Wexford Opera Festival 2011
Review by Polly Hope

Wexford Opera festival must be the most fun junket for opera groupies in the world. A happening of enormous pleasure every late October; this year overlapping with Hallowe’en so pretty Wexford is alive with pumpkins and broomsticks and fresh flowers in the graveyards. Absolutely the right setting for opera, witches and corpses, lovers and devils, comings and goings. Two weeks of opera and concerts and platform performances. All day music starting mid morning, and if you fancy you can continue into the wee hours with cabaret and dancing.

2011 is Wexford Opera’s 60th anniversary, what an achievement for a small town with less than 100 000 occupants. The town is supposedly the sunniest place in Ireland, you could have fooled me, but it has the most eccentric and friendly people I’ve ever met. Bliss to be there. Food is brilliant as well, not forgetting Irish whisky...

The new opera house opened in 2008, the good folk of Wexford are rightly proud of their achievement. An opera house with almost 1000 seats right on the main street and attached to houses either side is very fine. A real urban offering, no great open spaces of paving with fountains to drench you and miles to walk from your limo. Just straight into the box office and bar, the place everyone wants to be. Goodness knows how they paid for it, [okay, some mighty rich sponsors helped] but it happened, and has state of the art technology, and is always full. Book your seat now for 2012. Definitely vaut le voyage

Round the corner from the opera house is the rebuilt White’s Hotel, centre of opera groupie gatherings; the ballroom is used for platform performances. I miss the old Edwardian Whites, the new one smacks somewhat of motorway motel on a gigantic scale, but they serve a good tea.

First up of what I saw of the festival was an entertainment called MAD FOR OPERA. Famous mad scenes locked together in a linked performance. Those mad scenes such as Lucia are mountains to climb and sorry to say the young singers here didn’t quite make it. No matter, ‘twas worth doing, the audience loved it and the space was packed.

In the evening LA COUR DE CÉLIMÈNE by Ambroise Thomas.A rarity indeed. But this is what Wexford does, each year 3 new productions of little known 19th century works. This is fun, to see a piece certainly I have rarely even heard of, let alone seen, especially as one has to dress up, and do they dress up here! Jewels and evening dress for everyone if you please

CÉLIMÈNE is the ultimate canary fanciers’ opera. Non-stop coloratura arias from curtain up until the end. Claudia Boyle, a young Irish singer, is amazing, breathtaking to listen to her; her long solo aria at the beginning of Act 2 is an unbelievable tour de force, it goes on and on, music curling and exploding and racing at colossal speed up and cascading down the scales changing key as the notes rush past. I hope they have recorded this work. A rare technical triumph and for the first time in my life I really enjoyed this display.

Apparently the opera failed to be a success when it opened in 1853 largely perhaps because it is all about marrying for money, the hero says as much. A business deal, which of course marriage always was, but in the manner of those times the match should have been disguised as a big romance. However it fits nicely into today’s beliefs.

The set is a big gold picture frame hung at an angle [why? wonky sets are a bit old fashioned now,] and the action

takes place in a painted garden within. It almost works. But the dazzling singing and Thomas’s elegant mid 19C music is such a delight the visuals can be forgiven.

Night Two is serious. Extremely. Roman Statkowski’s MARIA.A gloomy tale of class and marrying into the wrong side of the tracks in communist Poland. This is a shared production with Warsaw Opera. Statkowski, a contemporary of Puccini, wrote Maria in 1903-4. Again for me he is a discovery, I have never heard this work before. A heart rendering piece, yes, everyone dies.The music is glorious. The hero Waclaw is sung by RafalBartminski, a real Pole, and he is great. But all the poor other singers have to strugglewith an impossible language. Okay it is a fine language, but only for Polish people. For me there is always the argument that that theaudience should be able to follow the story, andthese days surtitles are the norm and mostly solve the problem.Much better if we could actually understand the sung text.

The set is fine enough, lots of projections of miserable times in Gdansk, and the costumes are also from those miserable times plus plenty of threatening uniforms for the bad guys.

An extraordinary opera and more extraordinary that it has been such a well-kept secret in Poland. Dear Poland, please send us more.

The third opera of the Festival is Donizetti’s GIANNI IN PARIGI written in 1839. How didthis one get lost like the previous two? AndDonizetti so popular as well? This is a fun and jokey work, unlike CÉLIMÈNE it is not at all cynical, a Rupert of Hentzau true romance. Again I am captivated.

Donizetti is such a master of timing and action, his quartets, quintets, sextetsand choruses are miracles of construction. They are also very difficult to pull off perfectly. This is one of those complicated stories of a disguised prince and an arrogant princess all forced together by a class-ridden steward of the princess. Breathtakingly complicated story, I am reminded of Gilbert and Sullivan and their brilliant timing.

The action takes place in the foyer of an overbooked hotel in Paris about who is going to get the dinner being cooked. Yes, the performers sing just fine and even act well, especially Edgardo Rocha who plays Gianni himself. However this lot don’t quite hack the speed and aplomb needed to pull off this farce. Watching the piece I realised that Donizetti requires the absolute ultimate top level of performers capable of the complexity of singing and acting required. Nothing actually wrong with this production but somehow they missed the ultimate lift off. Though of course the entire houseapplauded enough to bring theroof down.

There was an afternoon performance of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi in the hotel ballroom, perfectly all right, you can’t go wrong with this story of a death in the family and the greedy grabbing that ensues.

Wexford Opera festival is vey much at the forefront of the opera surge of today. Opera is extraordinarily popular and its popularity ever growing. Is it the fact it is live? Though streamed productions from opera houses to cinemas are packed out. Is it the basic stories of life and the simplicity of the tales told. Small opera companies are burgeoning and audiences are growing everywhere.

Wexford is an extraordinary function, a jewel of a festival. I know of no other place that can give you three unknown operas over a long weekend and land you among people all of whom you can mingle and talk to. The friendly Irish are happy to share a drink with a stranger. This is how it should be. Go GoGo. If you can get tickets.

Polly Hope