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.            

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Silent Night - Seeking humanity in WAR.

Tomer Zvulun
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.
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

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

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The history of WFO. 1961-1969. Part 2.

Mr Brian Dickie
In January 1967 Brian Dickie was appointed as Artistic Director of the festival. Walter Legge had originally been appointed to the position, but had to withdraw due to ill health. And so with less than 10 months to the festival, the 25 year old Dickie set to work. It was not going to be an easy task, as there was a very strong opinion that he festival could not, and indeed should not continue without Dr.Tom. Speaking during the Dr. Tom Walsh Memorial Lecture in November 2011, Brian Dickie remarked that he had to get his act together pretty quickly, and chose a Shakespearean repertoire for his first season. Financial issues dictated that only two operas could be staged that year, and these were Otello by Rossini and Romeo et Juliette by Gounod. Casting trips to Milan and Paris were successful. Albert Rosen returned to conduct Otello which was directed by Anthony Besch and designed by John Stoddard. For Romeo et Juliette Brian Dickie invited Cork designer Patrick Murray to work with John Cox who directed and David Lloyd-Jones who conducted.

All seemed be to in order for the season until two weeks before opening night when the soprano engaged to sing Juliette had to cancel due to illness. After a frantic search, Zuleika Saque a Portuguese soprano who had sung the role before, was tracked down to Italy where she was holidaying, and she agreed to come to Wexford an sing the role. Her Romeo was French tenor Jean Brazzi, who was a regular artist in the most important theatres of France. French baritone Henri Gui, and basses Jaroslav Horacek and Victor de Narke also starred.

Zuleika Sarque and Victor de Narke in Romeo et Juliette

The title role of Otello was sung by Bulgarian tenor Nicola Tagger. The remainder of the cast was predominantly Italian, Soprano Renza Jotti sang Desdemona, tenors Pietro Bottazzo and Walter Giulino were Rodrigo and Iago, Maria Casula sang Emilia and Silvano Pagliuca was Elmiro.

Nicola Tagger, Renza Jotti and Silvano Pagliuca in Otello

For the festival of 1968, three operas were scheduled, and these were L'equivoco stravagante by Rossini, La clemenza di Tito by Mozart, and La jolie fille du Perth by Bizet. While Italian repertoire had been the core of the festival since the beginning, the French repertoire was to feature more prominently at the festival during Brian Dickie's tenure. A three opera season also offered a better structure for development of the repertoire, and allowed the inclusion of pieces such as La clemenza di Tito. This opera was well received in Wexford, thanks to the fine cast assembled. Peter Baille a tenor from New Zealand sang the title role and was much feted by the critics. Italian mezzo Maria Casula returned at short notice to sing Sextus,while Dutch soprano Hanneke Van Bork was Vitellia. Other roles were taken by Delia Wallis, Elaine Hooker and Silvano Pagliuca. John Copley was the director.

A scene from La Clemenza di Tito

Bizet's rarely performed La jolie fille du Perth is perhaps only known for the famous serenade, which is sung by the tenor. At Wexford, John Wakefield, the Yorkshire born singer did the honours. French soprano Denise Dupleix was the beneficiary of the famous aria. The French bass Roger Soyer appeared as Ralph, and made a great impression, but overall the opera was not considered one of Wexford's greatest moments. However, the third opera of the season was quite a hit. Rossini's early comedy has quite a convoluted plot but offers some great music and comic opportunities. The production was directed by John Cox with designs by John Stoddart, and was conducted by Aldo Ceccato. Shortly before the rehearsals were due to begin, the sad news arrived of the death of Renza Jotti who was due to return to sing Ernestina. She was replaced at very short notice by Argentinian soprano Nelie Praganza who was very well received. British bass Richard van Allan was her father and Texas born bass Elfego Esparza played the buffo role of Buralicchio. Pietro Botazzo, Maria Casula and Mario Carlin completed the cast. The opera was broadcast live the BBC's Third Programme.

