The Wexford Festival may be wonderful – but it is missing a trick...

Antony CraigMon 11th November 2013
Lucia Cirillo in Foroni's 'Cristina,regina di Svezia' (photo Clive Barda)Lucia Cirillo in Foroni's 'Cristina,regina di Svezia' (photo Clive Barda)

Unique productions of rare operas deserve to be preserved for future generations

It’s no good citing licensing or contractual difficulties. These days it seems every little opera house can put out DVDs and Blu-rays of, often, quite ordinary productions with equally ordinary singers. So, following this year’s marvellous opera festival, top of the agenda for little Wexford in southern Ireland ought to be doing a deal to make sure that its future productions are preserved. Why would, say, Opus Arte, who produce wonderful DVDs and Blu-rays from around the world, not be interested? Really and truly, they should be banging on Wexford’s door!

Mind, you could almost miss the opera house altogether if you didn’t know it was there. Just part of a row of terraced dwellings in a back street. Not that you would actually miss it, because, every October, for two weeks this charming town plays host to opera-lovers from all over the world. Some people call it Ireland’s Glyndebourne (yes, evening dress is de rigueur), but the atmosphere is hugely welcoming and friendly and one way or another I saw seven operas (including short adaptations with piano accompaniment in daytime venues) in the space of three days.

I raise the issue, though, because one of the glaring omissions from my own DVD collection is last year’s glorious production by Stephen Medcalf of Delius’s underrated operatic masterpiece, A Village Romeo and Juliet, salvaged by Wexford from the dustbin to which it was consigned when funding cuts forced Covent Garden to trim its own plans to stage the piece. (Read more about this production here).

There is an unreleased audio recording extant – Wexford’s productions are broadcast in various countries – but there are no plans for a CD release of that or any other recent Wexford productions. That this stunning theatrical achievement was never even recorded for DVD and Blu-ray is a serious loss.

The gem at this year’s festival was another Medcalf production: this time he tackled the little-known Cristina, Regina di Svezia (Christina, Queen of Sweden) by one Jacopo Foroni (1824-58), whose relative obscurity would doubtless be less pronounced had he survived beyond the age of 34. There is a fairly undistinguished CD from the Göteborg Opera (Sterling CDO1091/92), but Wexford’s performance puts it in the shade.

Some of Foroni’s music is remarkable, but there are clear weaknesses in the dramatic structure of the piece, which takes numerous liberties with the real story of the historical Christina, who ruled Sweden around the mid-17th century, ascending to the throne when she was six and having a power struggle with her regent when she was older. She was probably only in her late 20s or early 30s when she abdicated. ‘Historically, Foroni is all over the place, but I blame his awful librettist,’ Medcalf says. ‘The key to the opera is the conflict between love and duty. What is unusual about the piece is that almost every character puts their love interest before their public duty.’ Medcalf chose to update the setting to some sort of 1930s world, with bits of newsreel producing a surreal effect: ‘When it begins with somebody waving a piece of paper saying “peace with honour”, and then you go on to have a royal wedding and an abdication, it really demands to be moved to a time with which we are more familiar, to make the piece feel more than just a kind of bombastic pageant set in 1650. It gives the piece an edge it might have lacked.’

There are three splendid duets, encompassing dramatic and character development, which give the piece its musical heart, but taken as a whole the opera lacks dramatic balance. Mezzo Lucia Cirillo was a spellbinding Maria Eufrosina (part of a love triangle with the Queen) in the first act, but her part falls away dramatically – she almost disappears after the first interval, although Medcalf ensures that she retains an impressive stage presence. Cirillo’s memorable portrayal will live with me and she was in superb form vocally.

Her role, however, pales by comparison with the fiendish difficulties of Cristina’s role and a dignified Helena Dix coped seemingly effortlessly with frightening top notes, while not quite so at ease in her lower register. ‘Very few people could sing that role,’ Medcalf says. ‘Foroni must have had a soprano who was extremely comfortable above the stave and who also had a bit of a middle and lower range.’

In the end, Cristina, who’s had enough ruling and abdicates, pardons the rebels – in Giovanni Carlo Casanova’s meandering libretto, that is. Historically, those who plotted against the Queen were executed, as one would expect. Medcalf is unconvinced by Casanova’s ending and takes matters into his own hands, producing a startling and effective climax to the piece.

A strong cast reunited several of the Village Romeo and Juliet team, with John Bellemer and David Stout again making notable contributions. The Wexford chorus and orchestra are wonders to behold. The chorus is put together of soloists who are lured to the town because they are offered major roles in the short works. The orchestra is a joy too. Cristina was my highlight of Wexford 2013, but the chorus in a not wholly successful production of Nino Rota’s Il Cappello di Paglia di Ferenze was stunning. And a double-bill of Massenet’s Thérèse and La Navarraise convinced me that the three-quarters of an hour of La Navarraise, at least, should be part of every house’s repertoire.

Next year’s three operas will include Antoine Mariotte’s rare Salomé, which does have the odd recording, and Kevin Puts’s Pullitzer Prize-winning Silent Night, which doesn’t. Silent Night opened to great acclaim in St Paul, Minnesota, in November 2011, selling out for its entire run. Based on the 2005 film Joyeux Noel, the key setting is a battlefield in Belgium near the French border on and near Christmas Day, 1914, when the warring soldiers stopped killing one another. Wexford should make preserving their production – and, ideally, all their productions – on DVD and CD their priority.

Antony Craig

Antony Craig started going to Covent Garden in 1962 and visits and writes about opera around the world – he has probably been to more than 1000 performances at the Royal Opera House alone. He also sings in two choirs.

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