Cristina, regina di Svezia, Wexford Festival, Ireland – review

Christina, 17th-century queen of Sweden, led a life of operatic proportions. Having acceded to the throne as a child, she shocked Europe by abdicating at the height of her powers. Notoriously ugly and misshapen, she was an outstanding patron of the arts, a formidable intellect, a friend of Popes, a lesbian, a spendthrift: a woman of extremes. There’s ample material here for dramatists and film-makers, but only one composer has brought her to life – Jacopo Foroni (1825-58) – and he doesn’t even feature in the opera dictionaries. His long-forgotten Cristina, regina di Svezia is the hit of this year’s Wexford Festival.

The son of a Veronese composer, Foroni was appointed conductor of the royal theatre in Stockholm at the age of 24 and died of cholera there 10 years later. Judging by the orchestration of Cristina, he was possibly the most sophisticated Italian composer of his time, while the choral tableaux and set-piece confrontations have a grandezza that reveals him as a fine dramatist. Character and plot may follow Italian convention, but Foroni fleshes them out with the sort of cantabile lines we expect of Bellini and Verdi.

Wexford suggests history has misjudged him. The director-designer team of Stephen Medcalf and Jamie Vartan dress the cast in 1930s costumes and preface each act with film clips of international crisis-points of that era. It’s convincingly done. By giving Cristina a modern edge, they show how the queen’s public and private dilemmas echo through history. Just as important, Medcalf draws credible acting performances from his cast, creating the illusion of reality behind stock-operatic emotions of love, betrayal, revenge and loss.

The title role, written for a lyric coloratura soprano, more than meets its match in Australian-born Helena Dix. She has the notes, the confidence and the stage presence to project a strong personality through the music. John Bellemer and Lucia Cirillo amply fill the tenor and mezzo “love interest” roles, while the two baritone parts are vigorously sung by David Stout and Igor Golovatenko. Andrew Greenwood conducts with finesse, stylistic assurance and a palpable sense of mission, setting the seal on a vintage Wexford rediscovery.

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