Richard van Allan, Elfego Esparza and Nelie Praganza

For the final season of the 1960's financial issues only allowed for two operas, which were L'infedelta delusa by Haydn and Luisa Miller by Verdi. L'infedelta delusa was the first Haydn opera to be performed at Wexford, and proved quite a success. Ugo Benelli returned to sing the role of Nencio. Making her first appearance at Wexford as Sandrina was the Trinidadian soprano Jill Gomez. Eugenia Ratti, Alexander Young and Eftimios Michalopoulus completed the cast. David Lloyd-Jones conducted and John Copley was the director.
A scene from Luisa Miller
Late cancellations from sopranos seemed to dog the early years of Brian Dickie's time at Wexford, and just before the festival rehearsals started, the soprano engaged to sing the title role of Luisa Miller cancelled. American soprano Lucy Kelston was flown in from Milan to take over. Ms.Kelston was familiar with the role, and had in fact recorded it back in 1951 with the well known Italian tenor Giacomo Lauri Volpi. Returning from previous festivals, Irish mezzo Bernadette Greevy sang the role of Federica, Silvano Pagliuca was Count Walter and British bass Terence Sharpe was Miller. Tenor Angelo lo Forese who was Rodolfo, had actually sung with Lucy Kelston a few weeks before Wexford in another Verdi opera. Myer Fredman conducted this production which was directed by John Cox with designs by Bernard Culshaw. The design for Luisa Miller was described by one critic as "the most artistically competent set in the history of the festival". Flaming torches were used a lot, as were a pair of Irish wolf hounds, as seen in the image above. Lucy Kelston described the pair as "beasts, not dogs", and pointed out that one of them had the bad manners to yawn, but at least not when she was singing !

Bernadette Greevy, Silvano Pagliuca, Lucy Kelston and Angelo lo Forese
Another event also must have also caused Brian Dickie major concern. After the public dress rehearsal which according to reports at the time did not go that well, the conductor Myer Fredman set out by car to Dublin to collect his wife. It was a cold and icy night, and unfortunately the car skidded and overturned into a ditch at the side of the road. Fredman sustained a lot of cuts and was very badly bruised. There was big concern as to whether Fredman would recover in time to conduct. Two nights later he walked gingerly down the centre aisle of the Theatre Royal to reach the pit, looking like he has done a few rounds in a boxing ring, and then conducted an absolutely superb performance of Luisa Miller.


Monday, 11 August 2014

Salomé. The director’s view.

Set design for Salomé by Tiziano Santi

There is a mysterious connection between Salomé and the moon. In the opera we will meet a Page who I consider to be a kind of Greek Chorus; always looking at the moon and telling the audience about the approach of impending tragedy. The purity and chastity of the silver moon is opposed to the opulence and lust of the golden human world, a world where Salomé herself is growing like a tree being slowly poisoned by the diseased world that surrounds it.

Gold, avarice, power and riches surround the young Salomé; only beauty can catch her attention, but this beauty is very far from the world she knows. This is a beauty that comes from the hope of eternal life and it is immune from temptation and sin.  And speaking about sin, are not the seven deadly sins the mechanism that moves the world that Salomé inhabits?  The wrath of the young Syrian soldier Narraboth, who will kill himself overwhelmed by his own passion; the lust and envy of her incestuous mother Hérodias; the greed and sloth of the community that is not capable of having an individual identity, and pays tribute to Caesar only to satisfy the pride of their king Hérode, who in himself sums up all these sins, fed by his undisguised weakness.

In my representation of this beautiful opera, the set is a kind of golden cage, created by seven golden portals that create a closing and fake perspective towards the cave where 
Iokanaan is imprisoned. Salomé will always be surrounded by seven silent kings with precious crowns. They will weigh on the young girl's soul, they will look after her steps, they will tempt her heart with the idea of eros and death, and finally they will fall down one by one, during the dance of the seven veils, when they are sure they have reached their goal. At the end only a very simple iron crown will remain among the ruins of this golden and dissolute world. For a brief moment, the beauty of Salomé will meet the beauty of pureness, and she will be overwhelmed.

