Review: Wexford Festival Opera

Cathy Desmond reviews the opening few days of Wexford Festival Opera

Cast of 'L'oracolo' by Leoni at Wexford Festival Opera

Balmy temperatures, no rain to spoil the party and a minister bearing a gift of a million euro - the omens were good at the opening night of WexfordFestival. Families out for an evening stroll mingled with opera-goers in posh frocks and tux at the hurdy-gurdies on the waterfront and local troubadours on guitar and keyboards warmed up the crowd before the opening fireworks lit up the clear skies.

It was helter-skelter in the opening work, the first half of a cracking verismo double bill by less well-known contemporaries of Puccini and Mascagni. Franco Leoni’s L’oracolo, premiered in Covent Garden in 1905 is an intense hour crammed with murder and mayhem. The violent events were originally set against Chinese New Year celebrations in San Francisco’s Chinatown at the turn of the century. Expectations were high of the creative team behind the 2016 hit, Vanessa and as a spectacle this production did not disappoint. Director Rodula Gaitanou uses a common NY neighbourhood backdrop to draw the two pieces together. There was a silent-movie era feel with Cordelia Chisholm’s 1920’s costumes and a clever set dominated by a red brick cube which rotated to reveal the exterior of opium den, shop front facades and a ‘Rear Window’ style apartment block.

Of the three Korean baritones, Benjamin Cho had most to do as the villain of the piece. A schlock horror moment towards the end drew titters of laughter and gasps of revulsion in seemingly equal measure The same set served for the second half of the bill, Giordano’s Mala Vita, a tale of jealousy and intrigue relocated from the slums of Naples to 1950’s Little Italy. Spanish tenor Sergio Escobar impressed with a big expressive lyric tenor but it was the ladies the held centre stage in this piece with Italian soprano, Francesca Tiburzi and German soprano Dorothea Spilger as the rival love interests producing the vocal fireworks.

Wexford was imbued with the spirit of Broadway on Saturday. With pianist Stephen Higgins, veteran English baritone Thomas Allen mesmerized a morning audience in St Iberius’ Church with an eclectic selection of songs drawn from opera, lieder and the American song book all delivered with consummate ease and great charm. A morning to savour and a master class in the power of just one voice to communicate a text.

Composer William Bolcom joined the curtain calls for his piece Dinner at Eight, an entertaining musical version of a depression era play in which preparations for a high-society dinner party go awry. The sumptuous art deco sets framed in a 3-D skyline were a visual feast. Costumes recalled the glamour of the 1930s. Irish singers Sharon Carty and Maria Hughs joined the American cast. The orchestration with prominent reeds and saxophone underscored the big band mood evoked by the Festival Orchestra under David Agler in his penultimate season as artistic director. The shortcomings were inherent in the play itself which ends somewhat abruptly before the entrées are served. Imagine a courtroom drama without the trial scene.

Yasko Sato & Ekaterina Bakanova in 'Il bravo' by Mercadante Wexford Festival Opera 2018 Photo credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL

The garish primary colours of a rubik's cube dominated the platform at White’s Hotel for the first of the Short Works. At 90 minutes, the presentation of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale felt overlong and despite committed performances from the young quartet accompanied by piano, there just wasn’t enough fizz in the pared down presentation to carry it.

Fringe event teams made the most of the clement weather to promote their events. The local Wexford Festival Singers set up in the Bull Ring to give a taster of their festival performance of Dan Forest’s Jubilate Deo and members of the Oyster Lane Theatre Company were advertising their production of Brian Flynn's musical Michael Collins which runs during the first week of the festival. Make haste to Wexford. All musical life is here.

* Wexford Festival Opera and Fringe Festival runs until November 4th

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