This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Verdi and there was an Italian connection in the three main operas.
Nino Rota’s Il Capello di paglia di Firenze was great fun and a sparkling aperitif to the substantial fare of the following two evenings. It was a musical farce in the opera buffa tradition, executed with verve and panache by the large ensemble.
Had he lived longer and remained in Italy, Jakopo Foroni might have run Verdi close in inheriting Donizetti’s Bel Canto mantle. But Foroni left for the less-crowded musical milieu of Sweden and, sadly, died of cholera in his 30s. His work, Cristina, Regina di Svezia, which premiered in Stockholm in 1849, was the most impressive of this year’s main-house productions. It was presented in the 1850, revised version as a muscular political Scandi drama, with the largest chorus of this year’s season. Director Stephen Medcalf updated the plot to 1930s war-time ‘Swengland’, with Swedish emblems and clips from British Pathé news reels. Australian soprano, Helena Dix, brought a poised intensity to the role of Cristina, with a nod to Gretta Garbo’s cinematic portrayal of the character. Dix was matched by superb Russian baritone, Igor Golaventenko, in their “stonking great duets in Act 3”, as described by conductor Andrew Greenwood. The staging was predominantly monochrome, elegant and sophisticated.
Finally, a double bill of short works by French composer, Massenet, had the violence and passion associated with the Italian verismo sub-genre. Director and designer, Barbe and Doucet linked the doom-laden pairing of Thérese and La Navarraise by taking paintings as their starting point. In Thérese, the action is set in an art restorers’ workshop and the characters appear to have stepped out of the canvases on display. The 18th century action takes place amid white-coated technicians and industrial light fittings. This was distracting, as was the sight of characters in period costume swivelling on 20th century office chairs.
Paintings as a starting point worked better in La Navarraise. The tragic action unfolded amid striking painted heads from Picasso’s Spanish Civil War canvas, Guernica, with motifs from the painting echoed in the blood-soaked costumes of the cast. It was a taut piece. Nora Sourouzian was searing as Anita and more convincing in this role than as Therese. Philippe Do and Brian Mulligan were both fine in the main roles of Araquil and Garrido. The orchestra, under Venezuelan conductor, Carlos Izcaray, was superb and did justice to the colour in Massenet’s well-crafted scores.
Wexford Festival might have built its international reputation on its distinctive choice of the grand-operatic repertoire, but there is so much more to it than polishing-up forgotten pearls for an audience of aficionados. ‘What keeps people coming back, year after year?’ was a topic addressed at the Tom Walsh memorial lecture. Former artistic director, Elaine Padmore, and her guests, critics Rodney Milnes and Geoffrey Wheatcroft, had insights into the festival’s development. “Audiences have changed,” said Wheatcroft. “In the 1970s, audiences consisted of members of what was jokingly referred to as the ‘descendancy’, with cosmopolitan music lovers and cultivated monsignori.”
“The short works were initiated,” Padmore said, “to provide an affordable opera experience for a local audience.” The series is now integral to the festival. “One of the triumphs of David Agler’s directorship,” said Milnes, “is the strength of the chorus.”
Top-class, young rising stars are attracted to the chorus by the opportunity to perform alongside leading international soloists, and by the opportunity to shine in solo performances in the fringe events, such as the short works and recitals.
The youngest member of the Wexford chorus is 23-year-old bass baritone, Pádraic Rowan, from Co Meath, who made his Proms debut in London this year, as a member of the prestigious Glyndebourne chorus. “It is very special to be able to get this sort of singing experience close to home,” said the young singer, who is in all the full-scale productions and is featured in the cast of Therese, as well as playing the role of Regent in the quirky take on the Victorian melodrama, The Sleeping Queen, by Balfe.
It isn’t just young Irish singers who hone their skills at Wexford. Conor Hanratty directed Losers, a poignant story of 1950s rural Ireland, by American composer Richard Wargo and based on a Brian Friel short story. The work was well-received by the audience at the European premier, at Presentation School hall on Sunday morning.
The scale of the festival has increased with the larger capacity of the new Opera House, both in the spectacular nature of the productions and in the size of the audience. The core of the festival, though, remains the involvement of the local community, via the legendary army of volunteers, a feature acknowledged in a poetic litany by local author, Eoin Colfer, in his launch speech.
Each evening, members of the board and team fan out front-of-house and, together with a squadron of volunteers, personally greet and welcome patrons. It is a nice touch. In a period when rare repertoire is no longer the sole preserve of Wexford, these little things mean much.
The festival team has pulled off the delicate balancing act of maintaining Wexford’s position in the vanguard of adventurous and distinctive programming, with solid box-office appeal, as well as preserving something of the charm and intimacy of the early festival experiences.
After six decades of endeavour, this corner of the south-East remains, as Colfer says, “a place where opera continues to flourish despite the recession. Mighty, mighty Wexford.”