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Reviews

24 Oct 2018

Wexford Festival 2018

The 67th Wexford Opera Festival kicked off with three mighty whacks of a drum and rooster’s raucous squawk, heralding the murderous machinations of the drug-dealing degenerate, Cim-Fen, in Franco Leoni’s one-act blood-and-guts verismo melodrama, L’oracolo … alongside an announcement by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan, of an award of €1 million in capital funding for the National Opera House to support necessary updating and refurbishment works over the next 3 years.

Dinner at Eight, Wexford Festival Opera (European premiere, Saturday 20th October 2018)

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Cast of Dinner at Eight
Photo credit: Clive Barda

 

Not a bad 10th birthday present for the House, which opened in 2008 and was designated Ireland’s National Opera House in 2014, and one which this year’s Festival confirmed is greatly deserved.

Opening night offered a double dose of verismo viciousness and violence: a compelling alternative to Cav & Pag. Born in 1864, Leoni studied alongside Puccini and Mascagni at the Milan Conservatoire under the supervision of Amilcare Ponchielli and Cesare Dominicetti. When he emigrated in London in 1892, aged 28, Londoners took the Milanese composer of operas, sacred works and ballads to their hearts. “Signor Leoni, although a foreigner, has … proved himself a better friend to the cause of English music than most people seem inclined to admit,” wrote ‘G.H.C.’ in the Observer on 7th November 1909, and his view seems to have been shared by many, if contemporary newspaper reports and letter pages are anything to go by.

Correspondents praised Leoni’s instigation of the foundation of the Queen’s Hall Choral Society, of which he became conductor, and admired his endeavours “to inspire his chorus with a genial, warm Southern enthusiasm […] the general effect produced is keen and musicianly in the best sense of the word”. After a performance of Leoni’s oratorio Golgotha at the Queen’s Hall in 1911 one enthusiast, James Bernard Fagan, expressed the somewhat florid opinion that “Mr Leoni has done for sacred music what Francis of Assisi did for Christianity, bidding us look for the spirit of God not in cold, gloomy, formless abstractions on remote unscalable heights, but down on the warm earth - in trees and in flowers and in running waters, in the birds and in the beasts, and in the hearts of men”.

There’s not much evidence of “the spirit of God” in L’oracolo ( The Oracle) which premiered at Covent Garden on 28th June 1905, conducted by André Messager and with Antonio Scotti playing the vicious and venal Cim-Fen. Set in an opium den in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Camille Zanoni’s libretto - based on a Chinese-American story, The Cat and the Cherub, by Chester Bailey Fernald - is swift and sensational. It crams villainy and viciousness, kidnapping and stabbing, strangulation and insanity into its sixty minutes. Its personnel include gamblers and fortune-tellers, drug addicts and reprobates, as well as chattering choruses of children and vendors. The action takes us through the seedy back-streets of 1900 Chinatown, down alley-ways which are choked by the San Francisco fog and the festering stench of the running drains, and teaming with caterwauling costermongers. The opium dens of ‘Hatchet Row’ are ruled by Cim-Fen, a merciless cut-throat who wields his knife with slickness and a smile.

Leon Kim and Joo Won Kang.jpg Leon Kim and Joo Won Kang. Photo Credit: Clive Barda.

The eponymous Oracle predicts that two people will die, and murder follows murder with chilling speed and inevitability. When San-Lui discovers that Cim-Fen has kidnapped the child of the wealthy merchant Hu-Tsin - in a ploy to win the hand of Hu-Tsin’s niece, Ah-Joe, by heroically ‘rescuing’ the infant - Cim-Fen despatches his love rival with an efficient single hatchet-blow to the back of the head. Uin-San-Lui’s father, Uin-Scî, may be of philosophical bent, but that doesn’t stop him displaying his own thuggish resourcefulness and expertise in seeking vengeance. When the blade that he has plunged into Cim-Fen’s back fails in its fatal intent, Uin-Scî calmly winds his son’s killer’s plait around his neck and with delicate deliberation proceeds to strangle him. So peacefully occupied in quiet conversation do the pair appear, seated side-by-side on a bench, that a passing policemen notices nothing amiss.

