Classical: A miracle of rare performance

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Wexford Festival, Ireland

I Cavalieri de Ekebu




LSO, Barbican, EC2

In much the same way that odd, obsessive souls in small towns once had visions of the Virgin Mary that would generate a cult and throw the lives of their communities into profitable mayhem, so, in 1951, a small-town doctor in the south of Ireland had a vision of opera from which his Wexford neighbours have never, happily, recovered. For two weeks of the year this modest, not-so-pretty backwater becomes a citadel of culture. Black-tied audiences throng its streets. The local banks, bars, butchers and bakers fill their windows with displays based on the operas showing. And these operas aren't Bohemes and Traviatas. They're unknown, obscure, collector's items which, once seen, you're usually content never to see again. If Wexford teaches the world one thing, it's that obscure operas tend to be obscure for good reason.

But this year something quite remarkable turned up: a piece called by Pavel Haas. It premiered, successfully, in Prague in 1938. But then the Nazis marched in. Haas was Jewish. He was sent to Terezin and then to Auschwitz, where he died. His name died with him, until Decca's recently recorded series of Rentatete Musik fuelled new interest in the musical life of the camp. Besides Haas, it housed three composers of significance - Gidon Klein, Hans Krasa, Viktor Ullmann - who all perished, too. But Haas was arguably the greatest loss; the natural heir to Janacek (his teacher), which shows in the spiky, agitated motor-rhythms of , and a narrative that isn't so much story-driven as a picaresque selection of scenes from a life. Comparable to The Cunning Little Vixen or Mr Broucek.

concerns a quack who lives, loves, cures or kills the sick, and ultimately falls from grace during the 30 years the piece encompasses. Far from the standard Donizettian kind of opera-quack, he's a byronic figure, brilliantly amoral and writ large by a libretto which is Haas's own, and moves at an exhilarating pace. And pace is the chief virtue of this show, which the director, John Abulafia, keeps buoyant with a breathless turnover of Breughellian business. It's a joy to watch, and with a cumulative power that triumphs over the commedia dell'arte thinness of the characters. By the end I felt profoundly drawn into the doctor's downfall, and disarmed by the central performance of the young Italian baritone, Luca Grassi, whose depth and vocal beauty took me unawares.

As for the score, it's alive with melody, invention, beauty and unflagging energy. Its antecedents are part-Czech, part-German, with some debt to Hindemith and Korngold, a Bartokian harmonic mordency, and an occasional blowsy brazenness that says Prokofiev. But ultimately, this music is simply itself: essentially through-composed but blossoming into numbers like the big strophic song that sends the audience home, rousingly repetitive for the voices but with an ever-changing underlay of virtuosic brilliance in the orchestra.

Haas's writing sorely tested the National Orchestra of Ireland, but it held together under Israel Yinon, a conductor who was personally involved in the rediscovery of (this was its first staging since 1938), and who conducts the brand new Decca recording (made with different forces) which has just been issued. These discs are bound to raise the question of what a composer who could write music like this in his mid-thirties might have gone on to achieve. My guess is greatness. And it was a chastening, but also triumphant coincidence that this Wexford production opened on the anniversary of Haas's delivery to the gas chamber. It would be still more of a triumph if the show could live on, with a tour to London. is an important piece. It should be fed into the repertory.

I wish I could say the same for Wexford's other operas which are not much more than likeable old tosh. I Cavalieri di Ekebu is post- Puccinian verismo (though none too real) by Riccardo Zandonai - written in Italy in 1925 with all the bold assertion of its time and place. An odd story with unexplored (Wagnerian) fetishist potential, the cavalieri are an industrialised order of knights who run an ironworks for a suspiciously masculine woman called the Commandante. Things go wrong. The Commandante is usurped. The ironworks shut down, and only get going again when the lady returns to give them her blessing and die (of unexplained causes). I didn't believe a word of it. Nor did the singers, judging from their disengaged performances. The tenor lead, Dario Volonte, had a pleasingly unbottled sound, but the tone was raw, delivered at remorseless volume, and disposed toward effect rather than meaning. That the conductor, Daniele Callegari, allowed this to happen doesn't say much for him either. But the design (Francesco Calcagnini) was stylish; the lighting (Vincenzo Raponi) superb. And there was one, young Maltese tenor, Joseph Calleja, who shone in a small cameo role that reminded me of the way Ian Bostridge once shone from a cameo in Les Troyens - with results we all know about.

Nothing, alas, leapt out of the woodwork like that in Fosca - an opera (not to be confused with Tosca) by Carlos Gomes who was a Brazilian active in Milan at the time of Verdi. Critics labelled him a Wagnerite, although there's little evidence of it in this score beyond some semaphore-like use of leitmotif and a broad focus on the orchestra. Otherwise it runs on closed-form arias - big, fruity tunes - and an abortive love story about a woman who, failing to get her man, kidnaps him. Twice. That she is born into a family of pirates helps. Although she should be all buckle, swash and skirt, at Wexford she's played by a lacklustre Russian soprano, Elmira Veda, with the stage personality of a week-old corpse. The voice has a distinctive dusky lustre, but the body barely moves from the neck down. And it isn't helped by a director, Giovanni Agostinucci, who encourages his singers to woodenness in the misguided belief that he's recreating authentic mid-19th century performance style. In other words, an old-tyme farrago of cloak-swirling villains, flutter-eyed lovers, and a chorus registering surprise/despair/frustration on demand.

It's silly, boring, and the only thing to be said for it is that it builds into occasionally attractive tableaux. I enjoyed the chorus thrust, the well-shaped phrases of American tenor Fernando del Valle, and the punchy vigour of conductor Alexander Anissimov. But otherwise it's one of Wexford's check-list items: to be seen, ticked off, and filed under Experience.

Wexford Festival (00353 5322144), to 1 November