Wexford Opera Festival, Ireland


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The Independent Culture

For 61 years Wexford has been the emerald of opera festivals, refreshing the repertoire by trawling up underrated gems. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Delius’s birth – and his opera A Village Romeo and Juliet remains rare enough to qualify.

It may be flawed – weak libretto, slow pace – but what an outrage that a work of such ineffable gorgeousness has just been lying around, heard once in a blue moon! It hints at Wagner in Tristan mode, or Debussy in Pelléas et Mélisande – but the orchestration’s glowing transparency, the hypnotic inwardness, the sincerity of its sensuality, the poignancy of its message, those could have come from Delius alone.

Sali and Vreli, destroyed by their fathers’ feuding, reject the libertine life offered by the Dark Fiddler and decide to live one day of perfect beauty, then die together. Stephen Medcalf’s production focuses on the drama’s intimacy – but sending in clowns and acrobats and keeping them active in ‘The Walk to the Paradise Garden’ proved unwelcome.

Soprano Jessica Muirhead was a radiant and wholehearted Vreli, John Bellemer an impassioned Sali and David Stout imposing in stage presence and voice as the Dark Fiddler. Rory Macdonald’s conducting let Delius’s subtlety and radiance win the day.

Cilea’s L’Arlesiana tells of a young man driven to suicide by unrequited love and a mother from hell. It’s a verismo roller-coaster, and the orchestra with conductor David Angus gave it suitable Mediterranean heat, despite a tricky production by Rosetta Cucchi in which Federico remembers the events from a mental hospital.

The real story turns on the psychology of his mother – a searing performance from the Italian mezzo-soprano Annunziata Vestri. As Federico, the Russian tenor Dmitry Golovnin made everyone sit up. He used to be a professional trumpeter, and his voice has a hint of the instrument’s brilliance and strength. Earlier, in his lunchtime recital, his larger-than-life warmth won the audience’s hearts in moments.

Finally, Chabrier’s Le roi malgré lui (The King Despite Himself) – is utterly bonkers, in the nicest way. Chabrier’s writing is brash, sophisticated and deceptively complex; it needs a precision that it didn’t always get. The staging by Thaddeus Strassberger threw too many different conceits into the pot and created a dog’s dinner. Excellent singing, though, from Nathalie Paulin as Alexina, Liam Bonner as the King, Quirijn de Lang as Laski, Luigi Boccia as Nangis and Mercedes Arcuri as the devoted Minka.