Director Rodula Gaitanou and designer Cordelia Chisholm leave us in no doubt of the squalor and sadism of life in the ghetto. Dimly lit by Paul Hackenmueller, Chisholm’s set is dominated by a towering, three-story brick edifice which revolves to reveal the business premises of Dr Uin-Scî, a Chinese herbalist, the imposing entrance to the domestic quarters of Hu-Tsin, and the red-lit steps which descend into the bowels of Cim-Fen’s opium den. We are swirled along with the chattering Chinese inhabitants through the network of grimy alleyways. A corner street-light illuminates the coarseness and brutality of the gamblers, drug-takers and drinkers departing Cim-Fen’s den: knives flash in the lamp-light gloom, fists lash out, grievances are born and nurtured. Even the festive spectacle of a Chinese New Year Dragon Procession doesn’t alleviate the shabby sleaziness: the festooning red balloons can’t hide the shabbiness of the parading wagons, and the arching Dragon dips and dives menacingly, glaring with a mean, sharp-toothed stare.

Much of the success of L’oracolo was due to Scotti’s championing of the opera at the Met, where he persuaded General Manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza to present the work in 1915. It became a star vehicle for Scotti - often paired with Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci, L’Amico Fritz and even La boh ème - until 1933, when the 55th performance of the opera served as the Italian baritone’s farewell to the house. Here, Joo Won Kang was entrusted with embodying the repugnant Cim-Fen, and his baritone was darkly aggressive at the bottom, richly coloured in the middle and firm of weight throughout. As Uin-San-Lui, Sergio Escobar provided complementary lightness and beauty, his tenor ringing brightly at the top, though there was little chemistry between Escobar and Elisabetta Farris’s Ah-Joe. But, if their voices didn’t blend with sufficiently powerful rhapsodic intimacy in the duet which is ended by Cim-Fen’s plunging knife, then the gentle beauty of Farris’s soprano did win our pity for the suffering girl, though Gaitanou did little to suggest that Ah-Joe’s grief was followed by mental derangement.

Escobar & Elisabetta Farris.jpg Sergio Escobar and Elisabetta Farris. Photo Credit: Clive Barda.

Leon Kim was superb as Uin-Scî, his grave and authoritative manner never concealing the sincerity of his love or integrity of his belief: the bereaved father’s appeal to the ‘Supreme Divinity of the Western Sky’ to reveal his son’s assassin was both chilling in its implications and compelling in its genuinely human motivation. The role of Hu-Tsin was commandingly sung by Benjamin Cho, while Louise Innes acted and sang convincingly as Hua-Quî, nurse to the kidnapped Hu-Cî. The latter was portrayed with infectious spiritedness by Cillian McCamley, who yawned cheekily during the adults’ rituals and sprinted around mischievously before he was imprisoned by Cim-Fen, first a garbage bin, then down the coal chute.

Conductor Francesco Cilluffo - who led Mascagni’s Isabeau impressively at Opera Holland Park this summer - had the measure of the score’s melodrama and pace, finding both stirring passion and moments of lightness, and the Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera painted the diverse local colours with vividness and energy. There was especially fine playing from the lower strings, particularly during Uin-Scî’s retributive prayer and vow.

Despite the unalleviated ruthlessness and savagery which Leoni and Zanoni dish up, Gaitanou obviously felt there was room for more. Leon Kim’s Chinese herbalist did not consider throttling-by-pigtail to be sufficient punishment for his son’s murderer: instead, he exercised a ritual disembowelment of the barely-breathing Cim-Fen, slicing through clothes, peeling back skin and plunging his hand into the cut-throat criminal’s chest - should we have been in doubt, by the close the latter really was ‘heartless’. And, though the libretto ends with Uin-Scî’s vengeful actions undiscovered, here the clinical killer immediately confessed his crime to the passing policeman, crossing his wrists to indicate that the cuff-links should be clicked into place. The result was not the resumption of ‘normal’ life with which the original concludes, but the unbalancing of the scales of justice.

After the interval, Chisholm’s set was deftly transformed - out with the herbalist and in with Valentino’s cobbler’s shop, the Bella Napoli café replacing the opium den, and laden washing-lines adding to the authenticity of the milieu in the second Act - in order to transfer us from San Francisco’s Chinatown at the turn of the century to New York’s Little Italy in the 1950s. There are no knifings or strangulations in Umberto Giordano’s Mala vita but, like L’oracolo, for a relatively small-scale drama the large-scale musical climaxes pull no emotional punches and hit the theatrical bull’s-eye. Librettist Nicola Daspuro’s lurid tale of Neapolitan low-life - based on a play by Salvatore Di Giacomo and Goffredo Cognetti, which was itself derived from Giacomo’s 1888 short story Il voto (The vow) - was a success at its premiere in Rome’s Teatro Argentina in February 1892, and also surprisingly well-received when, translated into German, it was subsequently presented in Germany and Austria. But, Mala vita didn’t go down so well with the Neapolitans, who were less appreciative of Giordano’s ‘veristic’ - in their eyes, insulting - depiction of the ‘wretched lives’ endured in Naples’ ugly alleyways and slum dwellings.

