L'Arlesiana (10/24/12), Le Roi Malgré Lui (10/25/12) & A Village Romeo and Juliet (10/26/12)
Wexford Festival Opera
Bonner in Wexford's Roi Malgré Lui
© Clive Barda 2013
Vestri in L'Arlesiana at Wexford
© Clive Barda 2013
Bellemer and Muirhead in A Village Romeo and Juliet
© Clive Barda 2013
Wexford Festival Opera, which has been reviving little-known operas for sixty-one seasons, is built around the element of surprise: in any given year, the surprise may be the work itself (Marschner's Vampyr, Tchaikovsky's Cherevichki, Donizetti's Maria di Rohan) or a singer previously undiscovered by the international opera world (Brandon Jovanovich, Bryan Hymel, Pumeza Matshikiza). In the festival's 2012 season, the real eye-opener was the Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera. In two of this season's three main-stage operas, Cilèa's Arlesiana and Chabrier's Roi Malgré Lui, the orchestra played superbly; in the third, Delius's Village Romeo and Juliet, it did much more than that.
Of the three works, L'Arlesiana is the most complex and challenging. The title character never appears; she is a symbol of the unattainable love object, desired so obsessively by Federico (Dmitry Golovnin) that his mind is already splintering as the piece opens. Leopoldo Marenco's libretto examines the efforts of Federico's mother, Rosa Mammai (Annunziata Vestri), and Vivetta (Mariangela Sicilia), the girl who has always loved him, to bring him back from the brink, while Metifio (Quentin Hayes), a vindictive former lover of the "Arlesiana," does his best to push him over the edge. Cilèa has provided some marvelously ripe music for all of the characters, and conductor David Angus drew some magnificent string playing from the orchestra. The trouble is that Marenco didn't quite seem to know whose story he was telling. Initially, the focus is on Federico, but the story shifts so dramatically between Rosa and Vivetta, who spend a lot of Act II standing around discussing Federico's pain, that the opera's focus dissipates fairly quickly.
Stage director Rosetta Cucchi worked hard — sometimes too hard — to instill a powerful point of view into her production. She charted Federico's psychological disintegration in compelling and often quite moving visual terms, with the sunny Provençale house eventually transforming itself into an asylum by the opera's end. Cucchi did fine, detailed work with the singers — there's the suggestion that Federico may be entirely delusional about the "Arlesiana" from the beginning — and came up with some moving tableaux, particularly at the end of Act II. As Federico, Golovnin sang the famous lament "È la solita storia del pastore" with sure phrasing and dynamic shading, but he didn't quite have the vocal juice or imagination to make it the electrifying moment that is called for. The best performances came from the women: Sicilia managed to make the wan Vivetta a compelling character, and Vestri, particularly in the highly dramatic Act III, in which she pours out her heart to God about the miseries of motherhood, gave the production the vocal gravitas it needed.
Thaddeus Strassberger's staging of Le Roi Malgré Lui was unveiled last summer at Bard SummerScape in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. It's a score filled with gossamer charm, but much of Chabrier's harmonic inventiveness also catches you pleasantly off guard; you aren't so busy enjoying the tunes that you don't listen carefully to hear what's coming up next. Émile de Najac and Paul Burani's libretto is a huge obstacle: when a potent line of Polish kings becomes extinct, a Frenchman, Henri de Valois, is elected leader and, caught in a war of political factions, wastes no time in trying to get himself overthrown. The plot often seems like a hybrid of Emmerich Kálmán and Gilbert and Sullivan, but it is needlessly complicated, overburdened with inconsequential subplots. Strassberger played up the chaos rather than attempting to straighten it out. The director is clearly loaded with talent, but his piled-on pop-culture references — from The Godfather to Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway — came so fast and furious that one gave up trying to make sense of the story and simply surrendered to the delightful music. Fortunately, the orchestra was in the expert hands of conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud. Musically, Le Roi Malgré Lui is as detailed and busy as the libretto, but Tingaud threw the cues with dizzying speed and precision, creating a performance that was both exciting and at times quite soulful. As Henri de Valois, Liam Bonner sounded woofy and lacked genuine French flavor, while Mercedes Arcuri, as the slave girl Minka, never quite made her coloratura arias land; the second leads, Luigi Boccia, as Comte de Nangis, and Nathalie Paulin, as Henri's lost love, Alexina, were far more at ease. The production also benefited from Marjorie Folkman's spirited choreography (here restaged by Paula O'Reilly).
Stephen Medcalf's production of A Village Romeo and Juliet was initially scheduled to be presented by London's Royal Opera for Delius's 150th anniversary. When financial difficulties caused Covent Garden to drop the staging, it fell to Wexford, where it turned out to be a high-water mark in the festival's history. A close friend of mine, somewhat apologetically, always characterized Delius's music as "noble." Certainly the composer's telling of this simple, fragile story of a young Swiss couple, Vreli (Jessica Muirhead) and Sali (John Bellemer), whose love for each other is threatened by a bitter land dispute between their families, is marked by great restraint and taste. In terms of emotional pitch, A Village Romeo and Juliet resembles an extended tone poem more than an opera; the meat of the work lies not in the discreet vocal lines but in the exquisite orchestral writing. (In this respect, it's like a softer-edged cousin of Bernard Herrmann's Wuthering Heights.) The Wexford orchestra, under the direction of Rory Macdonald, gave a stunning reading of the heavily chromatic score, particularly in the famously excerpted interlude, "The Walk to Paradise Garden," and in the finale, a muted but profoundly moving Liebestod, magnificently realized by Medcalf. The roles of Vreli and Sali are vocally taxing, but Muirhead and Bellemer never sacrificed musicianship. Their stage presence, however, was a bit low key; we never quite grasped the passion they felt for each other. The sequence in which Vreli and Sali dream of their wedding was a triumph for set and costume designer Jamie Vartan, whose autumnal color scheme created the impression of a pastoral painting come to life.
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