Opera in Ireland: State of Play – Part 2

Opera in Ireland: State of Play – Part 2 

Wexford: L’Arlesiana;

A Village Romeo & Juliet

Lyric Opera: Aida

Opera Theatre Company: Così fan Tutte

Reviews By George Fleeton

WEXFORD’s 61st annual Festival Opera was as fascinating and as paradoxical as in previous years, and over the course of a few days towards the end I managed to attend eight different events.

Two Lunchtime Recitals set the tone but two so-called ShortWorks threatened to compromise that.

A Morning Concert and a Piano Recital, each at 11am, just didn’t feel right, but two MainStage operas saved the day.

Since 1951 the Wexford repertory

“has been as notable for its sense of adventure in reviving neglected works as the town has been for the conviviality of its welcome”

wrote Warrack and West – in 1992. In that respect thankfully nothing has changed.

And with the opening of the new Opera House four years ago – replacing the former Theatre Royal which had been on that site since 1832 – the future according to outgoing chairman Peter Scallan

“is financially stable, and any new funding will enhance our art directly…..we can plan the artistic programmes for future festivals with confidence.”

That should certainly help define the state of play of opera-in-performance, in that part of Ireland, for a while.


If Irish soprano Claudia Boyle stole the show last year at Wexford, the undoubted star of L’Arlesiana, a lesser-known opera from 1897 by Francesco Cilea, was mezzo-soprano Annunziata Vestri (a slimmed-down Callas look-a-like), fresh in from singing Suzuki in my Belfast friend Vivien Hewitt’s production of Madama Butterfly at the Puccini Festival in Tuscany.

Vestri had given a Lunchtime Recital in Wexford the day before and her performance at that (shared with soprano Mariangela Sicilia) was the highlight of my visit there this year.

In a programme, which included solos from Rossini’s Tancredi, Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, Bizet’s Carmen and two songs by Tosti, her  confidence in her material, her self-awareness as an actress, her interaction with the capacity audience were simply infectious.

That, taken with her duets with Sicilia (from Mozart’s Figaro, Bellini’s Norma and Offenbach’s Hoffman) confirmed a versatility

and a comfortable but animated relationship with her voice that was world class.

Then in the mainstage production of L’Arlesiana (November 02) Vestri dominated the story of her son Federico’s fatal attraction to the girl from Arles.

This was as fine and as finessed a production of an unknown opera as I have seen in five recent years at Wexford and was in no small measure due to Rosetta Cucchi’s inspired stage direction of what is a mercifully short opera (at about 88 minutes).

The performance had been prefaced by a wry, informative audio-visual introduction to the opera by multi-talented Roberto Recchia, a Milanese opera director who had worked for us at Opera Fringe in Downpatrick in 2008 and 2009.

The problems with the two 11am events, referred to earlier, were not just the time of day.

In the case of the Morning Concert, a kind of tribute to, but an awkward pairing of, Frederick Delius’ and Samuel Barber’s arts songs, the eight voices and the string quartet, all drawn from the chorus and orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera, were pitch perfect and clearly passionate about this music, but the concert certainly did not need the extended lectures about the composers and their music from the chorus master.

This was a step too far, Too-much-Teacher-Talking-Time (TTTT) we used to call in it college, and several people who spoke to me afterwards were unequivocally critical of these interventions.

The concert included two songs by Barber beautifully spun from texts by James Joyce and included that wonderful word (from Finnegan’s Wake) ‘sfumastelliacinous’.

Our lecturer, however, did not remind us what a very roadworthy tenor voice Joyce himself had.

The Morning Recital two days later, given by 19-year-old eastern Russian Nikolay Khozyainov, winner of the 2012 Dublin International Piano Competition, was a rather sterile affair, which overran.

The playing was impeccable and the programme of pieces by Beethoven, Ravel, Chopin and Liszt, all relatively standard recital fare, were accompanied by excellent notes (author not credited) while Khozyainov’s reading of the two Chopin pieces was particularly impressive.

But the atmosphere in the Opera House that morning was like a dead zone, missing the chemistry and the projection of charisma which no doubt this young man is working on.

As to that, he could take a leaf or two out of the books of several pianists who have gone before him – Finghin Collins, Michael McHale or Nadene Fiorentini (all of whom I have heard playing recently).

The final Lunchtime Recital of Festival involved British-Canadian soprano Jessica Muirhead and, while her programme was very secure, she too needs to refine her self-presentation skills so as not to misread an audience nor to overtax its collective stamina.

Jessica gave us her audition arias for Wexford (from Charpentier’s Louise and Verdi’s Traviata), followed by one of Strauss’ Four Last Songs accompanied by David O’Leary on violin and finishing with Britten’s setting of ’Tis the last rose of summer.