The opera takes us into what Matilde Serao, the author of Il ventre di Napoli (1884), described as ‘the bowels of Naples’. Vito, who works in a dye-house, believes that the tuberculosis that afflicts him, rather than being an inevitable consequent of the chemicals and fumes he ingests each day, is a punishment from God for his misdemeanours - including his affair with Amalia, of which only her coachman husband Annetiello seems unaware. In hope of a cure and divine forgiveness, Vito vows to give up Amalia and marry a prostitute, thereby saving the fallen woman from a life of degradation and his own soul from damnation. News of his vow travels fast through the slum alleyways and when Cristina drops a rose from her brothel window onto the passing Vito’s shoulders, she is chosen as his path to redemption - to the brothel-regular Annetiello’s amusement and Amalia’s anger. The latter confronts Cristina, and Vito, unable to resist Amalia’s wiles and charms, ditches Cristina along with his plans for physical and moral improvement, leaving Cristina to lament that Jesus obviously didn’t want her to be redeemed after all.

Chorus of Mala vita.jpg Chorus of Mala vita. Photo Credit: Clive Barda.

The expansive anguished and impassioned outbursts of the three protagonists stand out against the musical ‘backdrop’ provided by Giordano of everyday neighbourhood goings-on, and the Wexford Festival Chorus sang, and danced, with real spirit and vivacity. Gaitanou blocked the ensemble scenes more successfully than in L’oracolo, where occasionally the narrow street-strip at the front of the stage seemed crowded and the Dragon procession felt less than fluid. In contrast, the traditional Piedigrotta procession and festivities were vividly animated: the tarantella sprang ebulliently as the Neapolitan folk songs rang out colourfully, the snaking lines of revellers intertwined dexterously, and the children practised their dance-steps at the side of the stage. Similarly, the Chorus captured the intensity of the community’s belief in popular local superstitions during the opening vow scene.

Sergio Escobar & Chorus.jpg Sergio Escobar and Chorus. Photo Credit: Clive Barda.

Escobar was able to tap all the warm lyricism of his tenor and did his best to make Vito’s lurches from fervent prayer to ardent romance convincing, as he switched from devout consumptive to devious charmer in the blink of an eye. The characterisation is largely conveyed through the three main duets which bring Vito and Cristina together in Act 1, Amalia and Cristina into confrontation in Act 2 and subsequently reunite Amalia and Vito, and Escobar was well-partnered by both Dorothea Spilger’s Amalia and Francesca Tiburzi’s Cristina. Spilger was a powerful presence especially in Act 2, which Amalia dominates, communicating all of Amalia’s selfishness, recklessness and wilfulness. Her mezzo-soprano is powerful and focused, and in the lunchtime recital which she gave the following day, in St Iberius’s Church, she revealed its full range of colour, vibrancy and intensity, the dense layers of the bottom being complemented by strikingly intense and pure top notes. Spilger moved effortlessly between high and low, too, and her presentation of songs by Brahms, Schumann and Richard Strauss, and an aria from Lehár’s Zigeunerliebe, confirmed her flawless technique and assurance, and dramatic range.

Dorothea Spilger and Francesca Tiburzi.jpg Dorothea Spilger and Francesca Tiburzi. Photo Credit: Clive Barda.

In Mala vita, however, it was Tiburzi’s Cristina who almost stole the show with her Act 3 prayer, in which the sensuous richness of her mezzo suggested, ironically, that her real passion and fervour was reserved for the spiritual rather than the earthly. Tiburzi had terrific rapport with Escobar’s Vito, and in their Act 1 duet the lucidity and elegance of line evoked the tenderness of a Puccinian melody. Annetiello is a rather limited role (when Giordano revised the opera and represented it as Il voto (The vow) in 1897, he omitted the character) though Leon Kim made the most of it, relaxing his baritone to suggest a good-time-lad preoccupied with the pleasures in life. He joyfully anticipated the hedonistic excesses of the festival to come, as he prepared his horses’ harnesses and plumes, and joined his mates in a rousing brindisi in Act 3. Benjamin Cho and Anna Jeffers provide good support in the roles of Marco and Nunzia respectively.

Cilluffo again conducted with conviction, driving the orchestra to emotive act closures and summoning a rich palette during the Intermezzo in Act 2 which provides some musical pathetic fallacy during the storm, while also creating moments of intimacy through some excellent quiet string passages.

