Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Guglielmo Ratcliff; Koanga

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Guglielmo Ratcliff; Koanga

Article excerpt

Wexford Festival Opera

It's Halloween, and right on lightning-flash cue enters an operatic ghost story exhumed from the grave of long-since-buried works. You couldn't hope for more discerning grave-robbers than Wexford Festival Opera, however, who have long made it their mission to bring forgotten operas back to life. Mascagni's GuglielmoRatcliff is a proper blood-on-the-tartan gothic thriller, all duels, doomed lovers, fainting heroines and family curses, with a score as fleshy with tunes as the composer's more famous Cavalleria rusticana -- think Lucia di Lammermoor without the fey bel canto warblings.

So why so long neglected? There are no musical mad wives lurking in Guglielmo Ratcliff 's attic, but there are more than a few technical demons. The vocal writing for Ratcliff himself is so unremitting, so high-lying that only a handful of tenors have felt capable of tackling the role. Extended monologue 'Non altro che delirio' became a showpiece for José Cura, but otherwise takers for the murderous lover's operatic vendetta have been few. Which is a criminal shame, because -- as Fabio Ceresa's stylish production makes clear -- this really is a classic, blending verismo's musical directness with a Romantic excess of plot and emotion.

Stripping away any kilt-wearing kitschery, designers Tiziano Santi and Giuseppe Palella drain the 19th-century setting of colour, placing us in an elegant frozen scene -- a fantasy of wolfskins and white brocade where the doomed characters exist in a sort of half-life, caught between this world and the next. The stalking figure of mad Margherita (wild-eyed mezzo Annunziata Vestri) haunts the scene, drip-feeding us with ominous back story.

Yes, there's a little too much narrating and not quite enough doing (patriarch MacGregor spends most of Act I bringing the audience and daughter Maria's suitor Douglas up to speed) but when the music speaks so vividly you don't miss the visual drama. Conducted by Francesco Cilluffo, Wexford's Festival Orchestra strings swagger and brass thrust, spreading out a soundscape filled with all the colours blanched from the set.

Ratcliff stands or falls by its anti-hero, and Angelo Villari takes a fine stab at the role (as well as his love rivals). With such power, so many flashes of beauty, not to mention such endurance on display, it seems ungrateful to linger on the rougher edges and dips in intonation that occasionally blot the delivery. …

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