On the Beat

In Wexford, gifted recitalists, plus Lennox Berkeley's A Dinner Engagement, give strong support to the main-stage offerings.
by BRIAN KELLOW

On the Beat Boccia sm 113
Boccia: making Yeats sing at Wexford
© Paula Malone Carty 2013

WEXFORD FESTIVAL OPERA'S sixty-first season felt like a safe haven, since I arrived there on November 1, two days after Hurricane Sandy had ripped its way through the New York area. The winding, hilly streets of this little town on the southeast Irish coast were a more welcome sight than they have ever been, and the festival was an exceptionally strong one. (For my review of the main-stage productions, see p. 46.) That Wexford manages to keep reaching such a high performance standard is astonishing, given the fact that the economic crisis continues to devastate Ireland. The day I arrived, it was announced that Eircom, the nation's biggest telecom company, will eliminate 2,000 jobs over the next year and a half, a number that accounts for a stunning 35 percent of the company's manpower. Yet Wexford seems to be surviving the crunch better than many places in Ireland; most of the shops that have been open since I first went there are still in business, and there are some fine new restaurants in town, the standout being South Main Street's Cistin Eile, which specializes in Irish cuisine that's "locally sourced." (Why did I think the Irish might be exempt from adopting that awkward term?) 

Not everyone was happy with this year's festival. MICHAEL DERVAN, the veteran music critic of The Irish Times, complained of Wexford artistic director DAVID AGLER's "dogged commitment" to American works. Dervan added that it's a pity that Agler doesn't possess the same enthusiasm "for Irish singers that he does for English-language opera — Irish voices are once again notable in this year's festival by their absence." In light of the casting, in recent seasons, of such notable young Irish artists as CLAUDIA BOYLE, OWEN GILHOOLY, FIONA MURPHY, JOHN MOLLOY and MIRIAM MURPHY, Dervan's article reads a little like a crank letter; besides, Wexford is an international festival, not a hometown talent show. 

As always, the daily lunchtime recitals at St. Iberius Church showed off some impressive young talents, many of them unknown to most North Americans. The best of these was given by tenor LUIGI BOCCIA, who provided a miniature master class in how to construct a fully satisfying recital. There was nothing academic about his approach; he went in mostly for crowd-pleasers, sung with such attentive musicianship and deep emotional commitment that it was difficult for the audience to let him off the stage at the end. Highlights included a ravishing performance of des Grieux's "Le Rêve" from Manon, featuring a stunning decrescendo of the type we seldom hear these days; the Toselli "Serenata," climaxed with a gorgeous pianissimo and graced by fine assistance from violinist DAVID O'LEARY of the Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera; and a moving performance of "Down by the Salley Gardens," in which Boccia captured all of the song's deep sadness without collapsing into sentimentality. He had the good fortune to be partnered at the piano by ADAM BURNETTE, who continues to demonstrate superb command of an astonishing range of musical styles. Burnette lives in Atlanta; I wish we could have him in
New York. 

In sharp contrast to Boccia's recital was the one given by Canadian soprano JESSICA MUIRHEAD, star of the festival's production of Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet. She began very strongly with "Depuis le jour," sung in lovely, expressive French. Muirhead has a beautifully trained lyric voice with a bit of metal behind it. In a beautiful set of Grieg songs, she expressed quiet radiance and seriousness of purpose. There are moments when she seems cool and over-controlled, but her musicianship and intelligence eventually win you over. Unfortunately, the recital didn't end as well as it opened: "Sempre libera" was polished but not really temperamentally right for Muirhead, and Britten's arrangement of "The Last Rose of Summer" was a miscalculation: including the composer's acrid treatment of such a beautiful song simply seemed "overthought," as if Muirhead had wanted to avoid pleasing the audience too much. 

The most arresting voice in the festival belonged to mezzo ANNUNZIATA VESTRI, who appeared in L'Arlesiana. Vestri's recital, shared with soprano MARIANGELA SICILIA, showed off a sound that was both dark and luminous, bolstered by a rock-solid technique. Vestri has a highly dramatic presence — she looks like a Modigliani — and a voice with real spine to it. She was at her best in "Di tanti palpiti" and Carmen's Seguidilla. Sicilia's voice is somewhat tightly produced; there isn't a great deal of bloom at the top, but it has a lovely sheen, and she's an excellent musician. The pair did well in the Susanna–Marcellina duet and in Hoffmann's "Belle nuit, o nuit d'amour," but "Mira, o Norma" was rough sledding, with Vestri sounding a bit can-belto for an Adalgisa and Sicilia a bit dry-toned and out of tune in the cabaletta. 

Another festival highlight was Lennox Berkeley's A Dinner Engagement, which turned out to be the high-water mark of any of the operas I have seen performed in Wexford's Short Works series. An astringent comedy about a post-World War II English family that has fallen on hard times financially and is trying to marry off their daughter to a European prince, A Dinner Engagement is a complicated piece to stage; it focuses on preparations for a dinner party, and dozens of pieces of business have to be executed with perfect timing. Here, it succeeded beautifully, thanks to the inventive staging of CAITRIONA MCLAUGHLIN and the adept music direction of Adam Burnette. Standouts in the cast included LAURA SHEERIN as the petulant daughter, Susan, and LAWRENCE THACKERAY, who did a splendid comic turn as a cheeky delivery boy. spacer 

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Current Issue: January 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 6