Magazine article The Spectator

Astute Recipe for Success

Magazine article The Spectator

Astute Recipe for Success

Article excerpt

Tom Sutcliffe on three little-known but enjoyable operas in this year's Wexford Festival

You still get the Angelus at noon and at six in Ireland on RTE's Radio One. Last Friday, the morning after the Wexford Festival opened with Mercadante's 11 giuramento (The Vow), that made a fitting curtain-raiser to the lead news item -- which was all about Dublin's Cardinal Desmond Connell facing 450 lawsuits concerning paedophile priests in his diocese. Some traditions do linger, though not the Wexford tradition of having the local RC bishop as a prominent guest. Bishops at the opera have been replaced by businessmen -- this year's sponsors include Unilever, Merrill Lynch, Bank of Ireland, Growlife, Stena Line, as well as very old friends such as Guinness and the Irish Arts Council.

There's a lot of politics about in Wexford. There needs to be. Politics is money. Bertie Ahern has pride of place in the latest Friends Newsletter, having promised government backing for the festival's ambitious expansion and rebuilding plans. The tab to be picked up by the Taoiseach will total about euros 23 million (L14.75 million) - quite a tidy sum for an 18-day event in a theatre with a capacity of 500. Festival chairman Ted Howlin's brother Brendan is challenging for the Irish Labour Party's leadership - though party opinion-polls suggest the prize will go to another politician with the entertaining monicker of P. Rabbitt. And, notably, the Nice vote was reprised to general approval on Saturday.

From the politician's and businessman's points of view, backing Wexford is backing a success story. The festival is very professionally run by chief executive Jerome Hynes. With its Italian artistic director, Luigi Ferrari, its orchestra from Minsk, and its chorus from Prague, Wexford has totally dispelled the sense of Anglo-Irish amateurism and inferiority that used to be a significant element of its charm. It is a contender in the Euro-league of artistic events, a 'blind date' with the forgotten and neglected past that has proved an extraordinarily astute recipe. And that recipe makes brilliant economic sense backstage. Expensive established stars wouldn't touch the work anyway. Learning roles with no shelf life is something you only do when you're new on the block and need a shop window.

Wexford 2002 was a vintage year. The production of Il giuramento by Joseph Rochlitz may have been absurdly wooden, with sets (and bald platforms) that bespoke a desperately low budget, but I shall long treasure the moment when Elaisa strode across a bed to seize a massive crucifix: the strange swivelling gestures of the chorus were like nothing I have experienced before. The tenor, Manrico Tedeschi as Viscardo, was said to be suffering from bronchitis -- but struggled on nobly. Luigi Ferrari told us he was being let off the difficult bits -- which may account for the sense of mystery and dislocation. He was not a very interesting tenor, whatever his condition.

Baritone Davide Damiani as the wicked Manfredo was underwhelming, too. But all problems paled into insignificance when Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia as Elaisa started singing. Farnocchia is a thrillingly accomplished, serious new star with rock-solid technique and true vocal charisma. She was totally on top of the demands the role made, and I look forward to hearing her in an opera worthy of such a wonderfully reassuring, secure voice. …

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