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.

Salome preparations.

With the 63rd Wexford Festival just under 3 months away, preparations are well under way. At a recent meeting in the scenery workshop in Italy where technicians and painters are busy constructing the scenery for Salome, our set designer was spotted by our Technical Director riding a rather racy motorbike !
Tiziano Santi with his motorbike.
Tiziano Santi is a native of Parma, and it is a scenery workshop in the town that is creating the lavish golden settings for this autumn's production of Salome. With a long tradition of classical painting construction and design it was natural to choose such a workshop for this exciting and classical looking set. Are Tiziano's designs as racy as his motorbike ? Come to Salome in October and you will find out. Here is preview of what it will look like.

Salome design by Tiziano Santi

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The history of WFO. The early days 1951-1959. Part 1.

Following on from the recent post regarding the birth of Wexford Festival Opera, over the coming weeks, as we build up to this year's event, I am going to present a brief history of the festival through the decades. Wexford Festival archival material will be used to illustrate the various posts.
Dr T.J. Walsh, Eva Cousins, Compton Mackenzie, Erskine Childers

Above we see a photograph taken on the opening night of the festival back in 1951. In the earlier post, we heard why Dr. Tom chose The Rose Of Castille by Balfe to be the first opera. Casting for the piece was a mixture of amateur and professional. The chorus was made up entirely of local singers. The two leading roles were take by professionals, with Maureen Springer as Elvira, and Murray Dickie as Manuel. The remaining principal roles were all sung by local artists. In fact, the very first voice ever heard at a Wexford Festival was that of Nellie Walsh, who was Dr.Tom's sister. Nellie remained a stalwart of the chorus until the 1990s !

While the initial response to the festival of 1951 was positive, Dr. Tom believed the festival would only survive by presenting little known operas, so for 1952, L'Elisir d'Amore by Donizetti, which was then scarcely known in Ireland was the chosen work. It was to be performed in Italian. As production time approached, public reaction had polarised; it neither wanted unknown operas, nor did it want any opera in a foreign language. At a public talk he gave in April 1986, Dr.Tom recalled that shortly before the festival of 1952 began, only 701 tickets had been sold for the four scheduled performances. Something needed to be done, so good friends of the festival got in their cars and went out to sell seats as far away as Carlow, Kilkenny and Waterford. For his part, Dr.Tom walked Wexford town accompanied by a local Franciscan friar, Fr. Enda, who was the festival's chorus master, calling on people and frankly asking them if they would save the festival the humiliation of having good Italian artists sing to almost empty houses. To their credit and Wexford's credit, they did. The theatre wasn't packed on the first night but was well filled. On the following day the press notices were universally good, but Dr.Tom always believed that the festival was saved by the tenor singing Nemorino, Nicola Monti. The second performance was not as well filled as the first, but the third on Saturday evening surprisingly had improved. In 1952 Saturday night was a very bad theatre night in Wexford. Obviously word of Monti's fabulous singing has got around. There was little doubt that consequently the final performance would be filled. Dr.Tom recalled being in Whites Hotel, then the festival headquarters, on that Sunday morning when the last ticket was sold. On Sunday night as he came to the theatre, Dr.Tom was amazed to find a queue stretching from the theatre into Rowe St. Nobody knows how it was done, but everybody in that queue got into the tiny theatre for the final performance.  

The festival chorus is a scene from L'Elisir d'Amore

Joining Nicola Monti in the cast of L'Elisir d'Amore were his fellow Italians, the soprano Elvina Ramella and baritone Gino Vanelli, and the Greek bass Cristino Dalamangas. All of these singers were well established in the major Italian theatres, including La Scala. The engagement of these singers immediately set a precedent, that Wexford would present lesser known operas with top class artists.

Donizetti was again the featured composer for 1953, when his comic masterpiece Don Pasquale was performed. Monti, Ramella and Dalamangas returned that year,and they were joined by the very famous Italian baritone Afro Poli. Poli was a leading baritone at La Scala Milan, and a major recording artist. His role in Wexford was Dr. Malatesta, one he had sung many times in various theatres, and had recorded in 1932 with Tito Schipa. Unfortunately, Signor Poli was a little taken aback when he entered the tiny Theatre Royal for the first time. He walked onto the stage, looked into the auditorium, and exclaimed "surely the great Signor Poli has not come to this".  Such was his chagrin, he refused to wear his costume at the public dress rehearsal, appearing instead in an evening suit. 

Afro Poli, Elvina Ramella, Nicola Monti, Cristiano Dalamangas in Don Pasquale

Nicola Monti returned to Wexford once again in 1954 to sing the principal tenor role of Elvino in La Sonnambula by Bellini. By now Monti was a firm favourite in Wexford, and even today, his name is frequently mentioned as one of the great Wexford stars of the past. Elvino was a role he was familiar with having sung it at La Scala with Maria Callas. He also made two complete recordings of this opera, the first with Callas, the second with Joan Sutherland. The lead role of Amina was taken by the American soprano, Marilyn Cotlow, who had already sung leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and created the role of Lucy in The Telephone by Menotti. Italian bass Franco Calabrese took the role of Count Rodolfo. Calabrese was another regular at La Scala, and featured on many of the HMV classic recordings from the 1950's including Tosca with Callas. The remaining roles were taken by Thetis Blacker. Halinka de Tarczynska and Gwyn Griffiths.

