Thursday, 24 July 2014

Pumeza at the Commonwealth Games

It was absolutely great to see soprano Pumeza Matshikiza wowing the audience with here beautifully sung "Freedom come all ye",  at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. With an audience of  over a billion, I am sure it is a night she will always remember.  
Pumeza in Hubicka
As many of you will recall, Pumeza made a stunning debut at Wexford in 2010 singing Vendulka in Hubicka by Smetana. When she sang the lullaby towards  the end of Act 1, there was rarely a dry eye in the house. Earlier in 2010, she won First Prize in the Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition in Dublin.  Since then, Pumeza has become a regular performer with Stuttgart Opera, and has also given many concerts and recitals.

On Monday 28th July her debut album, Voice of Hope will be released. It will feature arias from works by Puccini and Mozart and traditional African songs. "Freedom come all ye" is also included.

I am looking foward to hearing the album, and listening to Pumeza's beautiful voice again. And of course it is always a great feeling to see one of  "our singers" do well !

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Here comes the bride !

A hearty Wexford congratulations goes out to Helena Dix who recently got married. Unfortunately we do not have any pictures of Helena's big day to show you, so we have to improvise. Above we see Helena with Lucia Cirillo, (who is in the wedding dress), during the wedding scene from the Opera Award winning 2013 festival production of Cristina, regina di Svezia by Foroni. We would like to extend our best wishes to Helena and her husband !
I am sure most of you know that  "Here comes the bride", is the bridal chorus from Wagner's Lohengrin.  Helena, who won the Wagner Society’s 2012 Bursary Competition, may have been tempted to sing along with it on her big day, in preparation for her upcoming appearance in August at the final of the International Wagner Competition in Seattle. A very busy few weeks indeed for Helena, and we wish her every success in the competition.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

A great weekend in the Garden !

The title of this post may have some of you a little confused.  But not to worry,  I have not gone "horticultural", as the garden I refer to is Covent Garden,  and The Royal Opera.  Over the weekend I spent three nights at three hugely different operas and productions at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden,  and thought I would give you the details.

Thursday night was Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss. The Royal Opera has been very active in celebrating the Strauss Centenary, having already presented Elektra and Die Frau ohne Schatten earlier in their season.  The production was first seen at Covent Garden in 2001 directed by Christof Loy with designs by Herbert Murauer. The conductor was Royal Opera music director, Antonio Pappano. Finnish soprano, Karita Mattila was making her role debut as The Prima Donna / Ariadne. And what a debut ! She was sensational. As the Prima Donna in the Prologue she was hilarious. As Ariadne in the opera, she was again fantastic, and gave one of the most intense performances I have ever seen in an opera house.

Canadian soprano Jane Archibald in her house debut as Zerbinetta, was another revelation. With laser like coloratura in her big aria, she was amply rewarded with applause at the curtain calls. Thomas Allen, Ruxandra Dunose and Roberto Sacca as the Music Master, the Composer and Bacchus respectively were all ideal for their roles. Smaller roles were all  very well sung, especially Markus Werba as Harlequin, who you may recall sang in Wexford in The Jacobin back in 2001.

On Friday I must admit that I approached the opera house with a little trepidation, as I was about to see what had been described as the ugliest show ever to appear on the illustrious opera house stage. Jonathan Kent's new production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut had been getting mixed reviews. Generally speaking I do not pay much attention to reviews; after all they are just one person's opinion, and each of us has different tastes.

Curtain call at Manon Lescaut
As soon as the curtain rose I could see what the critics complained about, but, within minutes the scenery truly became unimportant as soon as Jonas Kaufman started to sing. Kristine Opalais in the title role was also outstanding. The passion between her Manon and Kaufmann's Des Grieux sizzled in Act 2, and their final death scene was gut-wrenching to the point that you did not notice that it was set atop a twisted section of motorway !  Yet another Wexford alumnus, Christopher Maltman was excellent as Manon's scheming brother. Antonio Pappano was conducting again tonight, and he drew impassioned playing from the orchestra, who gave a superb account of the well known intermezzo.

