One for the head, one for the heart and one for fun seems to have been the watch word for Wexford for the last few decades; and sometimes one for the rubbish bin, as happened this year. This was The Golden Ticket, derived from Roald Dahl’s story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka and all that. It was premiered in St. Louis this summer with some success. The libretto is serviceable (Donald Sturrock) but often descends from childishness to infantilism – “bum rhymes with chewing-gum”. The composer, Peter Ash (50) is an American who lives in London. He has ideas in plenty but they rarely last for more than a few bars; they are fidgety and not ear-catching or memorable. Only at the beginning of the second, final, act is there a longer stretch, horn solo over a pedal point and a couple of choruses, no melodic phrases to catch hold of except for some dallying with “Happy Birthday to you”. Idiom nothing to frighten the horses.
The children in the packed house seemed to like it and so did the grown-ups. But there was nothing to attract the music or opera lover. The production was spot-on, as ingenious as a smart pantomime. Charlie (Michael Kepler Meo) is a clever American boy with a good clear treble. Wayne Tigges was a cane-twirling, bland Wonka without charm. There was a soprano with a fine voice and an ample girth but her name was not apparent. Quite droll were four stalwarts tip to toe in a double bed who indulge in ever so comic wind-breaking. James Robinson’s production included tv screens, balloons, mounds of shifting chocolate, never a dull moment, and a hectic moto perpetuo. The opera put me off sweets and chocolates for a whole day.
The second opera I saw (October 24) was Hubicka / The Kiss. Composers are said to incorporate their feelings and situations into their music. Poor old Smetana was broke, having career and marital problems when he was overnight stricken tone deaf. Next work a tragedy? Not a bit of it – a comedy, this Kiss. About a girl who loves her man but refuses to give him pre-nuptial lip caress. The second act has a red herring subplot about smugglers but it all works out by the end.
How does the opera compare with The Bartered Bride? Hardly. It goes through the motions but lacks the all important lyrical melodic gems of the Bride. Here there is only one gorgeous hit number, a paean to the skylark, delivered superbly by a subsidiary character, Russian Ekaterina Bakanova. The non-oscillating heroine was sung more than adequately by the South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza, but less than audience charming. Peter Berger was her beau, Slovakian tenor with good notes but not much juice in the voice. Production, orchestra, chorus, cast, conductor (Jaroslav Kyzlink), décor, all up to scratch.
Virginia was the fifty-seventh opera of Severio Mercadante (1795 – 1870), a blood and guts affair set in mid-fifth century Rome. Act one: He, Patrician, loves Plebeian; She loves another of the plebs. Act two: complications, father involved. Act three: heavy death rate, all fall down, end of opera. Scene 1: orgy, Roman style, until two chaps appear in pin-stripes! Scene 2: kitchen sink. Has the producer had an attack of Clever-dickery? No, he is pointing up that today we have parallel problems. But the way that the opera precedes is curious: action is frozen quite unrealistically for long periods until all hell breaks loose (plays by G.B. Shaw). Mercadante started off something like Rossini but his later operas often sound like Verdi. Virginia is the work of talent, a great talent, but it lacks the spark of genius which Verdi had. Mercadante writes marvellously for the voice, there are fine concerted numbers and two fine concertatos. The idiom, the drama, rhetoric, continuity, interesting orchestration (bits for muted brass and percussion, gurgling clarinets, plaintive cor anglais, effective harp-writing – all this keeps the listener alert and responsive.
The star of the show, indeed the star of the festival, was the American soprano, Angels Meade, a dramatic soprano with a full range, only twenty-four, is halfway towards being a Montserrat Caballé, in voice, in style – and girth! Unusually in the score are two leading tenors; singers quite often in unison. Ivan Magri was a fine Appio (did he have a way?), Hugh Russell sang well as the father who stabs his daughter to prevent her getting into more trouble. Venezuelan young conductor Carlos Izcaray is one to watch, exciting and accurate.
Wexford is a seaport town in the south-east of Ireland. The festival was started by a local anaesthetist who, t’was said, put the town to sleep for eleven months but woke it up for Hallow’een. Since 1951 the town’s splendid little opera-house has resounded to the music of operas near and beyond the fringe.