Music: Buried treasure at the Wexford Festival

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Wexford IS one of the many things in opera that make no appeal to reason: a small town in southern Ireland with a toy-box theatre and a lot of rain which for two weeks of the year becomes a serious fixture on the international opera circuit. People pour in by the plane-load for its festival of rare, collector's works; and that every year it creates from scratch (in makeshift circumstances) a company to put on these unknown pieces, opening three new productions on three successive nights, is the operatic equivalent of tightrope-walking over a tank of piranhas. Blindfold. I can't think of anywhere else that would contemplate it.

But Wexford does, and succeeds with a peculiarly Irish mixture of local enthusiasm and external support. Though for years the artistic direction came out of England, it now comes from Italy, in the person of Luigi Ferrari (who also runs the Rossini Festival at Pesaro); and whatever reservations you might have about his repertory choices - too much Italian bel canto for my tastes - he's certainly raising standards. There was a time when Wexford sets were made out of bed-sheets, and the season fell into a reliable pattern of one successful, one passable, and one absolute howler. This year the howlers have been exorcised. I don't say everything is good, but it is mostly well presented, very well sung, and with one or two ingredients of truly stunning memorability.

The nearest to a no-no is Parisina by Donizetti: one of the many serious scores by this prolific composer (65 operas in the catalogue) which have been eclipsed by his handful of comedies and the memory of Joan Sutherland going mad in Lucia di Lammermoor. Written in 1833, it's a Byronic story of illicit, ultimately fatal love - not grippingly told but interesting, in that the original tenor lead was Gilbert-Louis Duprez, whose method of delivering top Cs (from the chest instead of the then-more- orthodox head) effectively created the modern operatic culture of big, full-powered, high-reaching Pavarottis and Domingos.

Wexford's tenor, Amadeo Moretti, wasn't in that league but did a decent job, and had more than decent vocal partners in Monica Colonna (Parisina) and Eldar Aliev (a promising young Russian bass making a one-night stand as the second'uomo Ernesto). But oh, it was a dull production: decorously easy on the eye in a Disneyesque approximation of Italian cinquecento, but with no spark of creative life. The singers stood, occasionally knelt, and sang. No more. By Act Three, I was looking at my watch with a sinking heart.

I also saw a fair amount of my watch during Meyerbeer's L'Etoile du Nord: a long piece of little substance that, as the hours ticked by, bore out Wagner's famous swipe at Meyerbeer being all effects without causes. The effects in L'Etoile accumulate into an encyclopaedia of what it took to please an audience in mid-19th-century Paris: military odds and ends, the Jolly Drunken Scene, the Two Sopranos Scene, the Mad Scene ... utter opportunism delivered off the peg. The story - of Peter the Great disguised as a carpenter and falling in love with a feisty barmaid - is not the tightest invention of its author Eugene Scribe, and Meyerbeer's score is a confection of only intermittently relieved triteness.

But for all that, Wexford does it beautifully - in a production by the French director and designer Denis Krief that strips the staging down to bare-but- stylish essentials, organises the chorus movement with instinctive flair, and comes up with Seventh Cavalry moments of striking scenic salvation whenever the piece is in danger of collapse into complete tedium. There is also a superb young conductor in the Russian Wladimir Jurowski whose abilities I commended in this column last year in a review of Wexford's May Night, and who has since made a notable debut at Covent Garden, substituting for Edward Downes in Nabucco. Jurowski is commanding, musical, with an assured technique that fights the Wexford predilection for outsized and unrelievedly loud performance. And he gets uncommon subtlety from the two coloratura sopranos who are the stars of the show: the delightful Darina Takova from Bulgaria and the truly magnificent Elizabeth Futral - already well-established in her native America and captivating in the serpentine vocal fioritura that signs off a good number of her scenes in L'Etoile. Her mad scene with obbligato flute is the single- moment highlight of Wexford this year.

But in overall terms, Wexford's hit for 1996 is Sarka by the Czech composer Fibich - not to be confused with Sarka by the Czech composer Janacek. Zdenek Fibich fell into the interstices of music history: born just after Dvorak, just before Janacek, and ultimately overshadowed by them both. As Czech nationalists go, he wasn't: his music looked more broadly towards western-European late Romanticism, which is probably why he lacked enduring championship on home ground. Sarka, which retells the Czech legend of an ancient war between the sexes and inevitable love across the battle lines, was his nearest approach to nationalist writing; but even so, it wavers between Dvorak, Wagner, Bruckner (with insistently repeating motto themes), and extraordinary anticipations of Richard Strauss in the contours of the melodies. As a listener whose only previous knowledge of Fibich was through keyboard music, I wasn't prepared for how assertively dramatic a piece Sarka proved to be: a genuine neglected masterwork, smelling of theatre. Wexford does it justice, with a stark, expressionistic school- of-David-Alden staging by Inga Levant, and abrasive, school-of-Nigel-Lowery designs by Charles Edwards that divide the stage laterally between the world of the men and the world of the women. The images are powerful, the singing fiercely brilliant, with (it must be the diet) another impactful young Bulgarian soprano, Svetelina Vassileva, in the title role. After such an impressive exhumation I can't believe that some regular company somewhere won't take the piece into repertory. It certainly deserves a life.

A good year, then, for Wexford; but I left it with the same reservation I always have about the festival's policy on language. If Wexford played standard programmes of Butterfly or Boheme it wouldn't matter that everything is done in the original language and without surtitles. But to present operas so rare that few in the audience will know them or have even had the chance to do some homework, strikes me as perverse. I know Wexford puts store by being an international festival, engaging European singers, and I know all the arguments against the compromise of singing in English translation. But there is no greater compromise than playing to an audience who have only the barest notion of what's going on. Wexford's outright rejection of English and of surtitles may well be rooted in artistic principle; but from the reaction when I raised the subject at the annual Wexford press conference, I suspect that it's sustained by misplaced snobbery: a sad, small-town belief that if opera doesn't come in Italian, French, German or Czech, it isn't the real thing. Any Wexfordite who found the cod-French accents of the non-French singers in L'Etoile particularly real must have an odd idea of truth.

Wexford Festival (00353 53 22144), to Sun 3 Nov.

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