On the Beat
The Wexford Opera House goes “national”; Goldman, Newlin and Worth score in recitals at St. Iberius Church.
by BRIAN KELLOW
Eamonn Mulhall and Kate Allen in La Cenerentola at Wexford
© Paula Malone Carty 2015
AS THE SIXTY-THIRD SEASON of WEXFORD FESTIVAL OPERA opened, the big news was that the Wexford Opera House, unveiled in September 2008, had been renamed Ireland’s National Opera House. The announcement was greeted with pride in this southeast corner of Ireland but with some degree of skepticism in other places. Many feel that renaming the house is simply a sleight-of-hand move by the Irish government to justify not funding a venue in Dublin, which has been without a resident opera company since Opera Ireland’s closure. (Opera Theatre Company, based in Dublin’s bustling Temple Bar neighborhood, continues to achieve excellent results touring small community and rural venues in both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.) Wexford Festival Opera has earned a sterling reputation with its two-to-three-week season each fall, presenting high-level productions of obscure works featuring emerging and unknown singers. The renaming of Wexford Opera House would seem to indicate possible pressure on the theater to present more mainstream fare during the rest of the year, but it is crucial that the Wexford fall season stay on mission: it would be criminal if the company lost its identity in pursuit of bigger box-office sales. I was reminded of this by a comment made by an Englishwoman sitting near me at a performance of Antoine Mariotte’s Salome last fall. At the interval, she turned to her husband and said, “I wish they’d do Aida. Now that opera has a lovely tune in it.” (For my review of Wexford’s latest season, see page 46.)
As always, in addition to Wexford’s mainstage offerings, there were many high-level fringe events to choose from. The best of these are the daily lunchtime recitals at St. Iberius Church on Wexford’s Main Street, where the festival’s leading singers can be heard in a wonderfully intimate venue. On October 30, Israeli mezzo NA’AMA GOLDMAN, accompanied by pianist JANET HANEY, performed. Goldman is an unusually tasteful singer and a scrupulous musician. In Delibes’s “Les filles de Cadix,” she gave a nod toward the song’s camp element but remained nicely restrained. Throughout the program, in which the high points included Ravel’s “Vocalise-étude en Forme de Habanera,” she was relaxed, charming and utterly present.
On October 31, American tenor MATTHEW NEWLIN gave the most satisfying recital of the festival’s closing days. He opened with Frank Bridge’s exciting “Love went a-riding,” which was marred only by his rather faahhncy English “concert diction.” He also sang a charming group of Donizetti and Tosti songs, ending with an impassioned rendition of “Ideale.” Newlin then announced that when he is feeling unwell, as he was that day, he prefers to stay at home — so he was going to sing American pop tunes for the rest of the program. He offered gentle, lovely readings of Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night” and Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are,” plus a fascinating, anger-tinged interpretation of Kurt Weill’s “Lonely House.” Newlin wrapped up the recital with a hilarious take on William Bolcom’s “George” and a moving riff on Jerry Herman’s “I Am What I Am” that made me think more highly of that song than I ever did before. Newlin made everything he sang seem fresh and seemed to embody one particular line from the Herman song, “I am my own special creation.” The audience responded ecstatically to him and to the superb pianist, GREGORY RITCHEY.
On November 1, American baritone MATTHEW WORTH ended the recital series with a thoughtful program that included Bernstein’s “Simple Song,” a Charles Ives set highlighted by intricately thought-out performances of “At The River” and “The Circus Band” and the first seven songs of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, in which the singer fully disappeared into the texts. His rich, warm sound was heard to best advantage in ALAN L. SMITH’s stunning concert piece “Daniel Boone Sings to the Night Sky,” in which Worth unleashed all of his imaginative gifts; he was well matched by pianist ANDREA GRANT. Worth achieves exquisite effects when singing softly at the top of his range, and at times he has a poetic intensity that’s almost Jon Vickers-like. He needs to talk less: his stage persona seemed so forced and self-consciously “hip” that he lost standing with the audience whenever he spoke, but he regained it whenever he sang.
Each season, Wexford presents a series of short works in the auditorium at White’s Hotel. A high point of this season was a cut-down version of La Cenerentola, very cleverly staged by ROBERTO RECCHIA with a nod to Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo: Angelina (Irish mezzo KATE ALLEN) was a charwoman in a cinema, and Prince Ramiro (Irish tenor EAMONN MULHALL) stepped off the silver screen and into her life.
From Wexford, I took the train up to Dublin for a few days. While there, I heard an excellent recital at the National Concert Hall by Irish soprano JENNIFER DAVIS. In Wexford, Davis had walked off with top vocal honors in the mainstage presentation of Cagnoni’s Don Bucefalo. In Dublin, after a slow start with Alcina’s “Tornami a vagheggiar,” she sang with consistently lovely and unforced tone and exhibited a persuasive point of view about nearly everything on the program. She was especially accomplished in her Liszt and Strauss songs, highlighted by a charming “Die Lorelei” and a very moving “Morgen.” Davis is just twenty-eight, but she shows surprising artistic maturity, and I would peg her as someone to watch. She was superbly partnered at the piano by AOIFE O’SULLIVAN.
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