Gaitanou once again exercised directorial license with the ending. In the libretto, as Cristina ends her prayer, the folk song which Annetiello has sung during the festivities is heard again, reminisced by the off-stage chorus, suggesting that while Cristina suffers alone the indifferent community continue their Piedigrotta revels. The sound of the song rouses Cristina who cries contemptuously, “Infami! Vili! Ah!”, before rushing back towards the door of the brothel. Gaitanou clearly can’t envisage Cristina resuming her former employment, so she has the prostitute put a gun to her head and pull the trigger. Giordano, like Leoni, takes the action back to where it started: no moral judgements are made, this is simply how these people live their lives. I would have preferred this ‘slice of life’ plain, without any aesthetic air-brushing.

Indeed, ‘endings’ proved rather problematic at Wexford this year! So composer William Bolcom and librettist Mark Campbell explained during their ‘Meet the Creators’ talk, the morning following the European premiere of Dinner at Eight, a co-production with Minnesota Opera where the opera was first seen in March 2017. Campbell’s libretto offers a very different ‘slice of life’. Based on George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 1932 play, Dinner at Eight is a black comedy which pillories and pities the desperate efforts of a bunch of nervy New York socialites to keep up appearances as the miseries of the Depression, and their own foibles and moral weaknesses, threaten to bring their paper-thin social edifices tumbling down.

During the week preceding Millicent Jordan’s eponymous dinner, the hostess frets about the fate of the gastronomic centrepiece as the lobster-in-aspic nose-dives to the kitchen floor; wails about the lone Hungarian viola player who replaces the planned string quartet; and hysterically laments the non-show of her prime exhibits, Lord and Lady Ferncliffe, who forgo her hospitality for the sunshine of Florida. Meanwhile, her guests struggle with rather more significant worries and reveal their instabilities, insecurities and immoralities. Oliver Jordan’s fragile grip on his shipping line company is being loosened by former actress Carlotta Vance’s need to sell her stock to avoid insolvency, and by the treacherous double-dealing of Dan Packard, a capitalist with political aspirations that his wife Kitty, who is having an affair with her doctor, Joseph Talbot, threatens to undermine. The Jordans’ daughter Paula wants to ditch her boring fiancé for the charms of former matinée idol Larry Renault, an aging has-been whose alcoholism has ravaged the good looks that were his only asset, and who has just been dropped from the cast of his latest Broadway play.

Susannah Billar & Brett Polegata.jpg Susannah Billar and Brett Polegato. Photo Credit: Clive Barda.

Set designer Alexander Dodge has supplied beautiful milieus for Tomer Zvulun’s production, and the sleek art deco elegance is charmingly complemented by Victoria Tzykun’s costumes and boldly lit by Robert Wierzel. The set is framed by a monochrome topographic jigsaw of Manhattan’s monuments - think Escher meets Google Satellite - and screened snippets of the Depression era nod towards the drama’s cinematic past (George Cukor’s 1933 film adaptation included John Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler, Lionel Barrymore and Lee Tracey, among others, in its ensemble cast). Time and place are well-defined: as Bolcom explained, the play was designed for a ‘local’ audience whereas the film had appealed to a broader set of ‘national’ viewers. The clean, cream splendour of the Jordans’ sparkling chandeliers and tortoise-shell inlays is juxtaposed with the tasteless trappings of the Packards’ gaudy, glitzy bedroom where Kitty reclines on the king-size bed, scoffing chocolates from a heart-shaped box and admiring her jewellery as she awaits the next dose of the doctor’s ‘medicine’. We see inside the clinical offices of Oliver Jordan and Dr Joseph Talbot, the walls sporting photographs of cruise liners and cross-sections of the human brain respectively, and witness Paula’s efforts to convince Larry to elope in the charmless hotel room from which the penniless thespian will shortly be evicted when the management’s patience runs out.

Bolcom’s score is a skilful medley of varied pastiches, played by a Broadway-tinted band that can swell with symphonic sumptuousness in-between-scenes, and withdraw to sensitively support the aria-numbers allotted to each of the struggling protagonists. There are some fine woodwind colourings, toe-tapping rhythms, and lush climaxes, but while slick, the score isn’t very memorable.

Richard Cox.jpgRichard Cox. Photo Credit: Clive Barda.

Several of the cast were reprising their roles from the original Minnesota Opera production. Stephen Powell’s warm baritone made Oliver Jordan’s vacillations between honest self-appraisal and the need to sustain Millicent’s delusions and desires real and engaging, and Oliver’s nostalgic duet with Brenda Harris’s larger-than-life but down-on-her-luck Carlotta Vance was one of the musical highlights. Craig Irvin boldly captured Dan Packard’s self-important, arrogant swagger. Susannah Biller’s gold-digging doll, Kitty, was a perfect picture of frothy, pink-swathed self-indulgence; it was hard to suppress a smile when Kitty’s maid, Tina, brightly sung by Laura Margaret Smith, resorted to subtle threats of blackmail to wheedle a diamante bracelet from her mistress. Sharon Carty impressed as Lucy Talbot, skewering her philandering husband’s weaknesses in a strong, purposeful aria of unflinching honesty, while Richard Cox conveyed all of Larry’s despair, frustration and anger in a powerful, bitter aria of failure and regret. Gemma Summerfield made much of Paula’s Act 1 lament about Larry’s wavering and her romantic woes. Presiding overall all with assurance, gloss and gleam was American soprano Mary Dunleavy’s Millicent - buoyant, resourceful, and, despite her histrionic excesses, resilient to the last.