I believe Salomé is not only a story about love and death, and an important part is played by the eternal fight between the human and divine power; and the moon, in this nocturnal tragedy, will be the silent witness to human weakness.

Rosetta Cucchi
August 2014

Friday, 8 August 2014

The history of WFO. 1961-1969. Part 1.

When the curtain fell on the final night back in 1959, there was some concerns as to whether or not there would be another festival. The physical conditions in the Theatre Royal had deteriorated to such an extent that it was doubtful that Wexford could continue to attract top class talent to a venue which did not even have dressing rooms. In January 1960 it was announced that a major renovation project would be undertaken at the Theatre Royal. The scale of the work required could not be carried out in sufficient time to allow the festival to go ahead that year, so the first festival of the new decade was to take place in 1961. And not only would it be in a newly refurbished theatre, it would also have a new orchestra and a new time on the opera calendar. The tenth Wexford Festival was to run from September 24 to October 1. The operas to be staged were Ernani by Verdi and Mireille by Gounod. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra played for the eight opera performances.

Ragnar Ulfung in Ernani
Ernani was Verdi's fifth opera, and was continuing the tradition of Italian opera that had been so dominant throughout the 1950's. Mariella Angioletti returned as a late stand in to sing the lead soprano role. Norwegian tenor Ragnar Ulfung sang the title role. Italian baritone Lino Puglisi was cast as Don Carlo, in what would be the first of four consecutive years at Wexford, and Ugo Trama was Don Silva. The conductor was Brian Balkwill, and these performances were to be his last at Wexford. The director was Peter Ebert who was by now in his eight season at Wexford.

Charles Gounod's Mireille was to be Wexford's first French opera. For this Dr.Tom had travelled to Paris to find singers, and the principal roles were sung by soprano Andrea Guiot, tenor Alain Vanzo and baritone Jean Borthayre. All of these were leading singers with the Paris Opera as well as featuring on many recordings. Michael Moores conducted the performances. Anthony Besch directed and Osbert Lancaster's designs made great use of the much enlarged stage area.

Vanzo, Guiot and Borthayre
Stage set for Mireille, 1961

Unfortunately, the 1961 festival was not a great success despite the excellent casts, and greater scenic possibilities offered at the renovated Theatre Royal. Various factors were thought to have contributed to this. The earlier than usual time of the festival, plus there not having been a festival the previous year were believed to be the principal causes. However, Dr.Tom also believed that the presence of Bertram Mills' circus in Wexford for some days during the festival also played a part !

Because of this, planing for the 1962 event was much later than usual. Despite not having a fixed program in mind, Dr.Tom set out to Milan to find singers. He had some titles in mind, and would try to finalise the program based on what artists he heard. The festival opened in October with L'amico Fritz, a delightful lyric comedy by Mascagni. Wexford favourite, Nicola Monti returned to sing the title role of Fritz, and this would prove to be his final Wexford appearance. Also returning, and for the final time was baritone Paolo Pedani. They were joined by two Irish stars both making their Wexford debuts; mezzo Bernadette Greevy and soprano Veronica Dunne. The opera was very well received all round.  
Nicola Monti, Bernadette Greevy, Paolo Pedani, Veronica Dunne, in L'amico Fritz

