Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Living life on the edge !

Tomer Zvulun and Michael Christie at the Cliffs of Moher
Have you ever wondered what the visiting artists working at the Wexford Festival do on their rare days off work ? Some will use the time for a little rest and relaxation, while others will use the time to explore Wexford, its environs and beyond.

Last weekend some members of the creative time behind Silent Night decided to take a road trip, and visited the stunning Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, on the west coast of Ireland. Pictured we see director Tomer Zvulun and conductor Michael Christie in their best Tosca leap pose at the edge of the cliffs! You will be glad to know that they are safely back in Wexford. Having been re-invigorated by the beautiful scenery and bracing Atlantic air, the team are very busy putting the final touches on what promises to be an unforgettable show.

Erhard Rom, the set designer took the photo, and decided in the interests of self-preservation to stay away from the edge, leaving that to the more adventurous members of the creative team !


Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Dramatic story lines married to wonderful music

With just eight days to go before the start of the 2014 Wexford Festival Opera, excitement is mounting. The cast and crew are putting the finishing touches to our productions, our army of volunteers is preparing to hit the streets of Wexford, and tickets are flying off the shelves.
I’m often asked how I pick the three main stage operas. Is there a particular theme or strategy? My answer is simple. What I look for is excellence: a strong, dramatic storyline married to wonderful music, and the chance to introduce audiences to a work they might never have heard of, but that richly deserves to be heard. They’re simple but demanding criteria, and this year all three of our main stage operas more than fulfil them.
Watch my latest video log here around this year's operas and read on to find out more about Don Bucefalo  Silent Night and Salomé.

Few people will have heard of Antonio Cagnoni, or his masterpiece, Don Bucefalo, but anyone who’s seen the TV series Glee will find the storyline familiar: a singing teacher tries to put on an opera in a small town. It’s a delightful comedy full of high jinks and silliness, but also replete with beautiful music, and it continues our long tradition of staging the best in 19th century Italian comedy at Wexford.

In a year in which all our thoughts have turned, inevitably, to the First World War, what better time to stage the European premiere of Kevin Puts’ opera Silent Night? Set in the trenches over Christmas 1914, Silent Night is based on the celebrated moment when Scottish, French and German troops laid down their arms and came together to sing carols, play football, and share photographs of their loved ones back home, discovering a common humanity that the horror of war had tried to expunge. It’s a deeply moving piece about our common humanity and the possibilities of reconciliation, even in the darkest times, and rightly won Puts a Pulitzer Prize in 2011. I hope you’ll join us at Wexford to experience it.

Opera lovers may be surprised to find a Salomé on this year’s programme. For more than a century Richard Strauss’s opera has been widely regarded as the definitive version of this beguiling Biblical tale. But the version written, almost simultaneously, by French composer Antoine Mariotte is long overdue a revival. Based on the original French version of Oscar Wilde’s play, it’s a radically different take on the story infused with wild passion and extraordinary music.

That’s far from all. We also have a wonderful array of ShortWorks featuring composers from Puccini to Gilbert and Sullivan, plus talks, film screenings, concerts and more, so join us at Wexford Festival Opera for another 12 days of extraordinary music and performance from some of the brightest talents on the international opera stage. Tickets for all our shows are selling fast. To book yours, call 1850 4 OPERA or visit
David Agler

Artistic Director
Wexford Festival Opera

Thursday, 9 October 2014

The countdown is on !

With just under two weeks until the opening of the 63rd Wexford Festival, reherasals are in full swing, the Opera House is a hive of activity, and excitement levels are beginning to rise !
This year we have yet another fantastic programme to offer. Our 3 main stage operas are Salomé by French composer Antoine Mariotte, Don Bucefalo by the Italian, Antonio Cagnoni, and the European premiere of Silent Night by American composer Kevin Puts. We also have a wide range of ShortWorks, concerts, and recitals to chose from. All the details about this year's event can be found on our website 
If for some strange reason you have forgotten to book your tickets for this year's event, don't panic, there is still time; but you need to act fast as the few remaining tickets are selling quickly. There are a number of ways to book your tickets.