Bolcom’s Sondheim-style idiom is easy on the ear, but the score does not itself have a ‘dramatic’ function. The following morning, Bolcom and Campbell described Dinner at Eight as musical theatre sung by opera singers: I’d go further and say that the music functions like a film score, colouring and joining the scenes but not itself explicating the characters’ motivations, actions and conflicts. Wexford’s Artistic Director David Agler, who conducted the opera in Minnesota and led a slick and neat performance here, has brought several American operas to Wexford during his very successful tenure. I very much admired Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, which formed part of Agler’s first festival programme in 2005, as well as John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles (presented in 2009), and Samuel Barber’s Vanessa (in 2016); but, I was less enamoured by Peter Ash’s The Golden Ticket (in 2010) or by Kevin Puts’ Silent Night (in 2014). On this occasion, whatever my own misgivings, it’s fair to say that during the first performance of Dinner at Eight the Wexford clientele seemed absorbed and engaged.

And, so, what of the ‘ending’ that I mentioned above? A rhymed chorus gets the show underway, as the servants line up to inform us, with insouciant indifference to the impending tragedies, that “The party goes on, like it or not”. And, so it does: despite all the heartache and imminent doom, the gong sounds at eight o’clock and the guests take their places at the dinner table. Oliver’s luxury liners are about to sink as fast as his company’s share price, and he himself will succumb in three months to terminal heart disease, according to Dr Talbot’s grim diagnosis. Larry has committed suicide in his hotel room, by leaving the gas taps on, artfully arranging himself in a chair in one last theatrical pose. Marriages, careers and finances are floundering.

Stephen Powell & Gemma Summerfield.jpg Stephen Powell and Gemma Summerfield. Photo Credit: Clive Barda.

But, the Jordans vow that together they can survive both the evening’s trials and any downturns or upsets that the future brings. And, that’s that: curtain. It’s so inconclusive that the Wexford audience weren’t sure if the opera had actually finished. Act 1 builds towards Millicent’s spectacular hissy fit, and perhaps things should end there, as Act 2 has little further to add. Or, perhaps the opera needs an Act 3, so that we can find out what happens as the guests tuck into the spring lamb that the caterers have delivered to replace the ill-fated crustacean? Whatever, the current ending - which, we were told, the creators reworked when their original idea proved unsatisfactory - leaves us teetering on a cliff-edge then simply steps over the abyss and cheerily sweeps the brittleness aside. Are we to presume that the dinner party goes smoothly and with a swing, to the tuneful backdrop of a Hungarian czardas?

If there were unanswered questions at the close of Dinner at Eight , then the plot of Saverio Mercadante’s Il bravo (1839) proved unfathomable from the start, with the answers to some of the libretto’s mysteries supplied only in the closing scene. Fortunately, before these long-awaited revelations we had enjoyed three hours of terrific singing and playing; I felt veritably swept along on the crest of a grandiose musical wave of Verdian colour and energy.

Born in 1795, Mercadante was a significant figure in the world of nineteenth-century Italian opera. During a career which overlapped with Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi he composed sixty operas, and was for thirty years (1840-1870) the director of the Conservatoire in Naples. Wexford has previously shown faith in Mercadante, staging five of his operas: Elisa e Claudio (1988), Elena da Feltre (1997), Il giuramento (2002), La vestale (2004) and Virginia (2010).

Il bravo certainly confirmed the merits of Wexford’s conviction, though to say that the plot is confused, and confusing, is something of an understatement. Part of the problem is that too many pens have spoiled the plotting: Antonio Bindocci, Gaetano Rossi, Marco Marcelliano Marcello, and Felice Romani all worked on the libretto, which is based on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper by way of Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois’s playLa Venitienne. Set in sixteenth-century Venice, the action begins in media res and without knowledge of prior events and the historical background it’s virtually impossible to discern or make sense of the characters’ motivations and relationships.

Yasko Sato & Ekaterina Bakanova.jpg Yasko Sato and Ekaterina Bakanova. Photo Credit: Clive Barda.

