Saturday, November 14, 2009


Wexford Festival 2009 – late October

Emmanuel Chabrier 1841 – 1893 had a short career, has a short list of works but a big reputation with his tuneful, witty, pastel, quirky music, several operas, delightful piano pieces, a handful of songs and a few orchestral works, including Espana. He was one of Debussy’s three favourite composers, Ravel and Satie said they owed him much, and Poulenc loved him so much that he wrote a book about him. The lad from the Auvergne came to Paris, met all the artists, owned 11 Manets and 6 Renoirs; Manet painted him and died in his arms (on different days!) and Verlaine apostrophised him in a poem.

Wexford, famous for putting on rarely performed operas (and sometimes ones that should be rarely performed) just now paired his Une éducation manquée with La Cambiale di Matrimonio, composed when Rossini was 18. The Chabrier last three-quarters-of-an-hour a frothy little piece that smacks of Weekerlin’s bergerettes and Messager’s brace of pigeons. Characters three: bridegroom, bride and tutor. Tutor has taught him every subject except what to do on his bridal night. Thunderstorms and his inhibitions disappear like a flash of lightning. The issue is somewhat confused because the chap was nicely sung by the soprano Kishani Kavasinghe, the bride by Paula Morriny and the (drunken) tutor by Luca dell Amico, stylish conductor Christopher Franklin. Nice bed designed by Lorenzo Cutuli who cluttered up the stage for the Rossini with heavy blocks of stairs which producer Roberto Reccnia had the cast move around too many times. The second wedding piece gave us an English father (Giovanni Bellavia) trying to palm off his daughter (Pervin Chakar) onto a Canadian visitor (Vittorio Prato). She of course already has a partner and won’t budge. At 100 minutes, the piece is too long but the length was redeemed by the superb singing from all five principals. Quite a feat by the Wexford Management. You can’t expect vintage Rossini but he provides a very drinkable young wine.

When is a tragedy not a tragedy? Surely when nobody dies in the end? Not even when the fat lady sings her heart out. In 1841 Donizetti’s Maria Padilla he had his heroine kill herself but the censors insisted that she die of joy. At Wexford it was not clear if she died at all. Never mind, American soprano Barbara Quintilian had already sung half a million notes, florid bel canto stuff, only a few stratospheric notes off key. The first act curiously gives more prominence to her sister Inez, also a soprano, Ketevan Kemoklidze (Georgian with a name like that). Later the two would duet delightfully (thirds and sixtees in the approved manner).

It is a long opera and since Donizetti only seemed to compose with passion in act two, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to scrap the first. The music is good second-rate Donizetti, not in the same class as Lucia, the Derbyshire lass, but good. What is odd about the plotting and casting is that the part of the girls father, Ruiz, is a tenor although it is more like a baritone role. At Wexford it was quite magnificently sung by Adriano Graziano (Italian name, British passport).

The sets were fatuous. Act One was a vast jumble of breeze blocks with a rectangular frame set askew on top. Mauro Tinti, the décor creator striving for the title of Wexford Clever Dick of the year? He continued his silly tricks: act two has a score of chairs, wired up, so that you know that sooner or later they are going to be sent up into the flies. Then comes act three: nine mortuary slabs. How crass can you get? David Agler, director of the festival should have vetoed the designs. As it is, he conducted a fine performance, full of Italian guts and style.

The third opera at Wexford was The Ghosts of Versailles by the American composer, John Corigliano (b.1938), which created quite a stir when it premiered at the Met, New York in 1991. Quite a lot of the audience in Ireland seemed to like it, partly maybe because the production by James Robinson was excellent. But my view is that this is a rare case where the libretto is better than the music. The plot might be called ingenious and perhaps posthumous. Marie Antoinette, well sung by Maria Kanyova, decides at the end of the opera that, although she has a love match with Beaumarchais, to go to the guillotine again.

The libretto of this opera bufra in two acts is by William Hoffman, based on La mère coupable (1792) by Beaumarchais. The culpability of Rosina, Countess in Figaro, is that she had it off with Cherubino and gave birth to a daughter, Florentine, which has alienated her from the Count, all of whom are characters in this Ghosts, also Figaro and Susanna. The villain of the piece is one Bergéarss who wants to marry Florentine and get her parents guillotined. The opera is episodic with solos, concerted numbers and a near pantomime Turkish section. Rollicking fun. If only the music displayed some passion, some wit! There are allusions, parodies and a big orchestra employed but only at the very end does any meaningful invention support Corigliano’s obvious professionalism. Elsewhere it seems that the composer is all dressed up but nowhere to go. No personality. And it is mighty long. Up to the rise of the curtain I was sympathetic towards Marie Antoinette but by the time it came down I would happily have helped sharpen the guillotine.

One story about Chabrier: on a visit to Bayreuth he was invited to tea by Cosima and this took place in the late Master’s dressing room. Saddled with a huge slice of (German) inedible cake the Frenchman waited until Cosima was out of the room, then slipped the cake into a drawer of the Master’s silk shirts.