In Review > International

Salomé (10/31/14), Don Bucefalo (11/1/14), Silent Night (11/2/14)

WEXFORD
Wexford Festival Opera

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Revival-worthy gem: Don Bucefalo at Wexford, with Munger, Newlin and Davis
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL 2015
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Salomé in Wexford, with Goldman and Golovatenko
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL 2015

The high point of Wexford Festival Opera’s sixty-third season was Antoine Mariotte’s Salomé , a rich work that suffered from bad timing: it had its premiere in Paris in 1910, just three weeks after Richard Strauss had unveiled his own take on the Oscar Wilde play. Mariotte’s opera was quickly mowed under by Strauss’s. (The conflict between the rival composers was illuminated in an essay by Sylvia L’Écuyer in the Wexford program book.) But Mariotte’s score is masterfully crafted, a sensuous, lyrical work reminiscent of vintage Massenet. On October 31, it was brought beautifully, often thrillingly, to life by the Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera, led by David Angus, who illuminated the vivid Oriental color in the score; the detail in the brass and woodwind sections came through particularly well. The music never achieves the visceral impact of Strauss’s, yet it casts a potent spell all its own. 

The libretto, which Mariotte created himself simply by cutting down the Wilde play, reduces some characters (such as Herodias) and eliminates others (the five wrangling Jews). Rosetta Cucchi, a longtime member of Wexford’s artistic staff, staged the piece, showing keen attention to the individual performers and creating a highly effective sense of tension and foreboding. The sets by Tiziano Santi were appealingly simple, and Cucchi did a good job of defining the playing spaces, with the overall effect being one of extreme claustrophobia. There was only one painfully awkward moment — when a part of the palace ceiling became detached and threatened to fall under the heat of the sexual hysteria being played out by Salomé and Hérode. 

Israeli mezzo Na’ama Goldman was well-cast as Salomé; after being centered in the middle voice for much of the opera, the role eventually takes her into the upper reaches. Goldman managed it all without strain, and her dramatic look added an edge of excitement to her performance. When she sang Wilde’s words, fixating on Iokanaan’s mouth — “like a gash of scarlet, red as a pomegranate sliced in two” — Goldman actually looked like she might be capable of devouring him. She faltered only occasionally in the dance of the seven veils, which, as choreographed by Vittorio Colella, had an occasional hint of Minsky’s. American bass Scott Wilde was an effectively tortured Hérode, and it was an astute touch to have the Hérodias (the excellent Canadian mezzo Nora Sourouzian) match up physically with Salomé, rather than casting her as a grotesque harridan. The finest singing in the cast came from Russian baritone Igor Golovatenko as Iokanaan. It’s a high-lying role, and Golovatenko was in superb form, making the Baptist’s fury register strongly in every measure he sang. He emerged as one of the individual standouts of this year’s festival. 

Antonio Cagnoni’s Don Bucefalo (seen November 1) is a completely forgotten dramma giocoso from 1847 — and a gem quite worthy of revival. Cagnoni’s music doesn’t approach Donizetti’s or Rossini’s for melodic inspiration, but his score wins the listener over right away, thanks to its unbridled lunacy. Don Bucefalo is a romp about a charlatan music master — an Italian Harold Hill — who offers to teach a group of peasant villagers how to sing for the theater; one after another, they sign up, and Bucefalo’s lessons with the women lead to a hotbed of romantic chaos.

Sergio Alapont led a fleet-footed performance that was often dizzyingly funny. There was excellent work from the chorus, and Kevin Newbury’s staging was peppered with sight gags, but for the most part, he knew just how far to go without overpowering the work; the characters’ foibles emerged as real and human, and Victoria (Vita) Tzykun’s clever set and Jessica Jahn’s witty costumes also played a strong part in the performance. 

As Bucefalo, Italian bass Filippo Fontana showed a complete command of the rules of mid-century Italian comedy. As Rosa, his star pupil and the center of the romantic intrigue, Canadian soprano Marie-Eve Munger gave a spirited performance and spun out Cagnoni’s demanding music with astonishing facility. (There is a particularly daunting section at the end of the opera in which Rosa sings a marathon stretch that concludes on a high G. Here, Newbury let down his leading lady by having the full chorus crowding around her, making derogatory, eye-rolling gestures — an irritating distraction.) Munger’s voice isn’t exactly limpid or beautiful — it sounds a bit closed in — but her technical facility is amazing. The production was neatly and legitimately stolen by American tenor Matthew Newlin, a comic natural as Il Conte di Belprato, and by Irish soprano Jennifer Davis as Agata, one of the other peasant women with an eye on a singing career; her aria at the top of Act II was the evening’s musical highlight. 

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Wexford premiere of Silent Night, in a new production by Tomer Zvulun
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL 2015
 

Wexford’s prestige offering of the season was the European premiere of Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell’s Silent Night, which earned the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for music following its world premiere at Minnesota Opera’s Ordway Theater. Campbell’s libretto, based on Christian Carion’s screenplay for the 2005 French film Joyeux Noël, tells of a temporary Christmas Eve cease-fire among a group of French, Scottish and German soldiers early in World War I — and the painful consequences that result from it. Wexford commissioned a new production from Israeli director Tomer Zvulun (seen November 2). With Erhard Rom’s striking three-tier set design, Zvulun achieved a semblance of spontaneity rare in opera; the sense of the three groups of soldiers listening in the darkness for sounds from the other two was keenly felt. D. M. Wood’s lighting effectively captured the feeling of nighttime in no man’s land but was occasionally too dim in the interior scenes. 

Michael Christie, who conducted Silent Night at its world premiere, led the Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera in a beautifully transparent performance. Puts has a gift for polyphonic writing. In Act I, he seamlessly pulled off the complicated feat of moving back and forth among the French, Scottish and German soldiers. The musical high point was the men’s moving arioso about the need for sleep. Puts doesn’t rise to quite the same heights in Act II, which cries out in spots for a more surprising, less muffled musical exploration of the dramatic situation so deftly laid out by Campbell. (There were welcome flashes of humor in Campbell’s libretto, such as the moment at which the French soldiers, on hearing the Scottish bagpipes, observe that they would rather hear the bombs.) 

The casting was excellent, the standout being American baritone Matthew Worth as Lieutenant Audebert. Worth made us feel the exhaustion, futility and hopelessness of war with aching poignancy. He was also quite moving in the scene in which he responds to the death of his gunned-down aide-de-camp Ponchel (a sharply etched performance by Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang). Also registering strongly were American tenor Chad Johnson, as the displaced opera singer Nikolaus Sprink, and Irish baritone Gavan Ring, as the Scottish Lieutenant Gordon. There was one crucial piece of miscasting — Irish soprano Sinéad Mulhern as Anna Sorensen, the opera singer who has her career interrupted by the war. In a large role that cries out for lyrical outpourings, Mulhern’s voice turned hard and blowsy whenever she placed too much pressure on it. Because she carried so much of the dramatic weight of the evening, Mulhern’s Anna undermined the performance’s emotional impact. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

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