The characters assume multiple disguises and several names: Pisani, who loves Violetta, sports the Bravo’s mask and dagger for much of the opera; the Bravo himself dresses as a Dalmatian nobleman. The protagonists don’t even recognise each other: it’s only at the end that the Bravo (real name, Carlo Ansaldi), and Teodora (formerly known as Violetta) realise that they are in fact husband and wife - Carlo, who had stabbed Violetta when he suspected her of infidelity, had not killed her after all, and the younger Violetta, whom he had ‘adopted’ in order to protect her from the dastardly Foscari’s plans to abduct her, genuinely is his daughter. The drama is driven by the Bravo’s obligation to act as the Council of Ten’s assassin, in order that his father (jailed along with the Bravo for suspected treason) might be spared the death penalty: but, in the closing moments we learn that he has died in jail, so the pact, and its dreadful consequences proves to have been pointless.

The blue mists that swirled across the Wexford stage at the start of Renaud Doucet’s production certainly seemed - along with set designer André Barbe’s sharply angled perspectives of a Venice whose piazzas and waterways are glimpsed through the narrow openings of up-turned palaces - an apt metaphor for the plot’s obscurities. But, Doucet and Barbe muddy the canal waters still further by introducing a troupe of twenty-first-century tourists, trailing suitcases and taking selfies, who wander in anoraks and sneakers amid the patrician Venetians attired in gloriously elaborate sixteenth-century costume. Peering at maps and mobiles, they are apparently just as ‘lost’ as we are - and, I decided, best ignored.

Rubens Pelizzari & Alessandro Luciano.jpgRubens Pelizzari and Alessandro Luciano Photo Credit: Clive Barda.

Indeed, it was easy to push the interlopers to the margins with such terrific singing to distract one’s attention. In the title role, Rubens Pelizzari gave a noble performance, attacking the lines cleanly with his robust tenor. This was a convincing dramatic performance: when, in Act 1, the Bravo returned to his home, divested himself of his mask and sang of his sadness, the murdering henchman seemed less like Sparafucile and more reminiscent of the tortured Rigoletto. In the second tenor role, Alessandro Luciano was less strong as Pisani but he climbed easily enough to the top and his phrasing was elegant.

Gustavo Castillo.jpg Gustavo Castillo. Photo Credit: Clive Barda.

Baritone Gustavo Castillo was a fittingly menacing Foscari and agilely negotiated his cabaletta in Act 1. Yasko Sato seemed a little tentative at first, but her Teodora grew in stature and the Act 3 duet for mother and daughter was the expressive peak of the performance. Ekaterina Bakanova’s richly coloured soprano was just right for Violetta’s intensity and integrity. Conductor Jonathan Brandani whipped up musical storms and strife in the pit, drawing great energy from Mercadante’s striking harmonies and rich instrumental colours, but he also respected Mercadante’s more innovative and translucent orchestrations. All in all, the dramatic muddle was more than outweighed by the splendid musical drama.

Don Pasquale Paula Malone Carty.jpg Cast of Don Pasquale. Photo Credit: Paula Malone Carty.

Alongside the three main productions, Wexford offered its customary three ‘Short Works’, performed at Clayton Whites Hotel, the first of which was an abbreviated production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale staged by Kathleen Stakenas with music director Daniela Pellegrino. If Il bravo had shown just what a complex brain-teaser an opera libretto can be, then Stakenas and designer Angela Giulia Toso chose, literally, to house the Don in a Rubik Cube - an apt metaphor for the puzzles and problems posed for the aging Don by his duplicitous doctor, Malatesta, his nephew Ernesto, and the latter’s amour, Norina. One column of the Cube was withdrawn to reveal the Library where, after his ‘marriage’ to ‘Sofronia’, Pasquale would find his ‘wife’s’ pink pompons, pelicans and ponies perching next to his decanters and leather-bound tomes, as she squandered his fortune on fluffy frivolities. Pasquale never did manage to twist the clues into the right place and solve the riddle, but Stakenas told the tale clearly, though the necessary excisions weakened our appreciation of the schemers’ motivations - though, in any case, I always find their machinations rather too cruel given Pasquale’s ‘crimes’.

Simon Mechliński & Toni Nežić.jpg Simon Mechliński and Toni Nežić. Photo Credit: Paula Malone Carty.