The second opera that season was selected solely on the possibility of having one particular singer. As mentioned above, Dr.Tom has some titles in mind when he set out to Milan. During a meeting with another important agent, Ada Finzi, he mentioned some of these operas. Dr.Tom described Finzi as a small bird-like women, with whom he was on good terms. When he mentioned I Puritani, he said that Finzi looked at him sharply and quizzically, and asked if he would like Mirella Freni to sing in it. Dr.Tom reminded Finzi of the fees that Wexford could afford. At that time the top fee Wexford paid was £100 per performance. Finzi asked what he could find for Freni, to which Dr.Tom instantly replied £120. Finzi replied "that is agreed". Dr.Tom reminded Finzi that Freni was performing in Glydebourne, having seen her there a few days previously, and how could she be sure Freni would agree. Finzi replied that it would be fine, and indeed it was, as Mirella Freni came to Wexford in October 1962, and created a storm. The following January she sang Mimi in the famous Zefferlli - von Karajan production of La Boheme at La Scala. The rest is operatic history.
Mirella Freni in I Puritani
The point of this story is that Freni, having successfully sung what were mainly soubrette roles for a number of years, was anxious to break into heavier repertoire. She realised she was putting her career at risk. Before important theatres would engage her for the heavier roles, she would have to prove herself in a smaller theatre, and in a smaller theatre she was running the risk of failure due to overall lower artistic standards. Dr.Tom considered it a great compliment that Ada Finzi entrusted this experimental performance to Wexford. Freni was joined by tenor Luciano Saldari, baritone Lino Puglisi and bass Franco Ventriglia. The Radio Eireann Symphony Orchestra made it's first appearance and played for both operas, and would remain in the Wexford pit for almost the next forty years.

The festival of 1963 saw three operas presented at Wexford for the first time. These were Don Pasquale by Donizetti, La Gioconda by Ponchielli and The Siege of Rochelle by Balfe. The Balfe opera was given one fully staged performance with piano accompaniment in the Theatre Royal, while the other two works had 4 performances each. Dr.Tom wanted to cast Irish singers in The Siege of Rochelle, but was frustrated by either their limited availability or lack of interest in appearing at Wexford. The production of Don Pasquale was new, and not a revival from 1953 as some people still believe. Italian soprano Margerita Rinaldi was a last minute replacement and was a charming Norina. Hungarian tenor Alfonz Bartha was her lover Ernesto. Dino Mantovani was Malatesta, and the title role was sung by the Dutch bass, Guus Hoekman.

Even today, Ponchielli's 4 act opera La Gioconda can prove to be a challenge to even the best equipped and resourced opera company. Back in 1963 it was considered by many to be impossible to stage in Wexford. Yet, it was; and very successfully. Director Peter Ebert and designer Reginald Woolley used every last inch of the small stage to recreate the Venetian setting. The cast was superb also. Lino Puglisi and Franco Ventriglia returned to sing Barnaba and Alvise respectively. Gloria Lane sang Laura, while Spanish soprano Enriqueta Tarres sang the title role. The tenor role of Enzo Grimaldo was taken by the Italian tenor Giuseppe Gismondo who was well established in the Italian theatres at this time. It is interesting to note that Dr.Tom had offered this role to Luciano Pavarotti, but he declined saying that he did not want to learn a new role for what could probably be his only time singing it. Giuseppe Gismondo, was remembered by backstage crew not just for his excellent voice. The second act of the opera is set on-board a ship. As the act ends, Enzo sets fire to the ship before jumping overboard to avoid capture. In the Wexford production, just as he is about leave the stage,  Enzo threw a real flaming torch into the wings on  the opposite side of the stage, where a number of the backstage crew were to catch it and quench it. Mr Gismondo noted that these guys were actually quite good at catching this. So, to liven things up, each night during the performances he would throw it higher and higher just to see how good their catching skills actually were. I very much doubt we would get away with that nowadays !               

A scene from La Gioconda

Before the 1964 festival took place there was serious turmoil behind the scenes. Dr.Tom resigned as Artistic Director, and the festival council had actually voted to discontinue the festival due to the serious financial situation. Even after this decision was made there was some behind the scenes diplomacy which thankfully resulted in the continuation of the festival, and Dr.Tom agreeing to continue as Artistic Director for the next 3 seasons.