Saturday night saw the premiere of a new production of Maria Stuarda by Donizetti starring Joyce DiDonato  and Carmen Giannatasio as the rival queens. In Donizetti's opera which is based on Schiller's play, the action centres on a completely fictitious meeting between Maria and Elizabeth, during which Maria questions Elizabeth's parentage, which results in Elizabeth signing Maria's death warrant. Traditionally this is where the soprano fireworks fly, and DiDonato and Giannatasio did not disappoint. As Maria hurled the insult "Vil bastarda" , the two queens entered into what can only be described as a white hot royal slanging match. Of course we know that Maria comes out on the wrong side, and as she prepared to go to her death, DiDonata so enthralled the audience you could hear a pin drop. The roar that erupted at the final curtain was truly deafening. Only once before have I heard such a reaction at the end of an opera. That  was after L'Assedio di Calais, also by Donizetti, at the 1991 Wexford Festival.

All the others singers were also excellent. The unusual production by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, with designs by Christian Fenouillat and Agostino Cavalca, drew much disapproval from certain sections of the opening night audience.

Cast and conductor of Maria Stuarda

Overall it was very enjoyable weekend, and with a Wexford connection each night, what more could you ask for? Well, three more very different operas and productions would be nice. But I won't have to wait too long, as Wexford Festival which is just over 3 months away will deliver exactly that !


Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Wexford Festival : How it began

Dr. T. J. Walsh  (Centenary Record, 1958)
Wednesday 22nd October 2014 will see the opening of the 63rd Wexford Festival, and three new productions of three unfamiliar works will be unveiled. Wexford has been presenting these unfamiliar works now for 63 years, and has become part of our lives, and yearly routine. But do we ever stop to look back and think about how, and indeed why it all started ?
There are many different stories of how the Wexford Festival started. Therefore I think the best way to dispel myths and fables, is to refer to the article penned by the festival founder Dr Tom Walsh himself, for the 1958 Centenary Record, a book published for the centenary of Wexford town's twin churches.


If the idea of the Wexford Festival can be said to have suggested itself at any precise time, it occurred on a spring afternoon on Foyle'e Bookshop, on Charing Cross Road, London in 1951. There I came across an old programme of the Aldeburgh Festival. I was vaguely aware that Aldeburgh was a small town on the Suffolk coast, that Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears lived there, and that it was close to Ipswich where Gainsborough has spent part of his early life. What attracted my interest however was not the geography or artistic associations of Aldeburgh, but a halftone photograph on the cover of the programme depicting the launching of a lifeboat.

Earlier in 1951, a group called, rather ponderously, the Wexford Opera Study Circle, which had been formed the previous November with Compton Mackenzie giving the inaugural address, had decided to produce an opera in Wexford. Here was a photograph, as typical of Rosslare Harbour, or Kilmore, or of Wexford as it was of Aldeburgh. Festivals evidently did not require the wealth and magnificence of large cities as essential backgrounds to their success. If Aldeburgh could have its festival, could not Wexford transform its opera production into one too ?

Later that evening I travelled down to Denchworth in Berkshire where I was spending the night with Compton Mackenzie, and after dinner, drinking cherry brandy before a log fire in his library, I asked him for his opinion. He was most enthusiastic, promised to give any practical help he could towards its success ; a promise he has since made good a hundred fold, and so the Wexford Festival was born.

I returned to Wexford full of optimism, and found - reality, for, if Comptom Mackenzie and myself were confident of success we were almost the only ones. However a committee was formed and a circular was issued setting forth our plans, and stating that if five hundred subscriptions of one guinea each were received by May first, we would hold a Festival early in the forthcoming November.  By May, we had received about two hundred guineas and a meeting was called. About twenty people attended. I cannot remember if I was in the chair, though I think I probably was. I do remember proposing that although our advance subscriptions were much below our original target we should still hold our Festival. This was seconded by Mr. Seamus O'Dwyer, who was honorary secretary to the committee, and put to the meeting. To a man everybody voted against it, on the perfectly sensible grounds that there was obviously insufficient interest in the project to make it a success. Whereupon, I decided we should hold the Festival anyhow !