Toni Nežić’s Don Pasquale was morose and muddled, rather than pompous and furious, and in his oversize suit and shirt looked a portrait of misguidedness and misery. Although, despite a liberal sprinkling of hair-whitener, Nežić didn’t look old enough to be Ernesto’s uncle, the Croatian singer’s bass had a warm gravity and a persuasive maturity, and his performance was consistent and engaging. As Norina, Barbara Cole Walton displayed sheen and clarity at the top, and excellent intonation, but her soprano was not equally weighted throughout her range, becoming a little thin in the lower regions. She acted superbly though and, importantly, she resisted over-acting as she commandeered the telephone, doubled the butler’s salary, order to employ a hairdresser and jeweller to serve her needs, and announced to the dismayed and deluded Pasquale that, as he himself was too fat, old and decrepit, Ernesto would be her ‘cavalier’. Antonio Mandrillo was a sweet-toned Ernesto, but his tenor lacks real heft and he struggled a little with the dryness of the acoustic at Whites. Best of the cast was Polish baritone Simon Mechliński: a wily and witty Malatesta, he revealed a secure technique, a relaxed, agile baritone, and a comfortable stage presence, manipulating his patient with glee and ease. Nežić and Mechliński proved equally adept in their patter duet, while Mandrillo and Cole Walton blended well during their nocturnal rendezvous in the Don’s garden.

The following lunchtime, Bernstein à la carte proved less satisfying. Director Roberto Recchia is a regular at Wexford and his Short Work productions have offered much mirth and musical merit - including an ingenious L’elisir d’amore in 2013, La Cenerentola the following year, Donizetti's II Campanello in 2016, and Rigoletto last year.

This celebration of Bernstein’s ‘100th birthday’ fell a little flat though: not that the performances of the seven-strong ensemble were less than spirited and technically assured, rather that the situation - a party held for ‘Lenny’ in which each singer unwrapped their ‘present’, one of Bernstein’s scores, thereby prompting an aria or ensemble from the said work - felt somewhat contrived. Despite the complementary primary colours of the chaps’ sassy suits and lasses’ satin frocks, the milieu - white Ikea-cubes, champagne bottles and some bright balloons - was rather charmless, and the opening number, a medley which overlaid West Side Story’s duet, ‘Tonight’, sung powerfully by Gemma Summerfield and James Lui, and the Quintet and Chorus of the same name, didn’t sit very comfortably. The proceedings took a little while to get into their stride too, though Summerfield did sterling work establishing the context and holding things together. A screen at the rear showed images of Manhattan, film and score playbills, and helpfully provided a guide through the works performed - useful given that the roster included both the familiar and the rare.

Bernstein a la carte Paula Malone Carty.jpg Cast of Bernstein à la carte. Photo Credit: Paula Malone Carty.

We were treated to numbers from Wonderful Town (including ‘What a waste’ and ‘) and On the Town. ‘I can cook too’ from the latter segued into La bonne cuisine, prompting a display of culinary ‘prowess’ from a team of chefs, who threw just about everything - including a length of old rope, a rubber chicken and a decapitated fluffy bunny - into the mix. Thankfully we were spared faux American accents, but some of the numbers felt in need of a bit more schmaltz and jauntiness: ‘I am easily assimilated’, from Candide would have been enhanced by a dash more rhythmic hyperbole, though the cooks’ wooden spoons served as admirable castanets; ‘Some other time’, from On the Town, felt a little underpowered.

Emma Nash gave a terrifically sparkling rendition of ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ though, and Summerfield’s ‘Somewhere’ was a highpoint - focused, poised and beautifully phrased. Owain Browne, who acted suavely and confidently throughout, turned On the Town’s ‘I Wish I Was Dead’ into a brilliant drag act and strummed a guitar tunefully to accompany Ranald McCusker’s reflective ‘It Must Be So’ (Candide). James Liu - cast here, a little awkwardly, as the party stooge - was less successful in ‘Maria’ where, unfortunately, the opening gambit - the tenor struggled to learn the song, freshly unwrapped from its box, to music director Tina Chang’s annoyance and frustration - subsequently seemed all too close to the bone as Liu’s improvisatory flights took him far from the home pitch. But, ‘Lonely Town’ (On the Town) was more satisfying, in which Liu was accompanied by the ensemble’s gentle humming.

Between the songs and ensembles we had readings from Bernstein’s letters, though not all of the cast were equally adept at projecting their spoken voices and I struggled to see the relevance of some of the readings to the surrounding musical material.

Ranald McCusker and Emma Nash.jpgRanald McCusker and Emma Nash. Photo Credit: Paula Malone Carty.

As we neared the close, I Hate Music!: A Cycle of Five Kid Songs offered some less frequently performed fare. After ‘The Wrong Note Rag’, in which Summerfield and soprano Rosemary Clifford demonstrated crystal-clear diction, we were, inevitably, urged to ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ ( Candide); the singing was impassioned and intense, though I wasn’t convinced that the a cappella episode was harmonically accurate.