A scene from Il conte Ory
Three operas were scheduled for 1964, and once again an opera by an Irish composer was performed, with 2 performances of Much Ado About Nothing by Sir Charles Stanford. Rossini's comedy Il conte Ory and Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor completed the program. Il conte Ory was an Italian translation of Le comte Ory which Rossini wrote for Paris in 1828. In fact much of the music of Ory, was taken from his 1825 opera, Il viaggio a Reims, written to celebrate the coronation of Charles X. The cast was almost entirely Italian. Tenor Pietro Bottazzo sang the title role. Soprano Alberta Valentina was the Countess, with mezzo Stefania Malagu as the page Isolier and bass Federico Davia as the tutor.

Lucia di Lammermoor is perhaps one of Donizetti's best known works. Even in the mid 1960's it was quite frequently performed, and as such was considered a strange choice for Wexford. At this time there was a view among certain sections of the festival executive council that some more well known operas should be included in the programing, and Lucia was a concession to this. Casting was a strong as ever. Lino Puglisi and Franco Ventriglia were to return for the final time, to sing Enrico and Raimondo. Soprano Karola Agai from Hungary was engaged for the title role.The tenor role of Edgardo, was taken by Spanish tenor Giacomo Aragall. Prior to his appearance at Wexford, Aragall had won the prestigious Verdi singing competition in Italy, after which he Italianised his name from Jaime to Giacomo. Appearances at all the major Italian theatres including La Scala followed. In fact when he made his debut at La Scala in 1962 at the age of 23 he was the youngest tenor ever to debut at that theatre. Aragall went on to have a very good career, but he was considered a little uneven. A stunning performance could be followed by a mediocre one. Dr.Tom put this down to nervous intensity, as he described Aragall as the most highly strung singer he ever knew, and as you will appreciate, most singers are highly strung !
Franco Ventriglia and Giacomo Aragall

1965 has gone down in Wexford Festival history as "the year of the three Eberts". The operas that year were La Traviata by Verdi, which was directed by Peter Ebert with designs by Reginald Woolley. La finta giardiniera by Mozart, also directed by Peter Ebert, with designs by his daughter Judith. These productions would be Peter's last at Wexford. The final opera was Massenet's late masterpiece Don Quichotte, directed by his father, Carl Ebert, with designs by Reginald Woolley. 

La Traviata was well cast and staged but was not considered a success. Egyptian soprano Jeanette Pilou was Violetta with tenor Veriano Luchetti as Alfred and baritone Octav Enigaresco as his father. It is worth noting that tenor Philip Langridge was making his festival debut that year in the role of Gastone. Dr.Tom had wanted to stage a Mozart opera for quite a while, but realised that to do so he would need a perfect cast. He found it for La finta giardiniera. The opera was written by the 18year old Mozart for Munich, and shortly after this he translated it into German, and this was the version that flourished. But even in the German version it was only performed occasionally. These Wexford performances gave the original Italian version a new lease of life, and the opera has since gained a tentative foothold on the repertory.
Dr. T.J. Walsh with cast of La finta giardiniera

Contino Belfiore was sung by Italian tenor Ugo Benelli, in his first appearance at Wexford, an association that would continue over many operas and years. Sopranos Mattiwilda Dobbs, Birgit Nordin and Maddalena Bonifaccio, mezzo Stefania Malagu, tenor Francis Egerton and bass Federico Davia completed the cast.

Carl Ebert was a German, (later American) producer and administrator. He studied and worked as an actor before moving into directing. In 1934 together with Fritz Busch and John Christie he set up the Glyndebourne Festival and served as Artistic Director until 1959. He also founded the Turkish State School of Opera and Drama. Having been head of the opera school at the University of Southern California from 1948, he returned to Berlin in 1954 as general administrator of the State Opera until 1961 when he retired. From then until 1967 he occasionally accepted invitations to work as guest director, and this was the case with Wexford in 1965. Dr.Tom remarked that this "brought a feeling of true greatness to the festival". Don Quichotte premiered at Monte Carlo, with the great Russian bass Chaliapin in the title role. In Wexford, Yugoslav bass Miroslav Cangalovic took the lead, and was joined by his countryman Ladko Korosec as his trusty squire Sancho. Czech mezzo Ivana Mixova sang Dulcinee. Albert Rosen, the Austrian born Czech conductor lead the performances, in what was be the first of many operas he was the conduct at Wexford over a period of thirty years.
A scene from Don Quichotte

