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For a second season, Wexford Festival Opera is on the move, pending the completion of the new opera house on the site of the former Theatre Royal. This year, the event has moved in time as well as space, taking up a summer residency in a well-appointed temporary venue constructed in the grounds of Johnstown Castle, a few miles outside Wexford itself.
The opening work, Kurt Weill’s Der Silbersee, is not an opera but a play with music that had a triple premiere in three German cities just a month after Hitler’s accession to power in 1933.
Georg Kaiser’s text takes the composer in a different direction from his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, whose political solutions to mankind’s problems are here replaced by a half- mystical, half-humanitarian approach. The policeman Olim has shot Severin, an absconding petty thief, and thereby disabled him.
When he wins the lottery, Olim buys a castle and tries to make Severin’s life as comfortable as possible. A pantomime villain intervenes and kicks them both out, so they make their way to the highly symbolic silver lake of the title, walking over its frozen surface towards some better future.
The main problem for opera fans is that there’s too much Kaiser and not nearly enough Weill – just a handful of songs and the odd chorus in a span of three hours and more. A second problem is that little of the slender score shows the composer at his best.
But what really sinks the evening is the level of a production by Keith Warner that aims for the sophistication of Carry on Kurt.
As delivered in Rory Bremner’s translation, Nigel Richards’ Olim achieves the prattishness of Norman Wisdom without the pathos, while Anita Dobson’s wicked Frau von Luber is like a badly remembered Fenella Fielding.
Karl Schreiner’s choreography is poorly executed within Jason Southgate’s cluttered sets. Timothy Redmond’s conducting is tepid. Der Silbersee is always long. On this occasion it feels well nigh interminable.
Snappier fare comes in the form of a double bill of works that reinterpreted the commedia dell’arte for the early 20th century. If it’s going too far to claim that in doing so Stravinsky’s 1922 ballet Pulcinella invented postmodernism at a stroke, it certainly saw him boldly launching himself on the neo-classical path that would occupy him for the next 30 years.
Far less well known, Ferruccio Busoni’s roughly contemporary (1917) Arlecchino is both a parody of Italian opera and a game played with the audience’s expectations. They make a clever and effective pairing in this staging by Lucio Dalla.
Once past an expendable prologue by Dalla himself that reminds us who Pulcinella was, the anti-hero of Stravinsky’s ballet is transferred to mid-20th-century New York, there to wreak havoc and make good on Wall Street. The setting seems oddly chosen. Dalla’s and choreographer Luciano Cannito’s new scenario is too site-specific to suggest the universality of the comic trickster, yet equally hardly hints at his Italian origins.
But Alessandro Riga proves a lithe and graceful protagonist and is well supported by a six-strong team of dancers. On the musical side, the three singers deliver their reinvented 18th-century songs with little charm, while Stravinsky’s orchestral textures need a lot more bite than conductor David Agler provides.
Busoni’s theatrical caprice goes better in the second half, where Italo Grassi’s designs present a toy- town Tuscany for the composer/ librettist’s comic-grotesque archetypes to knock around in. As Arlecchino, a role conceived for an actor, Marco Alemanno’s quick- witted cheekiness is just right.
His chief victims and antagonists – Maurizio Lo Piccolo as the tailor Ser Matteo, Massimiliano Gagliardo as the Priest, Ugo Guagliardo as the Doctor and Filippo Adami as Leandro – enter into the show’s half- flippant, half-sinister near- anarchy with infectious enthusiasm.
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