly, with only the thought of next year’s programme to cheer me up! In 2018, once again eschewing German repertoire, David Agler has chosen to present a double bill of Saint-Saëns’La Princesse Jaune and Franco Leoni’s L’oracolo, Dinner at Eight by William Bolcom, and the original version of Gounod’s Faust.

Claire Seymour

Foroni: Margherita (20th October)
Conte Rodolfo - Yuriy Yurchuk, Ser Matteo - Matteo d’Apolito, Margherita - Alessandra Volpe, Ernesto - Andrew Stenson, Giustina - Giuliana Gianfaldoni, Roberto - Filippo Fontana, Gasparo - Ji Hyun Kim; Director - Michael Sturm, Conductor - Timothy Myers, Set and Costume Designer - Stefan Rieckhoff, Lighting Designer - D.M. Wood.

Alfano: Risurrezione (21st October)
Prince Dimitri - Gerard Schneider, Katiusha - Anne Sophie Duprels, Simonson - Charles Rice, Governanate/Anna - Romina Tomasoni, Sofia Ivanovna - Louise Innes; Director - Rosetta Cucchi, Conductor - Francesco Cilluffo, Set Designer - Tiziano Santi, Costume Designer - Claudia Pernighotti, Lighting Designer - D.M. Wood.

Cherubini: Medea (22nd October)
Medea - Lise Davidsen, Glauce - Ruth Iniesta, Neris - Raffaella Lupinacci, Jason - Sergey Romanovsky, King Creon - Adam Lau; Director - Fiona Shaw, Conductor - Stephen Barlow, Set and Costume Designer - Annemarie Woods, Assistant Director - Ella Marchment, Lighting Designer - D.M. Wood, Choreographer - Kim Brandstrup.

Synnott: Dubliners (20th October)
Polly/Mrs Delacour/Barmaid/Tom - Emma Nash, Mother/Weathers - Anna Jeffers, Bob/Alleyne/O'Halloran - Andrew Gavin, Jack/Flynn - David Howes, Higgins - Peter O' Donohue, Farrington - Cormac Lawlor; Stage Director - Annabelle Comyn, Music Director - Andrew Synnott, Set Designer - Paul O'Mahony, Costume Designer - Joan O'Clery, Lighting Designer - Rory Beaton.

Rossini: La Scala di seta (21st October)
Dormont - Chase Hopkins, Giulia - Galina Bakalova, Lucilla - Cecilia Gaetani, Dorvil - Ji Hyun Kim, Blansac - Nicholas Morton, Germano - Filippo Fontano; Stage Director - Nathan Troup, Music Director - Tina Chang, Stage & Costume Designer - Luca Dalbosco, Lighting Designer - Rory Beaton.

Verdi: Rigoletto (22nd October)
Rigoletto - Charles Rice, Gilda - Giuliana Gianfaldoni, Duke of Mantua - Aidan Coburn, Sparafucile - Toni Nežić, Maddalena - Veta Pilipenko, Giovanna - Vivien Conacher, Count Ceprano - Malachy Frame, Matteo Borsa - Simon Gilkes, Count Monterone - Thomas D Hopkinson, Marullo - Steven Griffin; Stage Director - Roberto Recchia, Music Director - Giorgio D’alonzo, Stage & Costume Director - Luca Dalbosco, Lighting Designer - Rory Beaton.

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