You can access our online booking system and select the performances you wish to attend. Also you can telephone the box office on +353 53 912 2144, and our team will be delighted to assist you with your booking. 

And if the excitement is getting too much, here is a peek at what you can expect when you get here

See you soon !


Friday, 3 October 2014

A note about this blog

This Wexford Festival blog was created to generate interest and share information about the 2014 event, as well as highlight the work and history of the Wexford Festival, and the many people who help make it the unique event that it is.
Wexford Festival Opera  is a place of artistic freedom and expression; a place where consideration for one another and our individual opinions about issues can be freely discussed in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
In keeping with this, all blog posts are open for comments from anybody who wishes to do so. However, any comments that are rude, are attacks on individuals, or not pertinent to the work of the Festival, will be removed.

Silent Night- Seeking humanity in WAR.

From the first moment that I listened to “Silent Night”, I felt that it deeply touched a personal side in me. Kevin Puts’ music along with Mark Campbell’s libretto uniquely captures the dichotomy of love and WAR and creates a world that is both specific and universal at once. It captures the humanity of the characters and the comforts that friendship and music bring to the bloodiest and most inexplicable of all human experiences- WAR.
As an Israeli, I know WAR very intimately. It was around ever since I remember myself. From the Lebanon WAR in my childhood in the 1980s through the Intifada and the suicide bombings in the streets of Tel Aviv in the 1990s to the current endless battle at the Gaza strip, WAR is a state of being in Israel.

Tomer Zvulun
In the early 90s I entered the most surreal situation possible for a carefree teenager: I served in the Army for 3 years as a medic in a combat infantry unit.
As a young 18 year old, I learned a thing or two about violence, fear, loss and the constant brush with death. I learned to shoot, fight, run, hide—not only physically, but also emotionally. Hide the fear of dying young.
What got me through that time and stayed with me forever was the humanity that I found in every situation daily: the strong friendships we formed, the coffee we would shared on endless nights, the music we listened to in sentry and the stories I heard from my comrades about their girlfriends, mothers, loves, lives, homes…Most of all, it was recognizing that we all hid that same fear: the fear that we may never see them again.
That is the most fundamental aspect of being a soldier: missing the ones you love, your family, your home, your innocence, your youth. Those may be lost forever as soon as you put on uniforms and walk out the door.
That’s why I found the story of “Silent Night” to be so moving, personal and yet universal at the same time. Each one of the characters is acutely aware of his mortality, fears and loves. In the midst of this unimaginable time of terror, music, friendship and humanity emerge to provide a momentary solace from the horrors of that futile WAR. And every WAR is futile.
Our production was conceived as an entangled nightmare, progressing vertically. The structure of the opera is extremely intricate and complicated.  The space is the key to the concept: it allows for the fluidity that the storytelling requires. Frequently, the vertical nature of the set allows for simultaneous action on different levels. 
WAR, whether today in Israel or a century ago all over Europe evokes a chaotic, surreal world. The characters that inhabit this world are completely lost in it. As often is the case in WAR.

Tomer Zvulun
September 2014

Friday, 19 September 2014

The history of WFO. 1970-1979.

The third decade in the festival's history opened on October 23rd 1970 with the performance of a double bill of Italian operas, which were L'inganno felice by Rossini and Donizetti's Il giovedi grasso. This was the first ever double bill at Wexford, and the choice of composers was staying very much in line with the Italian leaning that the festival had shown in the the previous twenty years. Ugo Benelli, Jill Gomes, Federico Davia and Elfego Esparza, were making return visits to the festival and appeared in both works. David Atherton was the conductor, while Patrick Libby directed with designs by John Fraser.1970 also saw the first presentation at the festival of what was then referred to as modern opera, Albert Herring by Benjamin Britten. David Atherton also conducted this work. Michael Geliot was the director, and  Jane Bond provided the designs. A fine cast was assembled for the piece, and included Milla Andrew as Lady Billows, Johanna Peters as Florence, Delia Wallis as Nancy, Alan Opie as Sid and Alexander Oliver in the title role.