 Esther Rethy and Salvatore Puma
In 1955 it was decided that two operas should be presented. This was a major milestone in the continuing development of the festival, and was also confirmation, if it were needed,  that the core values of top class opera with top class singers would prove a success. With regard to singers, Dr.Tom resolved very early on, that only the use of the leading vocal agents would guarantee the quality of voices he wanted for Wexford, and I think that you will agree, that the singers whom we have mentioned so far, all met with Dr. Tom's exacting standards. Manon Lescaut by Puccini and Der Wildschutz by Lortzing were given in 1955. Vocal standards were  as good as ever in this year. British singers Heather Harpur and Thomas Helmsley lead the cast of Der Wildschutz.

For Manon Lescaut Esther Rethy, a star and Kammersangerin from the Vienna State Opera, sang the title role. The role of Lescaut, her brother, was taken by Marko Rothmueller, a Croatian baritone who was a regular at Covent Garden and Glyndebourne at that time. Italian tenor Salvatore Puma was Des Grieux, and there is very interesting story about his engagement for Wexford.  
As mentioned earlier, Dr. Tom was very meticulous is selecting singers. Besides using only the best agents, he would never engage a singer without having heard them himself. Prior to the festival in 1955, the tenor who had been contracted for the role of Des Grieux cancelled. Unfortunately, Dr. Tom was unable to travel to Milan to find a replacement. In his place he sent Mr Seamus O'Dwyer, a local postman, and festival volunteer. Seamus and Dr Tom were firm friends and avid collectors of 78's, and were understood to have had two of the finest collections of vocal recordings in Ireland at that time. Seamus was the only other person Dr. Tom would ask for an opinion of a singer. Every night Seamus attended La Scala, and every morning at 11am, the postman from Wexford auditioned singers at the Piccolo Scala, until he found the exact voice that he wanted, and that is how Salvatore Puma was engaged for Wexford.   

Following his death in 1977, Dr Tom wrote the following appreciation of Seamus;

Seamus O'Dwyer
 IT WAS typical of our 27 years old friendship that two days before he died (the last time I saw him) we should still be exchanging information about singers who had made gramophone records. (Could it be possible that a Mlle Ellen who sang in Monte Carlo in 1901 was in fact the famous American soprano, Ellen Beach Yaw, making her debut in opera?). But our friendship went far deeper than that. For 27 years he was my right arm. During our time in the Wexford Festival he endured me in our disappointments, suffered with me in our anxieties and rejoiced with me in our successes.
It is no great compliment to him to say that he was unrivalled in his knowledge of old gramophones and old records in Ireland, since the field is so limited. More significant was his knowledge of singing and of opera. Those who did not know him will find it difficult to understand how extensive this was. How unerring his judgement in distinguishing the great from the merely very good singer.
I believe it was Scott Fitzgerald who wrote - 'ln a small way, I was an original.' In a small way Seamus O'Dwyer was a phenomenon.

At this point I think it appropriate to take a short detour away from the operas and singers and look at some of the other areas involved with staging an opera. Since 1951, the RELO (Radio Eireann Light Orchestra) had been the festival's orchestra, and they would go on to play at every festival up to 1959. In those early days, there was no orchestra pit in the Theatre Royal, so the orchestra was placed between the front of the stage and the stalls seating. This meant that maintaining a suitable balance between singers and orchestra was always going to be a challenge for conductors. Of the 14 operas performed in Wexford between 1951 and 1959, Bryan Balkwill conducted nine of them. This close association with the orchestra and theatre meant that he was well able to keep everything under control. Dermot O'Hara, Hans Gierster, John Pritchard and Charles Mackerras were the other conductors to appear. An impressive list indeed !

The stage in the Theatre Royal was tiny as can be seen in the photo of L'Elisir d'Amore above. Stage facilities in these early years were almost non-existent, but nonetheless, Dr. Tom applied the same high standard to the visual side as he did to the vocal. To that end, top rank directors and designers were always employed. During this time, Peter Ebert, son of the famous German director Carl Ebert, directed the majority of the operas, with Anthony Besch and Peter Potter also taking charge of some productions. All three were well respected and established directors. Design duty for the most part fell to Joseph Carl who had much experience in opera design, especially with Glyndebourne. Osbert Lancaster, Reginal Woolley and Michael Mac Liammoir also contributed designs during that first decade.

Naturally we cannot forget the volunteers; that mini-army of locals who sang in the chorus, worked backstage making and moving scenery,sewing costumes, applying make-up, selling programs, ushering, transporting singers, in fact, working in every possible discipline needed to make the festival a success. Those early volunteers set very high standards which are still being maintained today.

To be continued........