Sadly, this year’s performance schedule meant that I had to miss the third of the Short Works, Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, but I did enjoy an unexpected musical bonus when Sir Thomas Allen took the opportunity to turn this year’s Dr Tom Walsh Lecture into a musical retrospective of his career, sharing and illustrating anecdotes of his early musical experiences: his father’s band playing; the encouragement of the Physics teacher who was eager to share the treasures of his LP collection with his young charge; the singer’s own early misconception that German songs were known as ‘lides’.

“Life has been one long serenade,” said Sir Thomas, after dulcetly crooning Don Giovanni’s ‘Deh vieni alla finestra’. One might say the same of Wexford. For those not able to attend this year’s Festival, the live streaming of Il bravo on Saturday 27th October at 8pm, offers an opportunity to share in the Festival spirit.

Claire Seymour

Giordano: Mala vita
Vito - Sergio Escobar, Annetiello - Leon Kim, Cristina - Francesca Tiburzi, Amalia - Dorothea Spilger, Marco - Benjamin Cho, Nunzia - Anna Jeffers
Leoni: L’oracolo
Uin-Scî - Leon Kim, Cim-Fen - Joo Won Kang, Hu-Tsin - Benjamin Cho, San-Lui - Sergio Escobar, Ah-Joe - Elisabetta Farris, Hua-Quî - Louise Innes, Hu-Cî - Cillian McCamley
Director - Rodula Gaitanou, Conductor - Francesco Cilluffo, Set and Costume Designer - Cordelia Chisholm, Lighting Designer - Paul Hackenmueller, Orchestra and Chorus of Wexford Festival Opera
National Opera House, Wexford; Friday 19th October 2018.

Bolcom: Dinner at Eight (European premiere)
Millicent Jordon - Mary Dunleavy, Oliver Jordon - Stephen Powell, Paula Jordon - Gemma Summerfield, Carlotta Vance - Brenda Harris, Dan Packard - Craig Irvin, Kitty Packard - Susannah Biller, Larry Renault - Richard Cox, Lucy Talbot - Sharon Carty, Dr Joseph Talbot - Brett Polegato, Max Kane - Ashley Mercer, Gustave - Sheldon Baxter, Miss Copeland - Maria Hughes, Tina - Laura Margaret Smith, Miss Alden - Gabrielle Dundon, Eddie - Ranald McCusker, Mr Hatfield - Henry Grant Kerswell, Zoltán - Feilimidh Nunan, Supernumeraries - Alessandro Ambrosini, Elias Benito-Arranz, Chase Hopkins, James Liu
Director - Tomer Zvulun, Conductor - David Agler, Set Designer - Alexander Dodge, Costume Designer - Victoria Tzykun, Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera
National Opera House, Wexford; Saturday 20th October 2018.

Mercandante: Il bravo
Il bravo - Rubens Pelizzari, Pisani - Alessandro Luciano, Foscari - Gustavo Castillo, Luigi - Simon Mechliński, Teodora - Yasko Sato, Violetta - Ekaterina Bakanova, Cappello -José de Eça, Marco - Toni Nežić, Un Messo - Richard Shaffrey, Michelina - Ioana Constatin-Pipelea, Supernumeraries - Susan Anderson, Sean Banfield, Martin Conway, Catherine Gaul, Colman Hickey, Saran Moran, Sadhbh Murphy, Eoin O’Connor, Eoin Pinaqui, Alex Saunders
Director - Renaud Doucet, Conductor - Jonathan Brandani, .Set & Costume Designer - André Barbe, Lighting Designer - Paul Hackenmueller, Orchestra and Chorus of Wexford Festival Opera
National Opera House, Wexford; Sunday 21st October 2018.

Donizetti: Don Pasquale
Don Pasquale - Toni Nežić, Dr Malatesta - Simon Mechliński, Ernesto - Antonio Mandrillo, Norina - Barbara Cole Watson, Carlino - Henry Grant Kerswell
Music Director - Daniela Pellegrino, Stage Director - Kathleen Stakenas, Stage & Costume Designer - Angela Giulia Toso, Lighting Designer - Johann Fitzpatrick
Whites Clayton Hotel; Saturday 20th October 2018.

Bernstein à la carte
Gemma Summerfield (soprano), Emma Nash (soprano), Rosemary Clifford (mezzo-soprano), James Liu (tenor), Ranald McCusker (tenor), Jevan Mcauly (bass), Owain Browne (bass)

Music Director - Tina Chang, Stage Director - Roberto Recchia, Stage & Costume Designer - Angela Giulia Toso, Lighting Designer - Johann Fitzpatrick

Whites Clayton Hotel; Sunday 21st October 2018.

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