In keeping with the plan to include more works from the French repertoire, Lakme by Delibes was also presented in 1970, and was considered the hit of the season. The title role was taken by the French soprano, Christiane Eda-Pierre. Born in Martinique, she studied in Paris and was a regular artist at the main French opera houses, as well as appearing in the USA and in Moscow. She is still considered one of the finest voices ever heard at Wexford.
Christiane Eda-Pierre as Lakme.

Also featured in the cast of Lakme were tenor John Stewart as Gerald and Jacques Mars as Nililkantha. Lakme was to be the first of three successive seasons at Wexford for Ms Eda-Pierre. In 1971 she was reunited with John Stewart in another French piece, Les pêcheurs de perles  by Bizet, where Marco Bakker and Juan Soumagnas completed the cast. The season also featured La Rondine by Puccini and Il re pastore by Mozart, whose casts included Anne Pashley, Norma Burrows, June Card and Beniamino Prior. Bellini's first major success, Il Pirata, was to be the opera in which Ms Eda-Pierre made her final Wexford appearance in 1972. The festival had opened with Oberon by Weber, given in an English translation, and featured John Fryatt in the title role, Louise Mansfied as Titania, and Finnish tenor Heikki Siukola as Huon. While Oberon was not considered one of Wexford's successes, Il Pirata was considered a typical Wexford opera and was very well received. However it was the thirds opera of the season that got everybody talking, and that was Katya Kabanova by Janacek. Conducted by Albert Rosen, directed by David Pountney and designed by Sue Blane and Maria Bjornsen, the cast was made up of Czech, Irish, English, South African and American singers. One of the South Africans, was a young soprano making her operatic debut; Elizabeth Connell.

Matti Salminen in Ivan Susanin
The 1973 season was to be Brian Dickie's last as Artistic Director, and in keeping with his goal of expanding the repertory at Wexford, he chose two substantial Russian operas; Ivan Susanin by Glinka, and The Gambler by Prokofiev. The final work was Donizetti's early comedy L'ajo nell' imbarazzo. The Finnish bass Matti Salminen sang  the title role in the Glinka work, which was conducted by Guy Barbier and directed by Michael Hadji Mischaev. Albert Rosen, David Pountney and Maria Bjornsen were the creative team for The Gambler, the cast of which include Joseph Rouleau, Sona Cervana and Anne Howells. Also in the cast of both these pieces was the Welsh tenor Dennis O'Neill, then at the start of his career.

Thomson Smillie
Thomson Smillie now entered the scene as the third Artistic Director of Wexford Festival. Born in Glasgow, he started work in 1966 with Scottish Opera, where he remained until he took up the reins at Wexford.

For the first of his five seasons at Wexford Mr Smillie chose a program that featured an Italian, a French and a German work. These were Medea in Corinto by Mayr, Thais by Massenet and Der Barbier von Bagdad by Cornelius, a program that was very much in keeping with Wexford's traditions. Despite having no previous experience in artistic direction, his first season was quite a success. Medea in Corinto was considered the weakest of the three featured works, despite a strong cast led by Margreta Elkins in the title role. Other principal roles were taken by Eiddwen Harrhy, Arley Reece and Lieuwe Visser. Roderick Brydon conducted. Adrian Slack was the director and David Fielding created the designs.

Jill Gomez
Returning to Wexford, soprano Jill Gomez scored a major success in the title role of Massenet's Thais. This was only the second Massenet opera produced at Wexford, but over the coming years, he would become a composer much associated with Wexford. Jacques Delacote led the cast which also included Lieuwe Visser and Thomas McKinney. Also included in the cast were a number of Irish singers, Ann Murray, Ruth Maher, Francis Egerton, and Wexford bass, Sean Mitten.

Der Barbier von Bagdad was the most popular work of the German composer Peter Cornelius. The first performance at Wexford took place on October 26th 1974, which marked the exact centenary of Cornelius' death. The work is a comedy, and it was remarked that much was lost to the audience as it was sung in German. American bass-baritone Richard McKee sang the title role. Turkish tenor Kevork Boyaciyan was heralded as another Wexford find. The opera was conducted by Albert Rosen, who was becoming a regular visitor to Wexford. The direct was Wolf Siegfried Wagner, great-grandson of the composer !      

