Weford Festival Opera, Wexford, Ireland

Land of the little opera
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The Independent Culture

How many British opera companies have the nerve to do what the Irish do? Think of Dublin's Opera Theatre Group, till recently run by James Conway, which has shown glorious cheek and vital verve in its programming.

How many British opera companies have the nerve to do what the Irish do? Think of Dublin's Opera Theatre Group, till recently run by James Conway, which has shown glorious cheek and vital verve in its programming.

One man set the pattern: since Tom Walsh launched Wexford Festival Opera in 1951, with Balfe's The Rose of Castile, its penchant for rare or neglect- ed operas, has led to one of the boldest programming policies in Europe. The mainstream gets relegated to the spare stage. Yet the punters come, in colourful, chattering droves.

At the Theatre Royal, the boss greets you at the door, legends abound and names are made. The festival is now set to expand, embarking with the aid of the Irish government on an expanded design for the building from 2006, but preserv- ing the Georgian townhouse façade. Waterside Wexford - and Ireland - will get the opera theatre it deserves.

The artistic director of the festival, Luigi Ferrari, who hands over to the Canadian David Agler this year, has raised a few hackles, notably in his use of Polish and Belorussian orchestras, a fabulous Czech chorus and the underuse of Irish solo singing talent. But his daring programming since 1995, upholding Wexford's tradition, has been a triumph. No Stanford, but Fibich, Weinberger and Martinu; Massenet, Auber and Adam; the Brazilian, Gomes; and, among Italians, Pacini and Zandonai.

This year's trilogy was typically fascinating: the Czech "anti-verismist" Josef Foerster (1859-1951); Cologne's Walter Braunfels (1882-1954), who was pilloried by Hitler; and Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870), a rival of Donizetti's and the key link between Rossini's William Tell and early Verdi.

There was no dud this year, though Mercadante's harmonically dullish La vestale (Naples, 1840) - related to Spontini's opera about the vestal virgin who chooses love, allows the sacred fire to go out and gets buried alive - was a candidate. Thomas de Mallet Burgess's inconsistent, cliché-prone production was unremittingly awful; Jamie Vartan's designs were almost as bad. The lighting designer Giuseppe di Iorio, however, proved a real master and saved much of it, and the focus on greys, reds and whites worked.

The stars of La vestale were the Mexican tenor Dante Alcala (the doomed Decio), the charming Polish mezzo Agata Bienk-owska (Giunia) and the bass Davide Damiani, as the hero's loyal soldier friend. The latter was even more impressive when he turned up, in a reprise of his chilling Rigoletto, as a vicious Tonio in Pagliacci: top marks, too, to Vincenzo Rana leading from the piano, the director Jacopo Spirei and the designer Cristiana Aureggi.

La vestale, over-conducted by Paolo Arrivabeni (precision minus warmth), revealed two Wexford problems: the instruction to singers to belt it out, which is inept in an intimate theatre; and a hole at the heart of all three main operas. This was not because of the music: Foerster's Eva is a gorgeous, cogent score, and Braunfels's Prinzessin Brambilla, which he composed in his twenties and later revised, fizzes like Falstaff. But in each the soprano proved the Achilles heel: Doriana Milazzo, as the lovelorn vestal Emilia, had clear potential but was wooden as a gatepost; Iveta Jirikova's Eva was so wonderfully cutting that she iced you like Janacek's Kostelnicka; and Elena La Forte's seamstress Giazinta made almost no impact at all.

That's a serious hampering. Eva was not helped by the Slovak Jaroslav Kyzlink's warm but loose conducting, and he wasn't a patch on the splendid, long-locked Daniele Belardinelli in the Braunfels. Paul Curran's direction of Eva, Paul Edward's superbly gloomy, painteresque handling of set and costumes, Giuseppe di Iorio's inspired lighting and the Russian Igor Tarasov's magnificent Samko made this production, with Denisa Hamarova fun as the impossible mother. It wasn't quite Janacek, but almost.

Star billing goes to Rosetta Cucchi's debut as director in the main house: her commedia dell'arte Princess Brambilla, although cluttered, was endlessly inventive, abetted by Maria Rosaria Tartaglia's sets (only half her costumes worked), a switched-on male ensemble, Lubomir Matl's superbly trained chorus, and the terrific Vilar Young Artist Ekaterina Gubanova as a searing mezzo soubrette. Enrico Marabelli's splendid Pantalone was a hoot a minute.

The festival continues till 31 October (00 353 53 22144; www.wexfordopera.com)