Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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November 7, 2016

The Wexford Opera Festival (the 65th edition this year) is known for producing rare Donizetti works, and this year is a case in point.  The composer from Bergamo wrote around 70 operas between a student work in 1816 and his last in 1845, and it is generally acknowledged that he produced his best work in the 1830's and early '40's.  Work after tuneful work poured from his pen in those years, beginning with Anna Bolena in 1830 and including Lucia di Lammermoor, L'elisir d'amore, La fille du régiment, and Don Pasquale, among many other titles.  One of his rare failures, at least initially, in those years was Maria de Rudenz, a gothic horror tale which premiered at Venice's La Fenice opera house in January, 1838.  Maria de Rudenz was based on a French play called La nonne sanglante (The Bleeding Nun).  The complex and gory story was reduced by the librettist Salvadore Cammarano to a confusing muddle full of death and gore.  Even before the premiere, Donizetti projected a fiasco in a letter, and some years later, Cammarano wrote a preface to the libretto in which he blamed the gory story on the fashions for gothic fiction in northern Europe.

There is a backstory.  Before the opera opens, Maria has married Corrado against her father's wishes and has gone off with him to Venice.  Convinced that she has betrayed him, Corrado takes her to Rome and abandons her in the catacombs.  Thinking her dead, he returns to Rudenz castle in Aarau in Switzerland.  Maria's father has died and willed the castle and his wealth to her, but if she does not return within one year, it will all go to his niece Matilde; Corrado has been wooing Matilde using an assumed name, and they are set to marry, which will make Corrado the new Count of Rudenz.  But Maria is not dead.  She returns, and gets into the castle through secret passages.  She tells her old steward Rambaldo that she plans to enter a convent, but when she discovers that Corrado is Matilde's fiancé, she is outraged.  To make everything even more confusing, Corrado's brother Enrico is also in love with Matilde, and is devastated to learn that his brother is planning to marry his beloved.  In the course of the action, Corrado kills Enrico in a duel, Maria kills Matilde, and Corrado stabs Maria after a particularly violent duet.  He thinks he has killed her, but Maria, zombie-like, returns once more from the "dead";  everyone believes she is a ghost as she is seen slipping through the dimly-lit castle, however although badly wounded, she is alive.  In the end, after killing Matilde, she rips off her bandages, the festering stab wound in her side gushes blood, and she dies (or so it seems as the opera ends).  (In the original French play, she becomes a nun, hiding out in the nearby convent, and walks around with the dagger still in her side--thus "the bleeding nun".). Cammarano spares us the dagger hanging out of Maria's side and the taking of orders, but it was not enough.  The opera failed miserably at the premiere in spite of a very strong cast, because the story was considered too bloody and unlikely by half.  In spite of his misgivings about the story, however,  Donizetti, lavished one great melodic piece after another on his score, and the opera went on to considerable success in Italy and as far afield as Rio de Janeiro.  It did not make it to major non-Italian European capitals, however, nor to North America.  (Since the Wexford production is co-sponsored by Minnesota Opera, Americans should finally get to see it soon.)

Immediately after an opening offstage religious chorus (later borrowed for the opening of La fille du régiment), we get one of Donizetti's best baritone arias, Corrado's "Ah! non avea più lagrime" ("Ah, my eyes were drained of tears"). Rather like the villain di Luna in Verdi's Il trovatore (another convoluted libretto by Cammarano), this villain gets some of the most lush, beautiful music, which almost makes him sympathetic.  A vigorous duet for Enrico and Corrado follows ("Fratello!  Enrico!  abbracciami"), followed by Maria's lovely entrance aria "Si, del chiostro penitente." Probably the best music in the score is the great concertante finale which ends Part One, when Maria confronts her bigamist husband and takes back command of Rudenz castle.  The grand, slow ensemble ("Chiuse al dì per te le ciglia") erupts into one of best strettas that Donizetti ever wrote ("Il tuo core a me togliesti").  When it appeared that Maria de Rudenz had failed, the composer lifted this concertato and put it in his next opera, Poliuto; when that opera was not produced because of censorship, it became a part of the French remake of Poliuto, Les Martyrs.  In Part Two, there is a melting aria for Enrico (tenor) and a bouncy cabaletta, and there is a great and moving duet for Maria and Corrado, at the end of which Maria gets the stab wound which will prove fatal--but not until after one more act.  Part Three has the terrific duet between Corrado and Enrico which leads to their duel and Maria's aria-finale, "Mostro iniquo, tremar tu dovei."