For the 1975 festival the works Mr Smillie chose were Le roi d'Ys by Lalo, Eritrea by Cavalli and La pietra del paragone by Rossini. The performances of Eritrea were the first modern performances of the piece which had premiered in Venice in 1652. Further interest was generated by the fact that the work was going to be conducted by Jane Glover, the first woman to conduct at Wexford. The Wexford Festival Baroque Ensemble was created to play for the opera, using the period instruments that the work required. The cast included tenor Philip Langridge and mezzo Anne Murray, as well as Ian Caddy and Anne Pashley, and counter-tenors John York Skinner and Paul Esswood. The work divided opinion. Many hailed it as yet another example of how Wexford Festival was playing its part in operatic history by reviving such pieces, but many others did not consider it to be a success. In fact, Bernard Levin in his book Conducted Tour, said that the piece "proved to be one of the very few unmitigated musical disasters in the history of Wexford".
A scene from Eritea by Cavalli

The other operas that were thankfully considered more successful. The plot of Le roi d'Ys requires the city of Ys to be the engulfed in waves before St Corentin appears and calms the sea. The director was Jean Claude Auvray and designs were by Bernard Arnould, and together they created what many people still recall as the most frightening and realistic finale to any opera seen at Wexford. The cast featured Gillian Knight, Annonio Barasorda, Juan Soumagnas and the conductor was Jean Perisson. For the Rossini, Roderick Brydon conducted a cast that included Ian Caddy, Joan Davies, Sandra Browne, Eric Garret, John Sandor and Iris Dell'acqa. Adrian Slack returned to direct.

Dr.T.J.Walsh receiving the Freedom of the Borough
1976 was the Silver Jubilee for Wexford Festival, and saw the production of Giovanna d'Arco by Verdi, The Merry Wives of Windsor by Nicolai, and The Turn of the Screw by Britten. Celebrations began early that year. In January Wexford Corporation conferred the Freedom of the Borough on Dr.Tom, in a ceremony held in the Arts Centre Cornmarket. The honour was bestowed on him in recognition of his great service to Wexford through the opera festival.

Emiko Mariyuma and Curtis Rayam

Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco opened the festival and featured a very strong cast. Japanese soprano Emiko Mariyuma sang the title role. Carlo, the King of France was sung by the American tenor Curtis Rayam, in what was to he his first of 4 visits to Wexford. Hungarian baritone Lajos Miller sang the role of Giacomo. The opera was directed by Jeremy Sutcliffe, and designed by David Fielding. The RTESO and Wexford Festival Chorus were conducted by James Judd, in spirited  style and overall the performances were considerd very successful.       

The Merry Wives of Windsor by German composer Otto Nicolai was the second work of the Silver Jubilee season. It was performed in a new English translation, by Leonard Hancock, who also conducted the opera, Heading the cast was bass Michael Langdon, who had sung every season at Covent Garden since 1950. Anne Collins, Catherine Wilson, Alan Opie, Ian Comboy and Maurice Arthur also sang. Two Wexfordmen also featured in the cast, bass Sean Mitten and tenor Peter O'Leary. The local connection continued with the third opera of the season, Britten's The Turn of the Screw, as the role of Miles was taken by local boy, 14 year old James Maguire. Mr Smillie was delighted to announce that after a nationwide search, he was able to find a 'Miles' in Wexford. The other child role was taken by Victoria Klasicki from Scotland. Margaret Kingsley, Maurice Arthur, Jane Manning, Anne Cant, Jane Manning and Lee Winston completed the cast. Albert Rosen conducted the Wexford Festival Ensemble, while Adrian Slack and David Fielding returned to direct and design. While it was most unusual to have two of the three operas sung in English, the Silver Jubilee season was considered a triumph, while the vast majority of the international critics who attended were full of praise.

For his fourth festival in 1977, Mr Smillie presented 5 operas ! These were Herodiade by Massenet, Orfeo ed Euridice by Gluck, and a triple-bill of Il maestro di cappella by Cimarosa, La serva e l'ussero by Luigi Ricci, and La serva padrone by Pergolesi.

