62º Wexford Festival Opera: Act
by George Fleeton © 2013
Thérèse & La Navarraise
Jules Massenet wrote well over twenty operas of which Manon, Le Cid and Werther are the most familiar.
His world was defined by song, and Wexford has not neglected his lesser-known works over the years: Bernadette Greevy sang Massenet’s Amico Fritz and Hérodiade, in 1962 and 1977 respectively, while Ann Murray sang his Thaïs in 1974.
Massenet was, at least by his own reckoning, the leading composer of opera in France after the premature death of Bizet in 1875.
He was master of what worked on the stage, a superb orchestrator, and instigator of the phrase Massenétique – that appealing, long breathed melody – and, while these two short works are far from his best, those qualities were there for the taking in Wexford’s productions.
La Navarraise (London, 1894) – in the style of French verismo – unashamedly rode in on the back of Mascagni’s Sicilian tragedy, Cavalleria rusticana, from four years earlier: heroine murders hero then goes mad; and it had Carmen’s fingerprints all over it.
Thérèse is set in the French Revolution, never a good idea in France (where it is still dangerous to shout Vive le Roi!), which may be why it opened in Monte Carlo in 1907.
Interestingly two other, more notable operas set in 1790s France, Andrea Chénier and Dialogues des Carmélites, each opened at La Scala before turning up in Paris.
Unlike two-panelled religious diptychs, which are conceived, designed, painted or sculpted to go together on a high altar, double-bill operas on the main stage are risky and tricky, even when, as here, written by the same composer.
Wexford tried the double-bill route before, with two different composers, four years ago, and it was not a happy event.
Of this year’s two operatic novelle, La Navarraise, to my way of thinking, worked better, although unnecessarily super-sized sets dwarfed the intimacies of both melodramas and their respective troikas of distressed characters –
distressed as in overwhelmed by historical events over which they had no control.
Broken-up bits of Picasso’s Guernica dominated the set in La Navarraise, a whack of designer iconoclasm for which I could detect no justification.
The original painting (1937), a 27 sq. metre mural, is oil on canvas, yet we had a supernumerary occasionally wandering about the set with a pot of Dulux! – a liberty too far.
The singing – this is where it gets important – was of the highest quality all round, with American baritone Brian Mulligan particularly impressive in both operas.
I liked the blood-soaked costumes, the long coats – Sergio Leone’s dusters – the ¡No Pasarán! tee-shirts, and the message that ‘you can only live in the land where your soul is at home’, while, dramatically, the fatal misunderstanding, between Araquil and Anita, led to a fairly convincing mad-scene at curtain.
Earlier, Thérèse, which was staged first, suffered from a touch of stasis, after a busy opening scene, and it is less tightly written than La Navarraise, but the eponymous female again dominates the narrative, strong passionate characters both, who engage our attention from the off and hold it to the wire, in the sort of melodramas favoured by Callas.
And French-Canadian mezzo Nora Sourouzian wasn’t found wanting, in either performance, where narrative is cut to the bone. and only those irritating, ill-conceived sets distract our attention from the intensity of these mini-dramas, and a beautiful minuet moment in Thérèse.
At first sight, the still life motifs were nonetheless impressive, as was the tall ceilinged set, but the production notes in the souvenir Programme (page 45, which I had to read twice) were woolly, muddled thinking about life and the visual arts, and history, and the real and the abstract … (I think).
But to be perfectly clear about my response to these two short operas, it was, on balance, a privilege to be able to hear them both: they came, we saw them, and life is a bit better for that..
Some further reflections on Wexford 2013 will follow here shortly, on Down News.
Meanwhile some earlier thoughts on this year’s Festival may be found at: