Preview: Wexford Festival, Johnstown Castle, Wexford

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The Independent Culture

Like the summer festival at Glyndebourne, the autumn festival at Wexford is one of those fixtures in the operatic calendar that seem immutable. So it comes as a jolt to discover that this year's Wexford festival opens tonight, with a plethora of events in sundry churches, and with the main focus of its activities a purpose-built temporary theatre in the grounds of the splendid Gothic-revival Johnstown Castle.

"We were looking for alternative venues for the interim period while we build our new theatre," says the designer Joe Vanek, who is presiding over the new production of Dvorak's Rusalka that opens on Saturday. "And in the grounds of Johnstown Castle, we found ourselves saying, 'Wouldn't this be a fantastic setting!'. We've created the sort of structure you get at rock concerts, but with an end-stage that projects over the audience to form a vast performing space. Our Rusalka will banish for ever the memory of David Pountney's ENO version: it will be in period, and set on a country estate. Rusalka will be a lost soul, who finally joins a touring vaudeville show."

Kurt Weill's Der Silbersee and a Stravinsky-Busoni double-bill will be the other main events in an unusually varied programme, which the festival's chief executive Michael Hunt sees as both payback for a £26m grant from the Irish government, and an experiment. "This season will allow us to test whether people want the Wexford experience at other times of the year," he says. "We won't sell out this season, but around 40 per cent of our audience will be new to Wexford."

And it's worth pointing out that the town of Wexford itself is much more hospitable now than it was 10 years ago, with plenty of hotels and shops. See the shows, and shop till you drop.

Today to 17 June (00 353 539 122 144)

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