Malcolm Donnelly and Bernadette Greevy
The Massenet was the festival opener, and featured Irish contralto Bernadette Greevy in the title role. Australian baritone Malcolm Donnelly was Herod, with Eileen Hannon as Salome and Jean Dupouy as John the Baptist. Henri Gallois conducted, Julian Hope directed and Roger Butlin provided the designs. The second piece of the season, saw Jane Glover return to conduct Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice in a production directed by Wolf Siegfried Wagner. Members of the Irish Ballet Company also participated in the performances, which unfortunately were not considered as one of Wexford's finer offerings.

The triple-bill was directed by the great Italian baritone Sesto Bruscantini, who also starred in all three. Il maestro di cappella was a solo peformance, while in La serva e l'ussero, he was joined by Carmen Lavani, Ruth Maher, Bonaventura Bottone and Michael Lewis. Ms Lavani was also his co-star in La serva padrone. James Judd conducted all three pieces, and Tim Reed designed.

The festival in 1978 was to be Thomson Smillie's last as Artistic Director, and for the season he chose Tiefland by d'Albert, Il mondo della luna by Haydn, and The Two Widows by Smetana. The festival opened with Tiefland, by the Scottish-born German pianist and composer Eugene d'Albert. The cast was headed by Israeli soprano, Mani Mekler who was at that time principal soprano with the Royal Swedish Opera. Malcolm Donnelly and Bonaventure Bottone returned from previous years, while Alvaro Malta made his Wexford stage debut having sung in recital the previous season. Henri Gallois, Julian Hope and Roger Butlin conducted, directed and designed respectively.

After a gap of eight years, Ugo Benelli returned to sing the role of the astronomer, Ecclitico, in Il mondo della luna by Haydn. Benelli's performance was regarded as one of the high points of the festival, and he was joined on stage by fellow Italian basso-buffo Gianni Socci, in the first of his four visits to Wexford. James Judd conducted this delightful piece, and Adrian Slack directed, while Tim Reed designed.

Robert White
For his final Wexford offering, Mr Smillie presented Smetana's The Two Widows, which was sung in English translation. David Pountney directed the piece, and Sue Blane was once again the designer. By now a veteran at Wexford, Albert Rosen was the conductor. The cast introduced American tenor Robert White to Wexford audiences, while the two widows of the title were sung by Elizabeth Gale and Felicity Palmer. The French-Canadian bass Joseph Rouleau also appeared.  On the final night of the festival, a presentation was made to Mr Smillie who was leaving to take up the post of General Director with Boston Opera. Also that night it was announced that his successor would be Adrian Slack, who was well known to Wexford as he has directed a number of works here over the past few years.

For his first season as Artistic Director, Mr Slack explained that the pieces had been chosen before his appointment, and that while he would have the full responsibility of producing the season, the operas were not selected by him. The 1979 festival saw L'amore dei tre Re by Montemezzi, La Vestale by Spotini, and Crispino e la comare by Luigi and Federico Ricci.

L'amore dei tre Re by Montemezzi premiered at La Scala in Milan on April 10, 1913. It received mixed reviews, but quickly became an international success, especially in the United States, where it became a staple of the repertory for several decades. After the Second World War, the frequency of performances declined dramatically. Sadly it is still performed only rarely. For the Wexford performances a number of singers made return visits. Alvaro Malta played the role of the blind king Archibaldo, while Lajos Miller was his son Manfredo. The curse of the cancelling soprano seemed to be returning to Wexford, as two weeks before the opening performance the singer engaged for the role of Fiore cancelled. At short notice the Romanian soprano Magdelena Cononovici stepped in and gave a thrilling reading of the role. Her lover in the opera, was sung by the Scottish tenor Neil McKinnon who also gave a splendid performance. Irish singers Colette McGahon and Marie-Claire O'Reirdan also featured, as did the Wexford Children's Choir. Pinchas Steinberg was the conductor.

