Glory be! Wexford has a fine new opera house, sprung Phoenix-like on the site of the old Georgian house, standing tucked away in a little street in this funny old town (pop. circa 120,000) in the bottom right hand corner of the Irish Republic. They didn’t manage to get it up and going as quickly as Glyndebourne; last year they temporized in another building but this year they have a handsome new auditorium with good acoustics lined in black American walnut with comfy blue seats. As previously the foyer is a squash, not enough room for the gentry in bow ties, the furry ladies, the horse-dealers, farmers, gossoons …. and tourists come from far and wide. If it is Halloween then it is festival time in Wexford.
This is an amazing achievement. After all the house exists for opera only for these three weeks in the year and Wexford is only a small town, two and half hours driving (through the rain as likely as not) from Dublin. But its grand fun. So how did they raise the spondulicks – 33 mill. according to one paper, 26 in another? Is it all Eireish money – or did some of it sprout from Brussels?
It all began in 1951 when a certain Dr Walsh decided to wake up the town for a month, whilst in the other eleven months of the year he was the city hospital’s anaesthetist. He started with local produce, The Rose of Castile by Balfe; for some years the chorus and staffing was also local, Irish ladies and fellers on stage, and helping backstage, some with muscles pushing the scenery about, the girls busy with needle and thread in the workshop. Over the years Walsh formulated the policy of putting on operas that were rarely if ever heard in the big opera houses, three in rotation daily so that you could see them all in a weekend with side-shows elsewhere, concerts and the odd lecture. (I myself gave an odd lecture in one of my seventeen visits to Wexford.)
So in the festival there have been operas by composers like Wolf-Ferrari, Spontini, Hérold, Thomas, Mercadante, Zandonai, Goldmark, Fauré, Floyd, Rubinstein, occasionally spliced with early Wagner or rare Rossini, Gluck or Mozart, wonderful and important side-dishes to the staple fare we get at Covent Garden, Coliseum, Glynders or elsewhere.
This year many of us found that the most enjoyable show was at one of the side shows, given in a makeshift local hall seats as first come, first served (like Easy Jet), no orchestra but a good pianist. The opera was a one-acter by Rossini, Senior Bruschino. This is a farce which moves swiftly along with the occasional coloratura aria, hectic choruses and lashings of patter songs. The performance was brilliant, the stars being Marco Filippo Romano in the title-role and Andrea Zaupa as Gaudenzio, both baritones. Alberto Triola’s direction ensured that the action fairly zipped along with a heady flavour like pasta al dente with sparkling Lambrusco. Intoxicating. Another day we had a tolerable Suor Angelica, the weepy runt of Il Trittico by Puccini; but piano accompaniment did the music no favours since it emphasized the constant plonking chordal accompaniments when we needed legato strings.
So, to the big three and hands up, any reader who has even heard of Carlo Pedrotti 1817 – 93, famous conductor in his time, a Verona man who spent much of his time conducting and admining in Turin? Apart from Sibelius and his Symphony No. 8, Pedrotti is the only composer known to have discouraged performances of his own works: ”Ropa vecchia” he called them, “old stuff, old hat”. He was wrong; true his 1856 Tutti in Maschera harks back to the style of Rossini more than it harks forward (!) to Verdi whose Masked Ball was unmasked three years later but it is a conservative sounding piece of great charm and fluency with good if unmemorable tunes, the whole thing beautifully written for voices and orchestra. The plot is farcical, involving singers, an impresario, a sponsoring Turk and two pairs of lovers (Cosi fan) and the whole climaxes gracefully at a Ballo in Maschera. Brad Cooper is an Australian tenore di grazia to watch and admire, Sarah Coburn American, was an excellent prima donna impersonating a prima donna and Marco Filippo Romano was the star of the show (as he had been in Senior Bruschino) as the wily impresario. Sets, costumes, conducting all first-rate.
I saw Richard Rodney Bennett’s The Mines of Sulphur at its Sadler’s Wells premiere in 1965 and later when superbly directed by Giorgio Strehler, in the Piccolo Scala in Milan. The Mines, title from a quote from Othello, not very germane to Beverley Cross’s fluent libretto, a horror story set on the Cornish moors 200 years ago concerning a ruffian’s breaking in and murder, followed by the arrival of a troupe of actors who are made to perform for their shelter, the drama culminating in a threat of plague. A Wexford programme note, counselling for the defence, calls it an opera of sinister charms and lyrical conceit. Acting more for the prosecution, I would say that Mines is a superbly professional job but a child of its time, a time when composers felt they had to compose serially or bust. In other words there is little charm and no lyricism; and that from Bennett who before going atonal and Alban Bergian wrote charming Brittenish songs, piano works, and who later wrote clever tonal film music, Orient Express type. John Bellemer was the commanding raffian holding the action together in the sulphuric moors.
The third Wexford offering was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snow Maiden, stuffed as full of Russian folk material (real and invented) in its time 1882 as his pupil Stravinsky’s Petrushka was in its time thirty years later. Snow Maiden takes a long time to get going, just as it takes a long time, too long, finishing. In between there are considerable delights, arias, choruses and the famous Dance of the Tumblers. The tumblers were spot-on, which is more than could be said of the chorus (tumbling if not bouncing Czechs, by the way, although the pick-up Festival Orchestra was mostly Irish). The singing was consistently good and wobble-free. Outstanding was the high lyric tenor, Bryan Hywel as the Czar, American but sounding like a real Russian, descendant of the great Leonid Smirnov. Five star performance but then the rest of the cast was good too: Katerina Jalvocova, travesty role of Lel, a bespectacled poetical shepherd; Natela Nicoli as Mother Spring, Lina Telruashvili (has to be Georgian with a name like that) as the sexy Kupava and Irina Samoylova in white tutus and the title role. (not many Western names but no doubt the East Europeans are glad of a job and not too expensive to hire).
Conductor Dmitri o.k. (surname Jurowski, brother of the LPO/Glyndebourne director). Pipes for trees otherwise good sets by Dick Bird with an ominous ship hulk in some scenes. Snow Maiden (she melts in the end) could do with an hour’s cut but the time passed pleasantly with tunes galore.
So, the festival always takes place at Hallowe’en; when it comes round next year, why not pop over for a good time, several glasses of Guinness, Irish hospitality and the next three operas which will be:
Maria Padilla by Gaetano Donizetti
The Ghosts of Versailles by John Corigliano
Il Cappello di Paglia di Firenze (The Florentine Straw Hat) by Nino Rota