MUSIC / Spirit levels: Michael Dervan reports from Wexford Festival Opera

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The Independent Culture
THE Wexford Festival opened this year with a sparkling production of Tchaikovsky's comic opera, Cherevichki (designed to mark the 100th anniversary of his death). The plot, from Gogol's story Christmas Eve, concerns the amorous escapades of the blacksmith Vakula. He's in love with Oxana, who tortures him by saying she will marry him as soon as he delivers her the Tsarina's slippers (the 'cherevichki' of the title). Vakula's mother Solokha, a witch, is pally with the devil and she has a string of aspiring bed-friends who cause great amusement, in the second act, by calling on her in succession, each in turn finding himself thrust into hiding in a coal-sack.

The music is really rather good. After all, in its final form it post- dates the First Piano Concerto, the Fourth Symphony, the Serenade for Strings, and the best-known of Tchaikovsky's operas, Eugene Onegin. In the hands of a conductor as idiomatically persuasive as Alexander Anisimov, who drew expressively textured playing from the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, much of it sounds first-rate.

The positive impression was aided by a strong-voiced, mainly Russian cast, with soprano Marina Levitt an Oxana of bracing, hard clarity and considerable vocal agility, mezzo Valentina Cherbinina a Solokha capable of powerful, impassioned emission, and Anatoly Lochak a suavely refined and vocally stylish Potemkin. The tight- sounding tenor of Roman Tsymbala's Vakula was rhythmically capricious, but the abundance of comic roles, especially Leonid Boldin's devil and Wjacheslav Weinorovski's schoolmaster, were pointedly and amusingly done.

Francesca Zambello's good-looking production has wit and pace (and a number of well-received running gags) and Bruno Schwengl's Christmas-card designs encompass some resourceful costuming. A special word of praise is called for, too, for the singing of the chorus, who produced a rich, resonating sound.

The director Tim Hopkins and the designer Charles Edwards approached Herold's Zampa in a high-camp, panto style, the operatic equivalent, you might say, of an Airplane movie. The conductor Yves Abel handled the music's persistent ticks with zip and polish, and the prancing, swaying, twitching members of the chorus fully entered into the frolicsome spirit, as did the spiky-haired castle steward Dandolo (tenor Antoine Normand), whose Act 2 trio with his prospective wife Ritta (mezzo Jutta Winkler) and her long-lost husband Daniel (tenor Valentin Jar) turned into a real showstopper.

The red-skinned pirate Zampa (tenor John Daniecki), his blue- skinned (well, some of the time) rival Alphonse (tenor Bradley Williams), and the goodie-goodie Camille whom they both want to wed (soprano Mary Mills) filled in less comfortably. Mills took some time to settle down, but her second act duet with Williams was vocally magical.

The third opera, Paisiello's Il Barbiere di Siviglia, in a gaudy, let's- shock'em production by Lucy Bailey, stirred up a hornet's nest of protest that generally ignored the contribution of lacklustre singing and conducting to what was undoubtedly a dull evening.

Michael Dervan is music critic of the 'Irish Times'.

The Wexford Festival (box office 010 353 53 22144) runs until 31 Oct.