The second of the season's operas was La Vestale by Spontini premiered in Paris in 1807, and was huge success for many years before falling out of fashion. It was revived in the 1950's for Callas, and even still it only has the slightest grip on the repertoire of the major houses. At Wexford the lead soprano role was taken by Mani Mekler returning from last season. Italian tenor Ennio Buoso played the consul Licinius with who she has an illicit affair. Terence Sharpe also payed a return visit singing the role of Cinna, and Roderick Kennedy, Clair Livingstone and Pat Sheriden completed the cast. Mathis Bamert conducted the performances which were directed by Julian Hope and designed by Roger Butlin and Sue Blane. The final performance of La Vestale has gone down in operatic history as one of opera's greatest funny moments, which is not what you would expect from this very serious and dramatic piece. Bernard Levin recalls the events of that final performance in his book Conducted Tour. And DID actually happen  !
A scene from La Vestale

Sesto Bruscantini and Lucia Aliberti
Described as an ideal piece for Wexford, the final opera was Crispino e la comare by the Ricci Brothers. Sesto Bruscantini returned to star and direct, and gave a tour-de-force performance as the penniless cobbler-turned-doctor Crispino. Gianni Socci also returned in the role of Mirobalano, and together with Bruscantini and David Beavan and Pat Sheridan, performed one of the funniest buffo quartets ever. The young Italian soprano Lucia Aliberti made her Wexford debut as Amina, and became a firm favourite with audiences and critics. She would return again in future seasons. Bonaventura Bottone and Peter O'Leary also appeared. James Judd was once again on conducting duty, and Tim Reed provided the designs. Even after 35 years, Crispino e la comare still brings many happy memories back to those who saw it or were involved with it's production.

In November 1979 shortly after the festival had finished, it was announced that Mr James Golden had been elected as the new Chairman of the festival board. Also this year, David Collopy, a local accountant who had worked as a voluntary worker, was appointed to the position of Festival Administrator.  Together with Mr Slack, the new Artistic Director,  these three gentlemen boldly led the festival towards the 1980's.            

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Don Bucefalo. A note from the director.

I am thrilled to be returning to Wexford this fall to direct Don Bucefalo. My design team and I have had a blast putting this show together. For us, this farcical opera is about the power of theatre and music and the way it can bring a community together. At once hilarious and heartfelt, the opera tells the story of the arrival of a music aficionado who convinces members of a rural community that they have the talent to put on a legitimate theatrical performance. We decided to update the production from a vaguely 19th century landscape to the 1980's and ’90s of our childhood. As a team, we were inspired by the 1996 cult-classic mok-u-mentary Waiting for Guffman and the classic 1957 American musical (and subsequent 1962 film) The Music Man. The arrival of Don Bucefelo galvanizes this small Italian town and serves as the catalyst for a slew of competitive artistic and romantic entanglements.  Without giving too much away, we decided to set the entire opera in a multi-purpose community center – the kind of facility found in every small town, complete with a stage, a small cafe, a basketball hoop, stacks of multipurpose chairs and a wide variety of sporting, theatrical, musical and town-meeting accessories. Our community is trapped in time. The clothing, color scheme, scenery and practical lighting are vaguely mid-1990’s. There are no cell phones or lap tops, nor is there anything to indicate a specific year. Rather, we have a general sense that time has left this town behind. 

I grew up in a small city in Maine and we had a recreational center just like this. I rehearsed plays and musicals in multi-purpose centers for my entire childhood, so this space feels very real to me. (In fact, I actually starred as Harold Hill in The Music Man when I was a senior in high-school. Rest assured, now I leave the singing and acting up to the professionals!) The update has proven quite seamless. For instance, a harpsichord becomes a Casio keyboard (I had one of those, too!) and the "singing peasants" become amateur actors rehearsing a play about peasants – complete with homemade costumes and two-dimensional scenery. Like the communities in Waiting for Guffman and The Music Man, our cast of characters starts to believe that their show might really make them famous. This approach feels especially appropriate for the Wexford Festival which began as a big community effort and continues to foster this sense of community today. (I am sure there have even been a few farcical moments, intentional or unintentional, in the Festival's history!) We hope that this approach will bring out the comedy of the story and continually bring us back to the theme of the power of music and theatre to bring a community together, no matter how delusional these characters' belief in their own talent may be.

Kevin Newbury
August 2014