A Village Romeo and Juliet

Earlier that week (November 01) I had watched and listened to this opera-in-six-scenes by Delius (Berlin, 1907) with very mixed emotions: you know that feeling? – watching your mother-in-law drive off a cliff in your yellow Rolls-Royce?

A pessimistic tale of doomed young love, delivered in unforgettably expressive musical writing and a dense orchestration with Wagnerian overtones, this production looked and felt painfully anachronistic, but that may be more the composer’s fault than the director’s.

My only previous acquaintance with this opera was the Thomas Beecham recording from 1948 (now on EMI Classics) which I thought (over 35 years ago) was music-as-magic: subdued, spiritual, sensuous, dream-like, fatalistic, hypnotic.

So it had been a long wait to see it staged and, it must be said, to see and hear, in context, both the orchestral interlude The Walk to the Paradise Garden and the final love duet – See, the moonbeams – between Sali/Romeo and Vreli/Juliet (sung by John Bellemer and Jessica Muirhead) was thrilling, as was too the compelling performance of David Stout as the Dark Fiddler.

So all that’s left to comment on, from this year’s Festival, are the two ShortWorks, Mozart’s Magic Flute (November 01) and Berkeley’s Dinner Engagement (November 03), both staged in an uncomfortable secondary school assembly hall and each accompanied by two of Wexford’s hardest working musicians, pianists Andrea Grant and Adam Burnette respectively.

A Dinner Engagement dates from 1954, and came across like a one-act Brian Rix/Whitehall Theatre sort of a farce, with bland music in a production unworthy of Wexford Opera’s mission statement ‘to perform operatic rarities to the highest standards of which we are capable’.

What happened to The Magic Flute, in a reduced edition two days earlier, left me just as perplexed.

A finely written and intriguing director’s note on his production promised much more than was delivered, and the attempt to inject more Schikaneder than Mozart into this reading (i.e. comic-acting-singing according to the singspiel gospel) started quite brilliantly only to go limp too early on.

It is my considered view that The Magic Flute should not be presented in this way, since it one of the inviolable masterpieces of European culture.

Yes it is an operatic creature with eccentric features, and a pretty rum antique to boot, but it has some of Mozart’s most glorious music, ever.

So how does one get it just right?

Neither Bergman’s film from 1975 (too reverential) nor Branagh’s from 2006 (too irreverential) hit the bull’s-eye, although in both versions the music of course remained paramount, bullet-proof.

But what makes this opera different from all others (including all Mozart’s other operas) is that it has its own kind of music, its own several kinds of music – no music like it before or since.

Are we even meant to make sense of it?

It defies a logical story line (loads of contradictions and discrepancies, as in pantomime), and the libretto just might not have within it a system of signs and symbols waiting for us to decode so as to reveal some great Masonic parable?

So to present this opera, given to piano accompaniment only, is near-sacrilege.

The Flute (and Bohème last year) are and should remain mainstage presentations but not at Wexford, as that would be self-contradictory.

If you can, check out Scottish Opera’s production of The Magic Flute in Belfast’s Grand Opera House on November 29 and December 01.

As I’ve said here before, after both the 2010 and the 2011 Festivals, these afternoon offerings of shorter pieces are Wexford’s Achilles’ heels.

Punters who attend them as part of daytime events’ packages are not being given a genuine taste of what Wexford Opera can and mostly does deliver.

And finally, it is important to add that the eight events hereunder scrutiny represent only a portion of a Festival which lasted twelve days so I doubtless missed some other jewels in the crown.

So long may the fascinations and the paradoxes of Wexford continue.

The three operas chosen (so far) for the 62nd Wexford Festival Opera (October 23 – November 03, 2013) are as follows:

Il Cappello di Paglia di Firenze (Rota, Palermo, 1955);Thérèse and La Navarraise (a double-bill by Massenet, Monte Carlo, 1907 and Covent Garden, 1894, respectively); and

Cristina, Regina di Svezia (Foroni, Stockholm, 1849)

But rather than beat ourselves up because we may never have heard of these pieces, it is a better policy to make plans to go see some or all of them.

For, if the Michelin Green Guide were to cover Wexford, it would surely say ça vaut le voyage.


In Part 3 of this series, on the state of play of opera in Ireland, my focus will be on the Lyric Opera production of Verdi’s Aida and on Opera Theatre Company’s touring production of Mozart’s Così fan Tutte, both given this month in Dublin.

George Fleeton writes independently on arts and culture in Ireland, north and south.

His Sunday afternoon recitals of secular and sacred music will take place in Downpatrick on February 17 and on March 24 next.

Full details here on Down News in December.