Maria Di Rohan / Penelope, Theatre Royal, Wexford Festival

Inspired season heralds new era
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The Independent Culture

Soon to embark on a dramatic extension of its homely Theatre Royal, Wexford is the sociable place where Irish opera happens. Here - for a packed 18 days - the great and the good of Ireland's arts-loving milieu meet and mingle. Tragically shorn of Jerome Hynes, its chief executive, who died just as rehearsals got under way, Wexford now boasts an energetic, new artistic director, Canadian David Agler, and this season looks to be a memorable one. Indeed, there's a marked feeling of an exciting era just opening up.

Agler deserves credit that his first Wexford offering proved such a palpable hit with this discerning audience. Gaetano Donizetti had some 60 operas under his belt by the time he and his gifted librettist, Salvadore Cammarano, turned to Maria di Rohan, set in the time of Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, and the focus is firmly on the arias of a lovelorn threesome, caught up amid anti-Cardinal plots.

Charles Edwards' fleur-de-lys-festooned pink and grey sets and unfussy direction served the opera perfectly well. Brigitte Reiffenstuel costumed the cast handsomely. Paul Keogan's lights made some threatening use of shadows, if slightly at the expense of other lighting.

But it was Cuban Eglise Gutiérrez as the tragic and pathetic Maria, the passionate Armenian tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan as the ill-fated Riccardo and, above all, the wonderful Canadian baritone James Westman as the long-suffering Enrico who triumphed in this vocally terrific first night. All three have an exciting delivery, a personal presence (even if moves were uneven) and an emotional range that brought a real intensity and nuancing to mature Donizetti. Thoughtful Italian conductor Roberto Polastri proved a marked asset, as did his brass and cor anglais soloists.

Wexford also celebrated after this weekend's announcement that Sir Anthony O'Reilly, its president, and Independent News and Media are to give €1m (£675,000) each towards the new theatre development.

Few people are aware Fauré wrote an opera, yet Pénélope is a scrumptious score. The music unfolds in a gorgeous, slow, almost Parsifalian skein, rather like that which Ulysses' wife, Pénélope, weaves and then unravels by night, spurning the unwelcome marital attentions of the suitors who sprawl round her island home of Ithaca.

This is one of those unerring Wexford successes. Pénélope receives a gorgeous treatment from designer André Barbe, whose set teasingly offsets an idyllic Ionian seascape embracing surreal shades of Magritte with a monochrome, sculptured inner room that weaves together domestic bliss and incipient ennui. Both René Fauchois' Homer-focused libretto and Fauré's lusciously warm music - sometimes derided - are astonishingly skilled at preserving emotional intensity, while permitting Pénélope's tortured inner stress to be viewed from all angles.

The staging by Renaud Doucet, the director, works exquisitely well: he choreographs his sky-blue-clad suitors and white-masked, caryatid-like handmaids so subtly that the opera assumes a kind of balletic beauty. The Canadian-Armenian mezzo Nora Sourouzian makes an ideal, touching Pénélope: she moves wonderfully, her phrasing is acutely sensitive, while the voice transforms to a musical fieriness apt for pained outbursts. The servants, Vincent Pavesi and Lorena Scarlata Rizzo, are played like scarlet-clad guardian deities, who nurse the vengeful wheel of fortune as they once nursed the infant hero.

The French conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud draws rewarding playing from the Cracow Philharmonic Orchestra in Fauré's scintillating score. The attractive American tenor Gerard Powers brings a soothing presence and a particularly lovely, tender delivery to Ulysses. No mere curio for the connoisseurs, but pioneering Wexford at its most inspired: surely an opera for the regular repertoire.

Festival to 6 November (00 353 53 22144)