Luigi Cherubini is the pantomime villain of French romantic music. As head of the Paris Conservatoire in the 1820s he was the embodiment of obsolescence: Berlioz’s Memoirs recount an occasion when some state functionary told the ageing master that he should really write an opera. ‘One can dimly imagine the indignant consternation of the author of Medea, Les deux journées, Lodoïska, Mont Saint-Bernard…’ writes Berlioz with twinkling malice, though most modern operagoers, if they’re honest, won’t be any wiser.
The one exception is Medea, which has never quite dropped into obscurity. Fiona Shaw’s new production at the Wexford Festival shakes it brusquely back to life. We’re at a hen party at a day spa. Glauce (Ruth Iniesta) and her girlfriends loll about in pink sashes and Lycra, while her fiancé Jason (Sergey Romanovsky) wears a tracksuit. Is this a reality TV send-up — Real Housewives of Corinth? How does that sit with the controlled ferocity of Stephen Barlow’s conducting, or the fluid, stylised expressiveness with which Iniesta, Romanovsky and Adam Lau (Creon) sculpt their lines? And how to square it with the tremendous central figure of Medea herself, as portrayed by Lise Davidsen? Davidsen was merciless, not least to her own lustrous voice. Rich, burning cries of vengeance flattened into strangled sobs of pain, while Raffaella Lupinacci’s eloquent, all-too-measured responses as her companion Neris struggled to keep her grounded.
By now the scene has shifted to a single mother’s flat. Symbolic figures and forms from ancient Greece (including a Damien Hirst-ish golden fleece) intrude among the plastic toys and children’s duvets, while the moppets themselves hide and play, fatally oblivious to the symbolism of their toy swords and helmets. Shaw and her designer Annemarie Woods deftly tie together Greek myth and unsparing contemporary psychological drama. Medea annihilates her world, and Davidsen draws the whole opera in around her. Even the gory ending evokes pity as well as horror. If the triumph here is above all Davidsen’s and Shaw’s, it’s only fair to hand Cherubini some bloodied laurels too.
Wexford loves springing these surprises. You don’t expect an international festival of rare operas in a small Irish harbour town, and you don’t expect to find a spotless walnut-panelled mini-Glyndebourne in the middle of a terraced residential street. And you don’t expect anything, really, from Jacopo Foroni’s Margherita, an opera last performed in 1880, and whose composer isn’t even listed in most reference books. It turns out to be a sentimental romcom in the manner of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, if Donizetti had taken orchestration lessons from Mendelssohn. Act One is mostly a set of contrivances designed to separate village heiress Margherita (Alessandra Volpe) from her soldier sweetheart. Act Two comprises them moping songfully before a cheery final untangling.
Michael Sturm, directing, tries hard to find a darker side to this ‘melodramma semiserio’ (Foroni’s words, not mine): the villagers’ colourful 1950s costumes stand out against a backdrop of bombed-out ruins. And Volpe sings with a sultry charisma that could very easily have flipped over into the tragic, had the piece demanded any emotion stronger than gentle melancholy. Still, who’s counting? There’s an operetta-like swing to Foroni’s melodies, and with brisk conducting from Timothy Myers, sparky choral singing and a genial comic turn from Matteo D’Apolito as the blustering mayor, Margherita was puppyishly eager to please. The audience was beaming on the way out.
But the real crowd-pleaser of this year’s Festival is Risurrezione by Franco Alfano, best known (and routinely slated) for his completion of Puccini’s Turandot. Risurrezione suggests that he deserves better, and this lush, Tolstoy-inspired epic of torment and redemption in tsarist Russia generates a powerful sense of atmosphere. Church bells toll, religious chants echo doomily in the distance and the music tails off, suspended, as the heroine Katiusha (Anne Sophie Duprels) contemplates her destiny. There are a couple of misfires — the inmates of a gulag sound as though they’re having a night out at Café Momus — but Francesco Cilluffo, conducting, pushed on with purpose into the opera’s surprisingly dark heart.
The production was sumptuous, with period interiors giving way to the glaring whiteness of Siberia. Director Rosetta Cucchi opted for naturalism, heightened by a discreet sprinkling of fantasy, and Duprels showed again why no one does these abused verismo heroines better: unafraid to show her voice’s rougher edges, then suddenly floating a phrase with melting tenderness. Gerard Schneider sang with engaging warmth and grace as her seducer-turned-redeemer Dimitri. All said, it was disturbingly easy to ignore the fact that the narrative was disjointed, that the psychology only made sense if you buy into Tolstoy’s masochistic brand of spirituality, and that the sexual politics were all over the shop. Risurrezione justifies occasional resurrection, and I’m not the first to say that it’d knock ’em flat at Opera Holland Park. The standing ovation was instantaneous.