OPERA NEWS - Herculanum (11/4/16), Vanessa (11/5/16), Maria de Rudenz (11/6/16)
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In Review > International

Herculanum (11/4/16), Vanessa (11/5/16), Maria de Rudenz (11/6/16)

Wexford Festival Opera

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The ensemble in David’s Herculanum at Wexford
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL

WEXFORD FESTIVAL OPERA is famous for presenting little-known and long-neglected works. Regular attendees have learned not to expect an unearthed masterpiece every time, but more often than not operas at Wexford are brimming with archival interest. Exhibit A: Félicien David’s Herculanum (seen Nov. 4), an 1859 French grand opéra about the conflict between pagan rulers and oppressed Christians. Berlioz had encouraging words for it, and its music is consistently attractive, but despite some striking echoes of Verdi from time to time, David’s score isn’t distinctive. Experiencing it is a little like going to a restaurant that you like well enough but wouldn’t necessarily revisit.

The libretto by Joseph Méry and Térence Hadot seems to revel in its own silliness: in 79 A.D., the Pagan queen Olympia (memorably etched at Wexford by mezzo Daniela Pini) and her brother Nicanor (bass-baritone Simon Bailey) set their sights on a young Christian couple, Hélios and Lilia, and try to seduce each of them via tricks, lies and sorcery. A prophet, Magnus (vividly sung by baritone Rory Musgrave) references the Book of Revelations and warns of approaching disaster, which arrives on schedule with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. 

Jean-Luc Tingaud conducted the performance with swift, unerring pace and exuberance. Stephen Medcalf’s production, with stylish sets and costumes by Jamie Vartan, made an excellent case for the opera via clear storytelling, abundant color and a healthy dose of wit. There were effective touches, such as clothing Olympia in the colors of the Whore of Babylon during Magnus’s denunciation of her, and the details from moment to moment were mostly engaging, even if the opera itself runs on too long. Christopher Akerlind’s excellent lighting also did a lot to propel the piece forward. At one point, Nicanor is despatched and Satan (also portrayed by Bailey) takes his place, disguising himself. No composers make the devil as attractive as the French ones do, and Bailey subtly showed us Satan peeking out from behind his camouflage as Nicanor. There were some exhilarating visual effects—notably the final volcanic holocaust and the vision of Hélios and Olympia making love that Satan conjures up to torment Lilia. Soprano Olga Busuioc brought her impassioned soprano and potent stage presence to the part of Lilia, and Andrew Haji’s sweet-voiced, highly musical tenor made Hélios spring to life. The Chorus of Wexford Festival Opera, under Errol Girdlestone, was excellent.

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Wexford’s Vanessa, with Plowright and Sproule
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL

Vanessa, Samuel Barber’s study of the tensions among three women living in splendid isolation in an unnamed northern country, isn’t really a masterpiece, but Wexford’s production(seen Nov. 5) almost made it seem like one. Rodula Gaitanou’s direction was exemplary; her frequently stunning insights shed such welcome light on Gian Carlo Menotti’s strange, elliptical libretto that she became the discovery of this year’s festival. She was particularly astute in her handling of the relationship of the Baroness and the Doctor, planting strong suggestions that Vanessa is really their child. As a result, the Baroness, in the hands of the superb Rosalind Plowright, became the most compelling character onstage, rather than the usual icy enigma. We seemed at times to see her aging before our eyes, and Plowright made her emotional distress gut-wrenching. 

Timothy Myers’s conducting was wonderfully transparent; the string section leading up to Vanessa’s aria “Do not utter a word” was particularly beautiful, and Claire Rutter, a fine 

British soprano, sang the aria superbly, with every word beautifully articulated; throughout the performance, this Vanessa was recognizably human, not the abstraction that she can sometimes appear to be. Mezzo Carolyn Sproule was excellent as Erika, making “Must the Winter Come So Soon?” a haunting, melancholy moment. Gaitanou chose to make Anatol even more of a feckless wiseacre than usual, and tenor Michael Brandenburg inhabited the character magnificently. Baritone James Westman sang well but was a shade away from fully capturing the ineffectual, failed Doctor. Cordelia Chisholm’s spare sets and elegant costumes reflected the 1950s, when the opera had its world premiere at the Met, and Christopher Akerlind’s austere, pale lighting contributed powerfully, giving the audience an almost palpable chill.

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Gordeladze and Kang in Maria de Rudenz
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL

Donizetti’s Maria de Rudenz (Nov. 6) is a rather gnarly, blood-and-guts melodrama about a noblewoman, Maria, who plots to sink the marriage plans of Corrado, who has deserted her for her cousin Matilde. Maria de Rudenz is loaded with backstory, and I understood director Fabio Ceresa’s impulse to connect all the story’s dots by setting it in Gary McCann’s three-tiered dollhouse, complete with real dolls to reflect the action. Multilevel sets are popular at the moment, but I find they often work against any real dramatic engagement, as was the case here; the dollhouse idea was a silly device that wore out its welcome quickly, especially when Maria (Gilda Fiume) staged her own private Punch & Judy show. Several key pieces of action and plot were confined to a claustrophobically small space, which severely limited the freedom of the performers. 

Andrew Greenwood conducted with brio and a supple sense of bel canto style. But the wrongheadedness of the production made it hard to care much about the characters, despite admirable singing from the cast. To ignite a Donizetti rarity such as Maria de Rudenz, a sensational vocalist is required, along the lines of Barbara Quintiliani in Maria Padilla at Wexford in 2009. Soprano Gilda Fiume was technically solid but slightly faceless, though she kicked into higher gear in the last act. Tenor Jesus Garcia displayed a very attractive, slightly baritonal voice as Matilde’s lovelorn admirer Enrico, and soprano Sophie Gordeladze made the most of her sidelined role as Matilde. As Corrado, baritone Joo Won Kang’s command of line and phrasing, solid vocal core and beautiful tone made him the standout voice of this year’s festival.  —Brian Kellow 

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