Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Wexford Operas


The Wexford Opera Festival has since 1951 been famous for its championing of works rare and neglected. It was started and maintained by the anaesthetist of the local hospital, Dr. Tom Walsh, of whom it was said that he woke the town up at Hallow'een time, having put it to sleep for the rest of the year. A gift from the muses was the discovery in a side street of the city, a Georgian theatre.

At first the local population provided onstage performers and backstage helpers, shifting scenery, making costumes and props, a touch provincial in this south-east corner of the Irish Republic. Nowadays the festival is fully professional and two of the productions this sixtieth year were as fine as could be seen anywhere.

In 1952 with L'Elisir d'amore began Wexford's championship of Donizetti; this year the tally has notched up no less than fifteen operas of the Bergamo master. Gianni di Parigi, for some reason, failed when it was first produced at La Scala, Milan. There seems to be no good reason why it failed, because it is as entertaining and audience-friendly as any Donizetti comedy, no hit numbers but providing a thoroughly enjoyable experience, especially when performed so expertly and given a lively staging as here. There are six good, meaty parts for the performers.

The scene is a country inn where the Princess of Navarra is expected on her way to Paris where she is to marry the Dauphin whom she has not so far encountered. But, wouldn't you have guessed it? He is already here masquerading as Gianni, bribing his way, commandeering all the accommodation and the victuals. She arrives, they fall for each other, and they dine together. End of story line.

The best scene and music occurs in a sequence for three men: the sparky Dauphin (fluent, rather metallic-voice tenor from Uruguay, Edgardo Rocha), Pedrigo, the hotelier, bass, great performer Alessandro Spina, and the Princess' steward, baritone, Alessandro Luongo. The Princess was the delight Czech soprano, Zuzana Markova the page Olivero Lucia Cirillo, mezzo, Lorezza, innkeeper's daughter, soprano, Irish singer Fione Murphy. Good conductor, Giacomo Sagraranti (holy pants?), good, likewise chorus and orchestra.

Amroise Thomas's La cour de Célimène has not been staged, we are told, since its first run in 1855 and maybe the reason for that demise was that at the time the Opéra Comique in Paris was the place where engaged or newly marrieds went for suitable entertainment. Which La Cour was not, for JB Rosier's libretto is cynical and concerns Célimène, so attractive a widow that she has a dozen suitors who have enchanting music to sing, plus two principal suitors, a young besotted Chevalier (tenor Luigi Boccia) and an older Commander who is wooing for gain, Irish baritone John Molloy. Célimène was also Irish, Claudia Boyle, brilliantly full of flounces, mischief, vocal curlicues and colorature; her sister, the Baroness, soprano, American Nathale Paulin, is also mischievous. The Spanish conductor, Carlos Izcaray, certainly knew his onions so that a good time was had by all with this frothy farce which is as French as camembert, Gauloises or Chanel. The set by Paul Edwards was superb, evergreen arches which sprouted mirror doors in the second act. The production was deft, witty and apt – by the Stephen Barlow who has no time to be the conductor of the same name.

But the third opera was a flop. Maria by a little known Polish composer, Roman Skatkowski (1855 – 1925). It proved to be a cardboard turkey, a few good moments but badly constructed and cliché-ridden: loud minor chords, rushing strings à la Tchaikovsky. After this second opera in the 1906 Skatkowski wisely gave up composing and turned to administration.

The plot concerns a Count Palatine who disapproves of his son's choice of wife and arranges for her murder. Maria does not appear until act two and is soon gone in act three, not regretted by your reviewer since Daria Masiero found it difficult to pitch notes and shrieked in an unseemly way. Her husband was an excellent, very tall tenor, Rafal Bartminski; also good were the Count (Krzysztof Szumanski) and Maria's father (Adam Kruszawski). Enthusiastic and able conducting by Tomasz Tokarczyk. Sung in Polish, not an easy opera to direct with the music's constant stop-and-go's. Alas Michale Galeta's production was also cliché-ridden. A sorry evening, especially after the two other successes.

Next year the Festival runs from 24 October to 4 November; Le roi malgré lui by Chabrier, Francesca da Rimini by Mercadante and A Village Romeo and Juliet by Delius.

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