Magazine article The Spectator

Lack of the Irish

Magazine article The Spectator

Lack of the Irish

Article excerpt

Tom Sutcliffe on the pitfalls and pleasures of the Wexford Festival

Wexford, currently celebrating its 50th opera festival, is radically different from the hysterical night at the opera evoked by Bernard Levin in Conducted Tour in 1981, when the stage on which La Vestale was being performed had accidentally been made as slippery as an ice rink and the consequences were inglorious and memorable.

Since Luigi Ferrari took over in 1995 as the festival's first European artistic director and Mrs Pavarotti's Stage Door Productions became the artists' agency of choice, the professionalism of the shows has certainly improved, mainly because Ferrari has insisted on expanding the orchestra pit, and extending the chorus contract and onstage rehearsal period. He has also exploited his own familiarity with the hinterland of Italian second-level talent, and followed his own Italocentric musical taste. The festival is undoubtedly much less Irish now, in every sense, though for the first time in many years a young Irish tenor, Declan Kelly, really shone in one of the two assassin roles in Flotow's entertainingly melodious romp Alessandro Stradella.

Ferrari's chorus is from Prague with a token element of non-Czech names (I counted ten). It is shipped in after rehearsals there with its Czech chorus master, Lubomir Matl. The cast lists are filled with would-be Slav stars, which is not a bad idea when you're staging Dvorak's romantic and Schilleresque Jakobin in its original language - less good for Flotow and Massenet. It is not Ferrari's fault that his first choice for the title role of Alessandro Stradella, a tenor called Popov, was all too true to his name and after three days' noshow had to be replaced by a strained and rather woofy Romanian, Stefano Costa, who whatever he costa was decidedly not up to the job.

The orchestra this year is from Minsk, and they too did some rehearsing before leaving Belarus for Wexford. RTE, the Irish broadcasting company, was not prepared to guarantee the presence of various section principals throughout the season, and was being sticky in a number of ways. I am sure the hard-headed chief executive of the festival, Jerome Hynes, enjoyed telling it to get lost, as RTE probably thought it had a trump card in the 50th season, when everybody would expect the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland to be present in its traditional supporting role. Actually the slave-labour band from Belarus played at much the same level as RTE's mediocre Irish orchestra. The chance Wexford missed by going east for the accompaniment was the launch of a competent pickup orchestra drawn from the huge pool of both young and experienced talent now readily available in these islands (as Glyndebourne Touring Opera, Grange Park and Garsington have demonstrated). The enthusiasm of a new Wexford orchestra would surely outshine people working to a Belarussian contract.

The word, of course, is that none of this is just about money. But British agent Patrick Allen of Connaught Artists is not so sure: 'I think the marginalisation of Irish singers and players is highly questionable.' Soloists' fees in the recent past have been astonishingly modest - 2,000 for five weeks' work and six performances. No wonder one sees cast members at the opening night celebrations descending on the food like harpies, sometimes armed with doggy bags. A festival which is no longer doing its bit for the Irish performing arts, nor providing employment for Irish or British instrumentalists and young singers, is a little cheeky to be now asking the Irish taxpayer for IRL18 million for so far vague plans for a lavish (and extremely desirable) 750-seat reconstruction of the Theatre Royal's tiny stage and fearsomely cramped auditorium. …

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