Our venture being launched I called upon His Lordship, Most Reverend Dr. Staunton* and asked him to become  our Patron, to which he graciously consented. Compton Mackenzie was naturally invited to be President, and he too accepted.

For our programme, we decided upon one opera. I ascertained that the Radio Eireann Light Orchestra would be available to us and so an orchestral concert was added. There would be two recitals, some puppet performances by the Dublin Marionette Group, exhibitions of paintings, and of historical manuscripts, prints and maps of the county, an operatic exhibition of old prints and opera bills, and personal belongings of M.W. Balfe, and three lectures.

The principal feature of the Festival then as now, was opera. I had chosen Balfe's Rose of Castille for the following reasons, it was melodious and so would attract an Irish operatic audience, the composer had spent part of his early life in Wexford, it was seldom if ever performed. From this latter principle, as with many others in connection with the Festival such as the time of year in which it is held, our policy has never varied. Concerning the presentation of opera I held some very decided views. I believed that the principal singers should not only be able to sing but should bear a reasonable resemblance to the characters that they were portraying. I believed that an opera should be designed and produced with just as much care  as an ordinary straight play, and I believed that the chorus should know its work so well, that it could go through a performance without once having to watch the conductor.

I do not mean to suggest that these views were original, they just did not seem to be universal. Nor were all these aims achieved in the first year. The chorus however, entirely amateur, entirely local set a standard which was unprecedented in Ireland, a standard that has risen with each succeeding Festival.

Time passed quickly in that summer of 1951, helped on by periods of elation when things seemed to be going well, retarded by bouts of depression whenever we stopped to think how little interest the Festival was creating. In fact, thinking back on it the reaction of most of the townspeople was to look upon the whole business as a joke, and outside Wexford, nobody had even heard of us. But on October eleventh all this was changed.

That day I was handed a copy of the London Times. Turning to the entertainments column I discovered at the bottom of a rather caustic criticism of Orson Well's Othello, which had opened in London the previous evening, right at the top in large print I read  "The Wexford Festival. Operas by Balfe and Ravel"**. Underneath in a seven inch column London was told all about the forthcoming Festival.

I had scarcely finished reading when the telephone commenced to ring. It appeared that the London offices of our National dailies had telephoned Dublin to ask what was all this about a Festival at Wexford, of which The Times  had been informed but of which they had not. This was Dublin calling and would we please give them something. They will never know how pleased we were to do so.

From that moment journalists began to arrive in Wexford by every train, where, to quote one paper they found us "surprised but unabashed at the amount of interest aroused throughout the country"

Perhaps we felt proudest of all of an editorial in the Evening Herald which said: "The remarkable feature of the event is the silence, almost secrecy, with which the plans were conceived and brought to fruition. Too often have we trumpeted about our inherent love of music and culture, but the only suitable notes to comfort our efforts in most cases would be The Last Post ".

So the first Festival was a success. Today after seven Festivals we can look back with quiet satisfaction to ten operas, performed with singers such as Afro Poli, Josef Traxel, Nicola Monti, Franco Calabrese, Esther Rethy, Marco Rothmueller, Elizabeth Lindermeier, Paolo Pedani and Graziella Sciutti, to recitalists, such as Leon Goosens, Campoli, Gina Bachauer, Segovia and Cor de Groot, to over fifty films, to important exhibitions, to orchestral concerts, to plays, and - to an atmosphere of Irish friendliness that is unique among festivals the world over.

Erskine Childers, Compton Mackenzie and Dr. Tom Walsh, at The Wexford Festival 1951

* Dr James Staunton,  Bishop of Ferns, 1938 - 1963.
** Reference to L'Enfant et les Sortileges, presented by the Dublin Marionette Group.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Toi toi toi to the Vancouver Vixen

Just a quick post to say toi toi toi to all involved with the UBC Opera production of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen, which has a four performance run from Thursday 26th June through Sunday 29th in Vancouver. As you may recall from an earlier post, these performances are being conducted by our Artistic Director David Agler.

