Maria (11/4/11), La Cour de Célimène (11/5/11), Gianni di Parigi (11/5/11)
Wexford Festival Opera
Funny lady: Boyle in Thomas's Célimène at the Wexford Festival
© Clive Barda 2012
Bartminski and Masiero in Wexford's Maria
© Clive Barda 2012
Rocha as Donizetti's Gianni in Wexford
© Clive Barda 2012
From its inception in 1951, Wexford Festival Opera has attracted large numbers of curious operagoers with its focus on obscure works — not obscure as in Massenet's Esclarmonde, but obscure as in Marschner's Der Vampyr and Zandonai's Conchita. The festival's directors have often paid a heavy price over the years for remaining true to this programming objective: many critics have used up much of their space puzzling over whether or not certain works deserve to be revived at all, while reserving their praise for individual performers. This season, however, it was an opera that emerged as the festival's true star — Maria (rhymes with "aria"), a 1906 work by Polish composer Roman Statkowski. Based on a poem by Antoni Malczewski, Maria (seen Nov. 4) tells the story of the ruthlessly ambitious Count Palataine, whose obsession with wealth and social position leads him to engineer the kidnapping and eventual murder of his son Waclaw's wife, Maria, so Waclaw can marry a woman of higher standing. "The pangs of conscience must remain numb," Palataine blandly intones toward the end of the opera. "I've sinned for my son's benefit, not for my own."
Maria, conducted at Wexford by Tomasz Tokarczyk, is at times musically mesmerizing. The most overt influence is Tchaikovsky, but it is one of those melting-pot early-twentieth-century works that also reveal shadings of Debussy and Wagner. Statkowski was a fine craftsman with a keen sense of propulsion and how to build powerful climaxes, and Maria immediately captures a compelling musical mood and has little trouble sustaining it. Director Michael Gielata (who staged last year's delightful Hubička at Wexford) adeptly transplanted the story's seventeenth-century setting to 1980s Poland, the era in which Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement struggled for survival against Wojciech Jaruzelski's state of martial law. (The shadow of the Holocaust is also present, in the ghostly Waif, sung by Eleanor Jean Greenwood, who shows up at two separate points to predict death and destruction.) Powerful black-and-white projections by Andrzej Goulding brought back the Jaruzelski era (and intensified the audience's involvement); this element misfired only in the Act IV interlude, when the rush of images distracted us from Waclaw's agony over how to confront his father with his knowledge of Maria's murder. James Macnamara's grimly austere sets also benefited from the eerie lighting effects created by Declan Randall.
The title role is a spotty part — Maria doesn't appear at all until Act II — but Daria Masiero was excellent, particularly in her chilling final scene in which Maria realizes that she is about to be killed. Krzysztof Szumanski projected a healthy, robust tone as the symbol of the Party, Count Palataine, but it was the heroic tenor voice of Rafal Bartminski as Waclaw that musically dominated the production.
The excitement over Maria's dramatic subject matter overshadowed Wexford's production of Ambroise Thomas's La Cour de Célimène (Nov. 5), which the company claims is the first since the opera had its premiere in 1855. In fact, the festival pulled off Célimène as successfully as it did Maria. A very funny comedy about a self-consumed Countess (Claudia Boyle) who couldn't care less about any of her long line of suitors, Célimène is melodious but delightfully heartless; both the Countess and her most persistent suitor, the Commander (John Molloy) — who admits, "It isn't you I love, it's your chateau" — are completely lacking in any redeeming qualities. Boyle was excellent as the Countess; her rather cool sound was a perfect match for the character's various arias of self-obsession, and she threw off the role's dippy, woozy coloratura with aplomb. Molloy's voice had both cut and the ability to convey humor, and both singers were ably supported by Nathalie Paulin as the Baroness, the Countess's put-upon sister, and Luigi Boccia as the all-too-easily duped Chevalier de Mérac. Carlos Izcaray led the show with a great sense of buoyancy and wit, and Stephen Barlow's direction never let the dryly comic tone slacken for a minute. Paul Edwards's sets and costumes were a triumph of excess. Sadly, the production won't have a future life; it was scrapped the day after the final performance.
There were more genuine laughs in the first five minutes of Célimène than there were in all of Donizetti's Gianni di Parigi. I should admit right off the bat that this is the kind of farce I hate, and I'm afraid it's also the kind of thing that makes a lot of neophytes think they hate opera, period. A mistaken-identity comedy from 1839, Gianni di Parigi feels like Donizetti trying unsuccessfully to ape Rossini. The opera was hampered by the direction of Federico Grazzini, which seemed intent on dredging up every musty piece of buffo shtick and laying it on as heavily as possible. (Much of the business involving the Innkeeper, played by Alessandro Spina, was especially tiresome.) Giacomo Sagripanti kept the score moving at a swift pace, and it was interesting to hear Donizetti's early version of "Ah! mes amis" as a duet for soprano and tenor. As the Princess of Navarre, Zuzana Markova lifted the mood whenever she was onstage, but it was difficult to warm to Edgardo Rocha in the title role; his voice has a preciousness that wore out its welcome quickly, and it lacked a warmth and directness that might have put us on his side. Lucia Cirillo was excellent in the trouser role of Oliviero — both her face and her voice have an unusual type of beauty — and Alessandro Luongo was funny and sang well as the Princess's self-important steward. The talented Fiona Murphy had little to do in the straight-up-and-down ingénue role of Lorezza, and Valeria Donata Bettella made a few missteps in her costume choices — notably a mushroom-colored gown for Markova that only served to make her look washed out.
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