The 1966 festival was to be Dr.Tom's final festival as Artistic Director. He had informed the council of his decision in August 1965. For his final season, financial issues meant that only two works could be staged and they were Fra Diavolo by Auber, and Lucrezia Borgia by Donizetti. Fra Diavolo is an opera-comique, but at Wexford it was performed in an Italian translation. Ugo Benelli, and Alberta Valentina made return visits to sing Diavolo and Zerlina. Italians Antonio Boyer, Enrico Fissore and Renato Ercolani, were also joined by Anna Reynolds, Nigel Douglas and Pascal Allen to complete the line up. Myer Fredman conducted, Dennis Maunder directed and designs were by Reginald Woolley.
 Ugo Benelli, Walter Alberti and Alberta Valntina in Fra Diavolo

The title role of Lucrezia Borgia was sung by the American-Italian soprano Virginia Gordoni. Her husband Don Alfonso was sung by Turkish bass Ayhan Baran. The tenor role of Gennaro, who turns out to be her son, was taken by Angelo Mori and Stefania Malagu returned for the final time as Orsini. Reginald Woolley designed, Frith Banbury directed and Albert Rosen was the conductor. My late uncle was a member of the backstage team for over 50 years, and told me many stories of the past festivals. I would to like to share what he told me about Lucrezia Borgia. 

Gordoni came to Wexford with a great reputation and was expected to be the star of the festival. At the public dress rehearsal things changed. Don Alfonso has a big aria midway through Act 1, and after Ayhan Baran sang it, the audience went crazy, with people actually standing and cheering. On opening night rumour spread backstage that Gordoni could not sing. She said that the stage was too cold and would affect her voice. Dr.Tom went to the backstage crew and said to them; "get a heater, it will make no difference, fly it over the stage where she could see it and I will do the rest". Dr.Tom went to Gordoni's dressing room. He later told the crew what had transpired. He said he "apologised for the cold in the theatre. This was caused by drafts due to the theatre doors being open to allow in the hundreds of people who had come from all over Ireland to hear Gordoni". She swallowed it hook line and sinker, went on stage and sang like a bird for the rest of the festival.
Ayhan Baran and Virginia Gordoni


Friday, 1 August 2014

The history of WFO. The early days 1951-1959. Part 2.

For the Wexford Festival of 1956, Nicola Monti and Cristiano Dalamangas returned to appear in La cenerentola by Rossini,  where they were joined by Italian baritone Paolo Pedani in the first of his five appearances at Wexford. British mezzo-soprano Barbara Howitt was playing the role of Angelina, with Patricia Kern and April Cantelo as her step-sisters.   
April Cantelo, Cristiano Dalamangas. Patricia Kern

By now Monti and Dalamangas were regular visitors to Wexford, and in those early days it was not uncommon for the visiting artists to join in a "sing song" in the hotels or local bars as they unwound after their performances. It seems that Dalamangas was very fond of these get togethers, and he had also developed a liking for Guinness. It is rumoured that during one of the years he sang at Wexford, some members of the backstage crew had to go looking for him in various pubs, and just about managed to get him to the theatre, and into his costume in time  for curtain up.
Martha by Flotow was the other opera staged that season, and it was performed in its original German. Together with Der Wildschutz from 1955 and the The Rose of Castile, these were the only non-Italian works performed at Wexford during the first decade. German opera would not feature again at Wexford until the 1970's. For Martha, the singers included German tenor Josef Traxel, a member of the Stuttgart opera and regular at Bayreuth, Constance Shacklock an English contralto and leading performer at Covent Garden, and baritone Marko Rothmueller made a return appearance.