Pictured above during a break from rehearsals on Sunday, we see David having lunch with Wexford regular, director Roberto Recchia, who had just completed his very successful Italian Opera summer workshop for UBC. Following their Vancouver engagements, I have no doubt that both David and Roberto will be back into their preparations for WFO14, which is approaching quickly ! 

For a brief preview of The Cunning Little Vixen, and some more details about UBC click on the following link. 


Monday, 23 June 2014

The Volunteers

If a stranger was to walk along the Main Street in Wexford and to randomly ask people "who are the volunteers", he or she is likely to receive one of two answers. The respondent will either tell our stranger that the "volunteers" are a local Gaelic football club, or the people who form the backbone of the Wexford Festival Opera. (For the record, the Gaelic football club is officially named St John's Volunteers GAA Club, but is more usually referred to as "the volunteers" or "the vols".)
Now that we have established we are talking about the operatic rather than the footballing volunteers, we can once again pose the question, to try establish who are the volunteers. At the last count the volunteer numbers were around 400. These people give their time and energy in almost every possible department of the festival;  Front-of-House, Cloakroom, Stage crew, Wardrobe, Bar, Programmes, Tours, Drivers, First-Aid, the list goes on. Whatever department the volunteer is in, we all have one common goal, to ensure that Wexford Festival Opera continues to present world class performances, and that the patrons and artists have the best possible experience and service that we can give them. Many of the volunteers take holidays from their day-jobs during the Festival to carry out these duties.

As you can imagine with such a large number we are a hugely diverse bunch of people, who come from all walks of life, have a wide range of day-jobs, and some weird and wonderful hobbies, other than volunteering. We are professionals and managers of all sorts, teachers, social workers, literacy coaches, historians. Trust me, the list is long ! As you can imagine with such a group, the free time activities are just as varied, ranging from hill walking, choral singing, sailing, tour guiding, and toasting to life-saving, cycling and more sports than I can remember.

Even after twenty something years of volunteering it still amazes and amuses me in equal measure, the look of surprise on patrons faces when we tell them that whatever we happen to be doing in the Opera house during the Festival is not our main job. Many of us are regularly asked why we do it, and invariably the answers are the same; we love the Festival, the camaraderie, the buzz, meeting new people, and helping to maintain the standards of excellence that Wexford has become famous for.

Wexford Festival 2014 is not that far away, and we have already started our preparations to welcome you in October. This year when you come to the Opera House or any of the other venues, don't be shy. Whatever department we are in,  have a chat with us. We don't bite. Well, most of us don't !!


Monday, 16 June 2014

European Friends of Wexford Festival Opera: Paris 23-26 April 2014

Following on from this year's successful Friends tour to Paris, Kathy Mere, from Switzerland sent this summary of the tour and I am delighted to share it with you all. My deepest thanks to Kathy for taking the time to contribute this wonderful report.

No fewer than 22 opera-lovers assembled in Paris for the Wexford Festival's second Friends' Tour arranged through the London-based agency Travel for the Arts. Meeting up in our hotel lobby at 5 pm on Wednesday 23 April we were introduced to each other and to our local Paris guide Fabienne by our Friends' Tour Manager Lucy Durack (Wexford Festival's Membership Development Executive) and by Eamonn Carroll (the Development Manager).
Palais Garnier
In happy anticipation of our three days together, we set off with Fabienne, our local guide, for an early meal before proceeding to the imposing Palais Garnier for the first of our two opera evenings. In the auditorium we had the most perfect seats in a raised area that in effect forms the rear stalls. The rather OTT staging of 'L'Italiana in Algeri' might not have been to everyone's taste, but the singers (particularly the feisty and vivacious Isabella of Varduhi Abrahamyan) were good. The production involved far too many 'ideas'; did we really need a gorilla, three flamingoes and a zebra?

