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On the margins of the Wexford Opera Festival 2003

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    For this years Wexford Opera festival, I made a deliberate decision to avoid the three mainstream productions in the Theatre Royal, and to concentrate instead on some of the peripheral events that support the main productions. With rich menu of choice available, in the end I settled on two Opera ‘Scenes’ productions and two concerts.

    The Opera Scenes are held every year in the ‘Barn’ of Whites Hotel. The idea is that the opera is condensed into an hour and a half production, staged by a skeleton cast supported instrumentally only by a piano. The stage itself is small, the editing of the score is necessarily vicious and there is little scope for scenery, so productions must be imaginative and the cast skilful for the opera to work. As Whites Hotel is being demolished to facilitate a rebuilding programme, this years Scenes marked the end of an era.

    ‘L’elisir d’amore’ by Donizetti, in which Kim Sheehan from Cork played the role of Adina, was wonderfully light and comic. The energetic young cast performed splendidly under Rosetta Cucchis direction. Vincenc Esteves performance of ‘Una furtive lagrima’ was quietly tender and touching. There was a great dynamic within the troupe, and after taking the enthusiastic applause of the crowd, the cast sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to a surprised Alberto Arrabal (Belcore). This was great fun and, for me, exactly what the Opera Scenes should be about.

    Humperdinks ‘Hansel und Gretel’ was an interesting choice of opera for the Scenes. Delicate lighting was used to great effect, particularly the softly lit dawning of the day when Gretel discovers that they are lost in the forest. Very good use was made of the minimalist stage. There were fewer children in the audience than I expected for this production. The ridiculous practice of reserving seats in the Barn (for the glitterati of the festival?) persisted, even for a fairytale opera where, if anything, central seats with good views might have been reserved solely for young children. I was also surprised that it was performed in German, when an English language production might have made it more accessible to a younger audience. The witch (Deborah Overes from Canada) made the opera, and there was a terrific laugh from the audience when Hansel and Gretel unceremoniously booted her into her own oven.

    How appropriate it was that Wagner pieces were performed at a concert in Rowe Street Church, since an hour sitting in these pews would certainly make good practice for sitting in Bayreuths famously uncomfortable seats. The National Philharmonic Orchestra of Belarus were brilliant performing Tchaikovskys 5th, a piece that I hadn’t heard performed live for some time. Ann Murray, who was scheduled to sing the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and the Wesendonck Lieder, was unwell, and Gweneth-Ann Jeffers stood in for her. I had never heard her before, but she displayed some wonderful Jessye Norman-esque strains to her voice. I would be very interested in hearing her voice again in a full Wagner production.

    Diana Veronese, a soprano from Georgia was my final concert, this time in the noble setting of St.Iberius church. Luigi Ferrari, unsurprisingly, introduced her as Russian and then forgot the name of the repetiteur, Eric Malson. She had a wonderful voice, singing Rachmaninov, Brahms, Wagner, Granados and finishing with Bizet. Her Libestod was wonderful, and again, it would be very interesting to hear her in a full Wagner production. She has a very deep and full voice - I would have put her closer to a mezzo-soprano than soprano. She was very charismatic and her big personality came across well to the audience. Some of the chorus members from Maria del Carmen were in the church balcony, and when she sang an encore from Bizets Carmen, they joined in with her. The performance was great fun, and after the performance we left quite elated.

    All in, there was some great music performed on the fringes of Wexfords main productions. Well thought through productions by wonderful, up-and-coming talent were available at very affordable prices. Whilst we will miss the Barn at Whites, perhaps Luigi Ferrari will be more easily replaced (next year is his last as Wexfords Artistic Director). I certainly look forward to his successor resolving the current impasse with the RTE Orchestra and to greater opportunities being offered to some of the wealth of Irish opera talent available. Notwithstanding the undisputed abilities of Kim Sheehan and Sinead Campbell, Irish talent does seem to be underrepresented at this festival and I hope that this imbalance will be addressed by the next artistic director.


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