Opera Pacini / Rimsky-Korsakov / Mascagni Wexford Festival

'I'm usually against fatties on stage, but here their girth is a distinct advantage'

Della Couling
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:32

If the Wexford Festival has stayed successful for 44 years by keeping to the same formula of little-known works performed by an international roster of high-quality performers, "little-known" has often tended to mean "little known in the British Isles". But Pacini's Saffo fits the category universally today. Poor Pacini had the misfortune to be coeval with some of the greatest giants of Italian opera. Saffo, premiered in Naples in 1840, was his comeback piece: with 50 operas to his name, he had temporarily retired, discouraged by the competition, until coaxed out again by the librettist Cammarano with this preposterous tale of the Greek poetess's unhappy love for the faithless Faone.

The designer-director Beni Montresor has, if anything, accentuated the static but melodramatic style. On a stage of broad, descending steps, the cast, dressed mostly in long silver, black and gold robes, move in what is almost a parody of operatic style. Francesca Pedaci as Saffo reveals not only a dramatic soprano that will certainly go far, but also a powerful stage presence of sometimes remarkable intensity. Wexford's new principal guest conductor, Maurizio Benini, drew a spirited and authentic performance from the National Symphony Orchestra.

Ask whether the work's drop into oblivion was deserved, and the answer is "probably". Pacini was a good 19th-century Italian workhorse who knew how to deliver the kind of music singers and audiences demanded - there is a ravishing duet for Saffo and her sister / rival Climene (Mariana Pentcheva) - but I doubt that the piece could ever claw its way back into the core repertoire.

Rimsky-Korsakov's May Night, though, is still a favourite in Russia, and Stephen Medcalf's Wexford staging, using mainly Russian singers, was arguably this year's festival favourite. Francis O'Connor's rather bleak sets of floor-to-wall planking, plus two bare and severely pollarded trees, evoked more the October night outside than May in the Ukraine, but consistently good singing and acting soon dispersed the gloom.

The excellent young tenor Vsevelod Grivnov as Lesko has that distinctive Russian ring to his voice, but the brightest stars in this May Night are Vladimir Matorin, Frances McCafferty and Vyacheslav Voinarovsky as Golova, his sister-in-law and the Distiller respectively. I'm usually against fatties on stage, but here their girth is a distinct advantage, particularly in Act 2, when the three of them enjoy a rather fraught meal together in a comic scene of quite remarkable brilliance. Conductor Vladimir Yurovski provides spirited support.

Mascagni's Iris is also seldom seen outside Italy. This unsavoury tale of paedophilia and generalised sado-masochism, set in the sickly decadence of certain late 19th-century European views of the Orient, now sits uneasily outside that context. Director Lorenzo Mariani and his team have created, with great economy, a peculiarly intense world. The young Japanese soprano Michie Nakamaru is perfect casting as Iris, who is kidnapped from her blind father on behalf of the wealthy roue Osaka (Ludovit Ludha). Cursed by her father for her presumed betrayal, she throws herself from a window of the brothel where she has been taken, and lands on the city dump. In a most peculiar final act, ragpickers and scavengers find the dying girl, who then undergoes a kind of apotheosis, sings to the sun and, in a vision of unified Nature, dies. Act 1, ending with the puppet show during which Iris is abducted, is quite brilliantly done, but even Mariani has to labour hard at the rest of this ultimately thin tale.

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