Magazine article The Spectator

The Total Experience

Magazine article The Spectator

The Total Experience

Article excerpt

Only in Ireland, surely, would a successful opera festival be based on reviving operatic failures. But putting it baldly like that doesn't explain the attraction of the Wexford recipe. One advantage of failure, of course, is that it's a commodity in virtually unlimited supply. (Or so I said, when a senior Guinness executive was wondering if the Wexford product could ever run out.) Another is that, since nowadays Wexford's operas are almost all profoundly obscure, punters can't and don't discriminate between them - until they've actually heard them, when all are eager to put their view on the rival merits (it does seem perverse, though, to eschew the use of surtitles). In reality, Wexford, like Glyndebourne, is a package in which actual opera is a comparatively minor factor. The total experience is what people buy: friendly company, sales of bad paintings on every wall, nice concerts on the side, fresh vocal talent, variable but sometimes superb cooking in restaurants around the county, Guinness, Jamieson's, conviviality. If an opera proves worthwhile - that is sheer bonus.

Wexford wasn't always so studiedly academic in its repertoire. In 1964 they did Lucia and Count Ory, in 1965 Don Quichotte and Traviata. My first visit in 1972 included Katya, Wexford's only Janacek so far, and a memorably dismal Oberon. Gluck's Orfeo was on the menu in 1977, but after the 1982 arrival of Elaine Padmore as artistic director you didn't expect to find standard rep. And now Luigi Ferrari, the current artistic director who also runs the Rossini festival at Pesaro, has really pushed the boat out. The attractions this year (my 17th visit) were Carlos Gomes, Pavel Haas and Riccardo Zandonai.

Gomes's Fosca of 1873 is a wildly absurd tale of romance, piratical extortion and human traffic almost on the scale of Ponchielli's Gioconda. But Giovanni Agostinucci's staging (he also designed) kept the lighting low, revolved a pair of edging flats from shiny rocky surface to neo-classical ruin, and started most scenes with stentorian declamation half way up a narrowing centre-stage flight of steps. Fosca was probably the opera most visitors (but not critics) liked best. Sheer stand and deliver, and Elmira Veda's Fosca and Tigran Martirossian as her brother the pirate leader Gajolo (a glowing golden bass) did exactly that in spades. Veda has a full-throatedly violent rich soprano with a serious bottom register that you just know is going to the bad. Sure enough, at the end she takes poison, having failed to capture Paolo the man she fancies (a slightly underwhelming American tenor Fernando del Valle) while being really rather decent to Paolo's beloved Delia. Anatoly Lochak as the treacherous baritone Cambro is also impressive. But it's the way Veda's Fosca copes with Gomes's exaggerated vocal gymnastics that really gets things going.

Wexford programme articles often claim composers as `missing links'. Gomes's Fosca includes many pre-echoes of musical ideas more effectively reworked by Verdi in Boccanegra, Otello and Falstaff But Gomes, with heavily predictable accompaniments, clumsy dramatic structure and feeble characterisation, is a pretty bad composer - his main technique evidently being to flesh out climactic opportunities in the vocal lines.

The other two Wexford composers, Zandonai and Haas with their between-thewars works, are infinitely more sophisticated and interesting -- though all three operas this year end with the inconsequential deaths of central characters about whom we care little. …

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