Constance Shacklock and Marko Rothmueller

Shortly after her appearance at Wexford, Constance Shacklock left the operatic stage and she took on the role of the  Mother Abbess in the London run of The Sound of Music. She sang the role for six years, and following that, she retired from performing to concentrate on teaching. 

Two comic operas were on the bill for the seventh festival in 1957. On stage that year were La figlia del reggimento and L'italiana in Algeri by Donizetti and Rossini respectively. Bryan Balkwill conducted, while Peter Ebert directed and Joseph Carl designed both operas. 

Cast of La figlia del reggimento

In 1840 Donizetti wrote La Fille du Regiment for the Opera-comique in Paris. In keeping with the tradition of that theatre, the musical numbers were separated by spoken dialogue. When the opera was transferred to Italy, the french text was translated into Italian this dialogue was replaced with sung recitatives, and it was this Italian version that was presented here in Wexford. The cast assembled for the pieces featured the young Graziella Sciutti as the eponymous heroine Maria. The tenor Mario Spina was her lover Tonio, and he had to tackle all those high C's in his big aria. The welsh baritone Geraint Evans was Sergeant Sulpice. Before her engagement for Wexford she had appeared at Covent Garden, Aix-en-Provence and the major theatres in Italy, where she was known as "the Callas of the Piccola Scala".

Patricia Kern, Barbara Howitt, April Cantelo in L'Italiana in Algeri

The three female roles in L'Italiana in Algeri were taken by the same trio that had starred in the previous year's La Cenerentola; Barbara Howitt, Patrica Kern and April Cantelo. Also returning from the previous year was Paolo Pedani. Romanian tenor Petre Munteanu, and Italian bass Paolo Montarsolo were Lindoro and Mustafa respectively.

Paolo Pedani in I due Foscari
While comedy was the theme of the operas for 1957, drama and tragedy followed in 1958, when  Anna Bolena by Donizetti and   I due Foscari by Verdi were the selected works.  Verdi's early work, is a thrilling story of political intrigue, corruption and family tragedy set in 15th century Venice. The principal role is a demanding yet rewarding one for a baritone. Having excelled in comic roles in the two preceding festivals, Paolo Pedani proved to be well able to reach the vocal and dramatic heights required in the role of the octogenarian Doge, being especially moving in the opera's final scene, where, having heard the bells of St Marks ring to announce the election of his successor, he dies. Spanish tenor Carlo del Monte, and Italian soprano Mariella Angioletti starred in the other leading roles.      

Marina Cucchio, Plinio Clabassi, Fiorenza Cossotto in Anna Bolena

Anna Bolena was the fourth work of Donizetti to be performed at Wexford, and was the first of his serious operas to be staged. At that time, what we now refer to as the "bel canto revival" was only starting to take place. The comedies of Donizetti were occasionally staged in the British Isles, so this production of Anna Bolena was quite a bold decision. Casting for the piece was top notch as usual. In the title role was the Italian soprano Marina Cucchio, King Henry was sung by bass Plinio Clabassi, who had appeared in this role at La Scala the previous season with Maria Callas and Leyla Gencer as Anna. Tenor Gianni Jaia was Percy. However, the singer who created the biggest impression was the young Italian mezzo-soprano singing Jane Seymour, and that was Fiorenza Cossotto. The critic from The London Times was lavish in his praise of Ms Cossotto, saying she was mezzo-soprano at the beginning of great career.  And of course he was correct. Some years ago, when asked which singer did he think was his greatest discovery, without hesitation, Dr. Tom replied Fiorenza Cossotto. The background to her engagement for Wexford is quite amusing, and I think we should know the story.

