The title role in Ambroise Thomas’s La Cour de Célimène makes fearsome technical demands on a singer: a firework display of trills and top Fs that would defeat most sopranos. How do we know? Until last weekend, when Thomas’s comic opera opened this year’s Wexford Festival in Ireland, we didn’t. La Cour de Célimène had not been performed since its initial run at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1855. Soon after its premiere the soprano for whom the title part was written, Marie Caroline Miolan-Carvalho, left the theatre and no one was willing or able to take on Célimène in her place. Result: an opera was nearly lost to posterity. Dozens of others have suffered a similar fate.
If you are content to limit your opera-going to the most popular 40 operas, none of this matters. You can listen to them again and again with minor variations of interpretation and quality. But one virtue of the recent popularisation of opera is that, far from narrowing or dumbing-down the scope of the art form, it is widening it.
A market has opened up for the also-rans of operatic history. Opera buffs lap up recordings of niche repertoire: they know they might never encounter these pieces in the theatre. What has this to do with La Cour de Célimène and Wexford? Well, if Opera Rara had not recorded Thomas’s opera three years ago, it is unlikely that anyone at Wexford would have been emboldened to programme it. The same goes for Roman Statkowski’s 1906 opera Maria, another of this year’s Wexford operas. David Agler, the festival’s artistic director, says that if Polish Radio had not issued a commercial recording in 2009, he might not have known about Maria – and been gripped by its music.
Obscure operas are Wexford’s lifeblood. The annual festival in this former fishing town on Ireland’s south-east coast has been exploring the byways of operatic history for 60 years and more than a third of its audience comes from abroad. But, due to the financial squeeze of recent years, questions are being asked about Wexford’s continuing relevance to the opera world. Why does Wexford champion the obscure for three weeks each year, at no small cost to the Irish exchequer, when the country lacks a national company to play the Toscas and Traviatas? Isn’t rare repertoire becoming more common elsewhere, diluting Wexford’s cachet? And how much longer can Wexford continue to dig up operas that qualify as hidden treasure?
This year’s festival might have provided some answers. On opening night a host of bigwigs, including Irish prime minister Enda Kenny, witnessed not just a hugely entertaining performance but an international cultural event, regarded by outsiders as one of Ireland’s jewels. The two leading principals, Claudia Boyle as Célimène and John Molloy as the Commander, are both Irish and need no partisan local following to verify their artistic excellence: she hit her notes cleanly and with a furtive smile, while he deployed his rich bass with swagger and élan. Both had mastered the French dialogue; both served notice that a new generation of Irish singers is on its way in the world.
The festival orchestra, now comprising more Irish musicians than the Dublin-based National Symphony Orchestra, captured the charm and sparkle of Thomas’s score and Stephen Barlow’s heavily bewigged staging was just the right side of camp. The plot – about a flirtatious countess who sees men and marriage as a mere social convenience – is pure froth but Wexford proved this particular froth has artistic substance, worthy to stand alongside Thomas’s better-known operas, Hamlet and Mignon.
It is impossible to feel so confident about Maria, a hackneyed Romeo and Juliet-style story of young love throttled by politics. Statkowski (1859-1925) is one of the lost souls of Polish music, trapped between the 19th-century nationalist tradition led by Moniuszko and the 20th-century modernist school instigated by Szymanowski. At best his music is emotionally stirring but it flaunts its debts – to Tchaikovsky, the German late romantics, verismo – so much that you begin to question its originality. And with overlong orchestral passages, lop-sided dramaturgy and characters crudely painted as good or bad, the opera seems horribly misshapen. It is hard to see it establishing itself outside Poland, where the Wexford production is to be repeated (at Kraków).
Michael Gieleta’s staging used Maria as a peg on which to hang a narrow political message. Updated to the Solidarity era, with riot police facing off dissidents, it was clearly targeted at a Polish audience, in whom the injustices perpetrated by the communist dictatorship still stir a deep response. The opera crumbled under this burden. There was little subtlety in the acting and, although the ensembles gave Wexford’s new festival chorus a chance to shine, no one came out of it well – except the commanding tenor of Rafal Bartminski and the conductor, Tomasz Tokarczyk.
Should Maria have been left to the Poles? Far from it: the opera needed a wider airing and Wexford was the right arena for putting it to the test.
This year’s third opera was Donizetti’s Gianni di Parigi, a formulaic romantic comedy. The singing was perfectly adequate, with stratospheric top notes from Zuzana Markova’s Principessa to rival those of Célimène. Did we need to go to Wexford to hear it? No: Federico Grazzini’s serviceable production, conducted by Giacomo Sagripanti, was imported from Italy. But Donizetti goes down well at Wexford and there was not enough money in the festival kitty to do the work Agler really wanted – Ponchielli’s I Lituani (The Lithuanians), long in need of a modern revival but more expensive to stage.
That’s a rare example of a Wexford compromise. But with a never-performed Mercadante opera lined up for next year alongside Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet, the festival clearly hasn’t lost its yen for taking punts that mainstream opera houses shy away from.