Friends on staircase at the Palais Garnier
We had a  better chance to admire the dazzling interior of the opera house on Thursday morning as Fabienne followed up a short stroll around the Opéra district with a 90-minute tour of the Palais Garnier. With her vivid descriptions, we were transported back a hundred years and more, to a time when carriages would disgorge their elegant passengers actually inside  the north west wing of the opera house, thus ensuring that ladies' gowns and coiffures remained impeccable. This part of the building now houses the box office and it is from here that marble staircases lead upwards to the main entrance, to the sumptuous reception rooms, the bars, the vast balcony looking down the Avenue de l'Opéra and the auditorium itself.

After our tour we had some hours of free time for our own sightseeing before reconvening and boarding a small coach to take us across Paris for a distinctly good pre-opera meal at Chez Jenny, a pleasant restaurant with its Alsatian flavour. From here it was just a short drive to the Opéra Bastille, a modern building that is the very antithesis of the Palais Garnier.

Opéra Bastille

Once again provided, thanks to Travel for the Arts, with excellent seats, we enjoyed a musically and visually stunning performance of Bellini's heavenly 'I Capuleti e i Montecchi'. The scheduled Giulietta being indisposed, her South Korean replacement Yun Jung Choi was sublime in the role – sounding terrific and, what's more, even looking like a 16-year-old. Most of us were full of enthusiasm for  Robert Carsen's staging and we all left the theatre with Bellini's long arching phrases still ringing in our ears. It was indeed an evening to treasure. Incidentally, when we visit leading opera houses we often encounter singers whom we have already enjoyed at Wexford: strangely, this was not the case in Paris, although Robert Carsen had directed Bellini's 'La Straniera' in Wexford in 1987.
On the Friday morning we had opted out of the organised trip to Versailles - of which we heard appreciative comments - but were reunited with the party in the late afternoon for another highlight – a Reception and Recital at the Embassy of Ireland. Trying hard not to be overawed by the resplendent interior, we mounted the grand staircase to be welcomed by our host Rory Montgomery, the Ambassador and a great fan of Wexford Festival Opera. Drinks were served in a salon overlooking Avenue Foch before we moved next door to another exquisitely panelled room.

The Irish Embassy, Paris

The embassy's very own Steinway (donated by an Irish music-lover resident in Paris) had been set up. Janet Haney, inter alia, Music Director of Balfe's 'The Sleeping Queen' at Wexford last year, proved a very sensitive accompanist for mezzo-soprano Lucia Cirillo who had shone in last year's International Opera Award-winning 'Cristina, Regina di Svezia'. We were treated to a delightful programme: an unfamiliar (to us) Mozart aria K.520 'As Luise was Burning the Letters of Her Unfaithful Lover', Cherubino's 'Voi che sapete', Rosina's 'Una voce poco fa' and finally two songs each by Montsalvatge and Tosti. We were also granted one encore – the Neapolitan song 'A vucchella'. Lucia is one of the singers who was singled out for special sponsorship at the 2013 Festival and it was a joy to hear her once again.

Janet Haney and Lucia Cirillo

Kathy Mere, Brian O'Hagan, Janet Haney

There was time afterwards to chat with the musicians and also to enjoy the lavish selection of canapés organised by the Embassy. It was a delightful evening and we all found it hard to tear ourselves away.

The general mood was understandably somewhat downcast on Saturday morning when it was time to say goodbye. However, we took comfort in the knowledge that there are only six months to go until this year's Festival.

Victoria Walsh-Hamer

One of the many aspects of this trip that we particularly appreciated was the fact that all of us had at least one thing in common: a passionate love of Wexford Festival Opera. Because of this we all chatted away merrily as we exchanged special memories of past Festivals. Dr. Tom Walsh's daughter Victoria Walsh-Hamer, who was with us for much of our tour, was surely heartened to sense everyone's profound admiration for all that her late father and his friends have created. Long may their Festival continue to grow and give pleasure to us all.

Our thanks to H.E. The Ambassador, to Lucy and Eamonn and to our local guide Fabienne – we so enjoyed these three days and look forward to learning what is being planned for next year.

Some Friends with Fabienne at Versailles