Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Wonderful time in wet, wet Wexford

OK, so it rained a lot, but I finally made it to the Wexford Opera Festival. This Irish coastal town, with its soft and subtle colours under low-blowing clouds and sweet-scented, damp air, is famous for much more than its delectable strawberries (but do dip them in chocolate. Oh yes...). It's where such luminaries as Juan Diego Florez, Joseph Calleja and the fast-rising Eglise Gutierrez cut their teeth. I thought it'd be good, having been hearing about it more or less forever. But I didn't realise quite how good until I emerged from Maria by Roman Statkowski [who? ed] shaken to the core by Michael Gieleta's staging - so realistic that I'd sat there reminding myself "it's only an opera, it's only an opera..."

Statkowski, since you ask, was Szymanowski's teacher and his dates are 1859-1925. Maria is a political tale based on an epic poem by Mlynarski from 1825, set in an obscure province of what's now Ukraine in the 17th century. Waclaw, son of the powerful Count Palatine, is in love with Maria, daughter of a mere District Governor - and has run away and married her. Big daddy the despot is furious because his son is the apple of his eye, his sole heir and hope. He appoints his henchmen to bump off Maria so that Waclaw can be unencumbered by a wife from the wrong social class. Despot dispatches army to attack 'thugs' who are 'vandalising' his territories; during the mayhem Maria is abducted and thrown into the river to drown. Waclaw discovers that his father ordered his beloved wife's murder and goes to take revenge - but kills himself instead of his father. There's a grand ball complete with polonaise and mazurka, ravishing love music that seems to have escaped from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.5, and folk elements that seem to have escaped from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.2 (though this tune was a Ukrainian folk song long before either composer got hold of it).

Structurally it could be an awkward opera - for instance, the eponymous heroine only stars fully in one scene, plus a brief moment in the next before she is murdered. But Gieleta has updated it to Poland of the early 1980s, to devastating effect. The 'thugs' represent the rise of Solidarnosc: Count Palatine becomes the general in charge of beating them down under martial rule.

I had a long, intense talk with Gieleta, who was a child in Poland at that time and saw it all with his own eyes. Nevertheless, he told me, he was keen to capture not only that specific reality, but the universal relevance of a narrative about totalitarian regimes. He described an incident in which a friend from Venezuela had come up to him with tears in his eyes after seeing the performance and declared that it was about his country.

The staging is violent, at times terrifying in its realism - for instance, the scene in which the women take refuge in the District Governor's yard trying to escape from the threatening troops with riot gear and batons, plus a sleazy priest seeking long-haired candidates to comfort; or the injured, blood-drenched Waclaw stumbling about the container yard, hunting for Maria, unaware that she is dead. The party scene captures the ghastly naffness of communist Poland trying to dress up and party, complete with a few manically grinning folk dancers and a desultory bunny girl emerging from a polar bear suit - Berlusconi bunga-bunga this ain't. Orchestral interludes are illustrated by huge black and white photos under falling snow - queues for food, a bus stuck in a blizzard, the grim shipyards of Gdansk - mirrored by tableaux on stage. Apparently on the first night the Polish Ambassador attended and spotted, in one picture of the demonstrations, an image of his younger self.

Daria Masiero was Maria - not the romantic beauty-queen we might expect, but instead a cuddly, down-to-earth girl in a cardigan, caring towards her father and thrilled when Waclaw gives her the gift of a small teddy bear. As Count Palatine, Krzysztof Szumanski's strong-centred bass-baritone packed a tremendous punch, a big voice with oodles of personality (though he didn't quite have the role's bottom notes); he's an alumnus of the Jette Parker Young Artists programme at Covent Garden and we are likely to hear much more of him. In this trailer for the Deutsche Oper Berlin's Le nozze di Figaro, you can glimpse him as Figaro.

Quite a buzz, though, emanated around Waclaw: the Polish tenor Rafal Bartminski, who portrayed the tale's youthful hero as a peaceable, academic type caught up in forces that do their best to politicise him from either side, somewhat against his inner nature. It's a starry role, romantic and beautiful, and Bartminski carried it off to the manner born. (ENO please note, this would be a terrific role for Toby Spence.)

Listen to Rafal sing Schubert's 'Du bist die Ruhe':

Donizetti's Gianni di Parigi - "Johnny from Paris" - couldn't have been a better antidote: a pure bel canto comedy of dinners. The Dauphin of France arrives at an hotel disguised as a wealthy traveller named Gianni, and bribes the muddled hotelier so that he can take over the whole place although it's been booked out long ago by the Princess of Navarra. He's supposed to marry this princess, but hasn't met her and wants to check her out first, incognito. Unbeknownst to him, though, his dad has told her exactly what's going on, so she turns up fully briefed...and the pair try to outwit each other until they finally admit they're madly in love. Caught in the middle is the hotelier, his daughter, the prince's page boy Oliviero and the princess's snobby, self-important chief steward, who finds himself trapped between his sense of 'honour' and the temptation of a giant vol-au-vent. There are some irresistible arias, foot-tapping ensembles and plenty of those Italian crescendi that remind one of being tailgated more and more closely on the Autostrada.

The production, by Federico Grazzini, was costumed in 1950s style - it seems to be the default setting for Donizetti right now - and my only problem with it was that the chorus consisted of the hotel staff. If they'd had two royal entourages to cater for, they wouldn't have time to stand around singing, drinking and asking the princess for autographs.

More superb singing, though. Zuzana Markova, a Czech coloratura soprano, sang bel canto rings round everyone, saving some her vocal richesse for the glittering final scene; and she bore a rather startling resemblance to the Duchess of Cornwall. Edgardo Rocha, from Uruguy, was a cute, luxury-loving charmer as the Dauphin in disguise, with a high and affectionate tenor that suited the music to a tee. But the one who stole the show, as far as I was concerned, was the trouser-role mezzo of Oliviero the page boy: Lucia Cirillo from Italy, who showed absolute mastery and deep, innate, stylish musicality, as well as offering a lovely sense of fun. Not a huge amount of her to hear on Youtube as yet, but here is a spot of Italian baroque in which she's accompanied by the excellent Fabio Biondi and his orchestra.

Wexford has much more on offer than just the evening operas (and unfortunately I missed the third of those, Ambroise Thomas's La Cour de Celimene - you know what Saint-Saens said about Ambroise Thomas, but I'd still have liked to hear it...). There's an impressive fringe programme of morning lectures, lunchtime recitals and afternoon "shorts". I caught an afternoon performance under the umbrella title of Double Trouble: two one-acters about love, marriage and discord in the suburban states, Menotti's The Telephone (with Laurie Ashworth and Byron Jackson) and Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti starring Toby Girling as Sam and Martha Bredin as Dinah.

Having always heard Trouble in Tahiti described with words like 'flawed', I loved every minute of it: Bernstein's high energy, his focus, his versatility, the way there's no emotion he won't have a go at grabbing in music, the way he can juxtapose irony and pastiche in the close-harmony trios with near desperation over the thin and fragile surface that holds our existence in place... Full marks to the lot of them, including director Michael Shell and music director Adam Burnette.

The Wexford audience? People with a true passion for opera, eager to dress up and hear whatever Wexford deems fit to serve them, in the certainty that it will be good, inspiring, fascinating. Many of those I encountered have been attending annually and faithfully for 15 or 20 years or more. Now I know why.