Early in 1958 while in Milan casting for the festival, Dr.Tom attended a performance of Madama Butterfly at La Scala. He was very impressed by the Suzuki in that performance, and it was Cossotto. After the performance he went to dinner at Biffi's restaurant which was close by and usually frequented by Milan's opera people. There he met a London based agent, a man whom Dr. Tom neither liked not trusted. This agent claimed to represent Cossotto, and a lunch appointment, at Biffi's, for all three was set for the next day. Cossotto didn't turn up and some excuses were made. The appointment was re-scheduled for the next day; again no Cossotto. But on that day, Liduino Bonardi the head of the top international agent in Milan, ALCI, arrived for lunch. At the time, Liduino, as he was generally known, ruled the operatic world from La Scala in Milan, to The Metropolitan Opera in New York. In fact, Rudolf Bing the General Manager of the MET during these years, referred to Liduino as "an amiable old bandit". On seeing the London agent, a shouting match broke out, with Liduino accusing the other man of trying to poach his singers. Dr.Tom, and the rest of the diners looked on horrified as the two men clutched at each others jackets. After Liduino had left, Dr.Tom threatened the London agent with legal action for misrepresentation. He also insisted that he must clarify with Liduino, that he had no part in this matter. They left the restaurant and crossed to the ALCI offices which were nearby. The London agent asked Dr.Tom to wait while he spoke to Liduino. He emerged rather flustered after 15 minutes, and told Dr.Tom that Liduino would see him. Dr.Tom found Liduino seated behind his desk. Liduino motioned to Dr.Tom to take a seat. Just then, he removed a mauve plastic backed hair brush from his desk, and as he sat there combing back his long white hair, Fiorenza Cossotto was contracted to Wexford.

Mariella Angioletti and Nicola Nicolov
The first decade in the history of the Wexford Festival ended in 1959 with Verdi's Aroldo and La gazza ladra by Rossini. The performances of Aroldo were considered very important indeed as the opera had been virtually unperformed in the 20th century. First performed in Rimini in 1857, Aroldo is in fact a reworking of the 1850 work Stiffelio.  The original story line of Stiffelio, tells of a 19th century Protestant minister with an adulterous wife. In the final scene set in a church, he forgives her with words quoted from the bible. The opera was first performed in Trieste in 1850, but due to the strict censorship of the time, despite various amendments, Verdi withdrew it in 1856, revised it, changing the storyline and transferring the setting to 13th century Scotland. An additional act and some new music was added for this version which was to become Aroldo. Italian soprano Mariella Angioletti returned to sing the role of Mina, and the well known baritone Aldo Protti was her father Egberto. Bulgarian tenor Nicola Nicolov sang the title role. A young Charles Mackerras conducted the performances. There was almost a case of history repeating itself in relation to censorship this year. Every year there was (and still is) a Festival Mass held in Rowe St church. Nicola Nicolov had offered to sing, but as he was from a communist country, he was refused permission to enter the church.

Almost every lover of opera and classical music will be familiar with the name of Rossini's opera semiseria, La gazza ladra, due to the huge popularity of it's overture. The opera itself was very rarely performed, and when it was, it was usually heavily abridged, as indeed it was in Wexford. Nicola Monti and Paolo Pedani returned yet again to appear in it. Joining them were husband and wife, bass Giorgio Tadeo and soprano Mariella Adani, who were important singers in Italy, and both had featured on recordings. John Pritchard was the conductor. Also joining the cast in the trousers role of the young farm boy Pippo, was Janet Baker, who went on to become one of England's best known and best loved singers. The role of Pippo is quite small, but it is he who discovers that it is in fact a magpie who has stolen some silver spoons, and not Ninetta who has been condemned to death for the crime. Pippo raises the alarm just in the nick of time, Ninetta is cleared, and all ends happily.
A scene from La gazza ladra
La gazza ladra was the last performance given at Wexford in the 1950's, and when the curtain fell on November 1st 1959, it would be almost 2 years before it would rise again, on a new decade, and a new chapter in the history of Wexford Festival.