Wexford Festival Opera (1) A Tale of Distraction and Destruction: Cilèa’s L’Arlesiana

 Ireland Francesco Cilèa: L’Arlesiana: Wexford Opera House, David Angus (Conductor), Wexford, 02.11.2012 (ASB)


Rosa Mamai – Annunziata Vestri
Federico – Dmitry Golovnin
Vivetta – Mariangela Sicilia
Baldassare – Christopher Robertson
Metifio – Quentin Hayes
Marco – Andrew Greenan
L’innocente – Eleanor Greenwood
Dancers – Orla Shine, Ryan O’Neill
Chorus of Wexford Festival Opera
Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera


Conductor: David Angus
Director: Rosetta Cucchi
Assistant Director: Stefania Panighini
Set Designer: Sarah Bacon
Costume Designer: Claudia Pernigotti
Lighting Designer: Simon Corder
Chorus Master: Gavin Carr

The Wexford Festival Opera is a blessing for all opera lovers. Rather than resorting to the sixty or so works that form the vast majority of the core repertoire of opera houses all over the world, Wexford has taken up the cause of putting on pieces which are rarely performed. The production of Francesco Cilèa’s L’Arlesiana, which had its premiere in 1897, is a perfect case in point for one of the many successful Wexford rediscoveries since the foundation of the festival in 1951.

L’Arlesiana tells the dark and tragic story of Provence farmer Frederico’s obsessive love to the eponymous ‘Girl from Arles’. His mother, Rosa Mamai, tries to prevent this union by encouraging her morally pure foster child Vivetta to become Frederico’s wife. Wavering on whether he should indeed marry Vivetta when he learns that l’Arlesiana is a coquette in real life, the desire for that girl nonetheless gets the better of him. Being driven close to insanity, Frederico jumps to his death from the hayloft of his farm.

At first glance this may sound like a rather unsatisfactory story line, especially if compared to the conventions of versimo opera in late 19th century Italy. Not only does a male hero, instead of a tragic female heroine, die in the end, but – even more astonishing – there is no female heroine at all here: The girl from Arles is physically completely absent from the entire opera.

In a stroke of genius, however, director Italian Rosetta Cucchi has turned these potential shortcomings of the plot into her advantage. She interprets the work as a gripping journey into the psyche of Frederico, oscillating between moments of reality and his increasingly delusional perception of it. The impressive sets, designed by Sarah Bacon, change accordingly: from a traditional, pastoral and idyllic Provence farm house in the first, to the rooms of an asylum in the second, to a dungeon with Frederico as a prisoner of his own obsession in the final act. At various moments doppelgangers of Frederico appear on stage while he himself is increasingly haunted by apparitions of l’Arlesiana – cruel projections of his longing, which render him more and more powerless.

The people around him try to cure Frederico from his psychosis – electroshocks included – , albeit for their own inner motives and projections: Rosa Mamai as a dominant mother figure has an almost oedipal longing for her son, Vivetta longs for happiness as Frederico’s wife. In Cucchi’s reading, only the shepherd Baldassare, a wise fatherly friend, seems to act out of heartfelt concern for the hero, whereas even L’innocente, Frederico’s younger retarded brother, is presented here solely as yet another disturbed facet of Frederico’s mind. Consequently, everyone’s desire is destroyed, and grim reality brings this journey to a shocking end: Frederico hangs himself, alone, in front of the bare wall of the backstage.

Cilèa’s powerful score supports this psychological interpretation to the greatest possible extant. Rooted in the sound world of Mascagni rather than that of Puccini, Cilèa develops his own distinct musical language, brimming with the most beautiful melodic inventions. These range from the lyricism and subtlety with which he creates pastoral moods (in particular in the first act), to the longing and inner conflicts of his characters. Leading the fabulously alert Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera, David Angus brought each nuance of the music to the fore, with a keen sense of choosing the right tempi for the drama to unfold.

The singing was equally great throughout. With his soft tenor voice Dmitry Golovnin portrayed convincingly the obsessions and sufferings of Frederico, beautifully complemented by Annunziata Vestri’s bold and dominating Rosa Mamai. Both delivered their respective showpieces – Frederico’s È la solita storia del pastore and Rosa’s Esser madre è un inferno – with aplomb. Mariangela Sicilia was a graceful Vivetta and Christopher Robertson a warmly docile Baldassare. As in previous years, the Chorus of Wexford Festival Opera under Gavin Carr sounded amazing.

Andreas Bücker