Wexford Festival Continues to Attract Opera Lovers with Its Programme of Rarities

IrelandIreland David, HerculanumWexford Opera Festival Orchestra and Chorus / Jean-Luc Tingaud (conductor), O’Reilly Theatre, Wexford, 1.11.2016. (JMI)

<i>Herculanum</i> © Clive Barda
Herculanum © Clive Barda.

Lilia – Olga Busuioc
Helios – Andrew Haji
Olympia – Daniela Pini
Nicanor/Satan – Simon Bailey
Magnus – Rory Musgrave

Director – Stephen Medcalf
Sets and Costumes – Jamie Vartan
Lighting – Christopher Akerlind

The Wexford Festival Opera, now celebrating its 65th anniversary, has become a classic, one followed closely by opera fans because it offers the chance to see real rarities that are always performed with dignity. The Festival remains faithful to its principles, offering three little-known operas in the main house and three short ones in the small theatre of White’s Hotel, whose owners descend from one of the founders of the festival. This year the main operas are Herculanum by Félicien David, Vanessa by Samuel Barber, and Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria de Rudenz. Next year’s program will include Cherubini’s Medea, Margherita by Jacopo Foroni, and Risurrezione by Franco Alfano. The conclusion is obvious: I’ll be coming back.

Félicien David (1810-1876) was a French composer, praised by Berlioz, whose most important work lay in the field of oratorios; the best-received was Le Désert. He composed four operas which are part of the opéra comique genre, and had his greatest success with Lalla Roukh (1862). Herculanum, a grand opera, premiered in Paris in 1859 and had some success, but soon fell into oblivion. In recent years, there was a concert version done at La Monnaie in Brussels (2014) in anticipation of a planned recording, and it could also be seen in Versailles.

Herculanum is not unjustly forgotten. The opera doesn’t have a lot to offer and is pretty short on inspiration, although it has some bright moments, like the final scene of the two protagonists, Helios and Lilia. The title refers to the city of the same name, destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius, and around this event unfolds a story of love and hate about two Christians (Helios and Lilia) condemned to death. The couple is saved first by Queen Olympia’s desire, and she  seduces Helios with a potion. From there on, Satan moves the drama to its tragic finish. The Christian couple fall back in love, and Lilia forgives her beloved Helios, but in the end everyone dies in the volcano’s eruption.

The Stephen Medcalf production does an adequate job, given the limitations of the Wexford stage. At the Paris premiere the final scene of the eruption of Vesuvius caused quite a sensation, but that was not the case here: it went almost unnoticed. The staging was fairly complete, eliminating only the ballet from the original. The sets are simple with a curtain that shows the summit of Vesuvius. The action has been moved to the end of the 18th century, which seems rather capricious since Herculanum and Christians do not marry very well with the time period. The stage direction is limited to help narrate the confusing plot.

The musical direction was in the hands of Jean-Luc Tingaud, who conducted a French opera here last year as well. His reading was correct and no more, but he drew a good performance from both orchestra and chorus.

Romanian soprano Olga Busuioc played the part of Lilia, the wife of Helios. She is also the object of desire of Nicanor, brother of Queen Olympia, but remains faithful to her beloved and to her religion. Her voice has a certain quality and was nicely suited to the role. Helios was Canadian tenor Andrew Haji, a tenorino of pleasant voice and good taste, but somewhat reduced in volume. It’s not a terribly demanding character for a tenor and he did well, although he seemed to me a little tight at the top.

Daniela Pini as Queen Olympia did fine while the score moved through the middle range, but she sounded shrill at the top. Simon Bailey played Nicanor and Satan, who takes Nicanor’s place when the latter dies by divine punishment for trying to rape Lilia. His voice was not terribly impressive. Rory Musgrave as Magnus, the prophet who in Act I announces earthquakes and eruptions to come as punishment for the misconduct of Herculanum’s citizens, left something to be desired.

The theatre was almost sold out, and the audience was quite cool. There was polite applause for the artists, but no signs of great enthusiasm.

José M. Irurzun

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