Librettist Cammarano seems to have been attracted to this sort of obsessed character and conflicted psychology.  The villains have a good side, if we believe the music (Corrado still feels something for Maria and does not want to fight his brother), as in the case of the later di Luna.  Maria is obsessed by both love and hate for Corrado, just like Azucena in Trovatore.  "Non ha legge, né confine/Oltraggiato, immenso amor," she sings in her final aria: "An immense, outraged love/knows neither confines nor laws."


All of this is set by Donizetti to melodious and often vigorous music, equal to better known operas like Lucia.  The Wexford production gave us the opera complete minus a repeat of the tenor's cabaletta in Part Two, but with the bonus of a chorus that Donizetti seems to have composed for a later production, after the premiere.  Because of crucial (and unlikely) plot elements, many of which pass in barely a line of recitative, not to mention the gore and gothic silliness, the Wexford production used the English surtitles to tell the backstory and reinforce barely mentioned plot twists.  It is probably not possible to take the story seriously (at least the 1838 audience did not think so), so Director Fabio Ceresa gave it all a touch of campy irony by using large puppets or dolls dressed like the characters in the drama.  Sometimes the dolls were manipulated to tell confusing backstory or illustrate the characters' anger or love.  There were even "dolls" sewn onto the women's gowns.  Occasionally, characters manipulating the dolls to hit or kiss each other (and one is decapitated) brought laughter from the audience, serving as a distancing mechanism--we are not to take all of this too seriously--rather like the horror movie spoof, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  The production uses some of the classic elements of horror such as creaking doors and flickering lights, not to mention the period horror costumes (by Giuseppe Palella), but it is all part of the fun.  Amazingly, Ceresa's production manages to tread the line between parody and serious melodrama quite well.  We can chuckle at one moment, but take Donizetti's serious music which underlines the tragedy at another.  (The music, by the way, does not much admit of parody or of gothic horror for that matter, as does, for example, the music of Der Freischutz or Marschner's Der Vampyr.  One imagines that Donizetti was not happy with the story he had to set, but he did set it straight.)


Gilda Fiume      Jesus Garcia

Sophie Gordeladze      Joo Won Kang

The doll/puppet theme was carried out in the stage set (by Gary McCann), a huge three-story doll's house/haunted house/castle with many rooms and nooks and crannies.  The set moved, too, and was constantly refigured in a sort of set-ballet in time to the music.  Lighting by Christopher Akerlind was appropriately atmospheric.  Gilda Fiume sang the obsessive, doll-besotted Maria with great panache.  She knows her Donizetti legato and can easily stretch to the fiery coloratura.  She is also an absolute mistress of lovely piano singing and fil di voce technique.  I thought she was exceptional.  Equally fine was baritone Joo Won Kang (singing a role which was premiered by great Donizetti baritone Giorgio Ronconi) as Corrado Waldorf.  His rich and powerful instrument had no problems with Donizetti's line; the baritone gets a lot of the best music here.  (Kang also performed at a stunning recital which ran the gamut from Beethoven to some beautiful songs from his native Korea; his is a name to watch for.). Jesus Garcia was a little less fine as Enrico, but he held his own.  The mezzo get short shrift in this opera, but Sophie Gordeladze was attractive and provided a great line riding the big ensemble at the end of Act One.  Michele Patti had the minor duties of Rambaldo.  One must also single out the very, very fine Chorus of the Wexford Opera under Errol Girdlestone.  The chorus has a lot of singing--three stand alone choruses along with support in the ensembles--and they were part of the action too, acting singly and as a whole, dressed in strange, but very effective gothic attire.  Andrew Greenwood led the Orchestra of the Wexford Festival Opera; everyone played well.  There is an especially lovely prelude to Part Two featuring the bass clarinet, played by Conor Sheil.


As far as I know, the Wexford production is the first staging in modern times since the early 1980's when there were several in Venice, Paris and Germany.  It is a rare chance to look anew at this rich Donizetti score, so replete with his archetypal melody--and an arcane story.  It stands up, and I hope that Minnesota Opera will bring it to their boards soon.  I will go again!


Talk about rarities.  Most opera lovers have never heard of the composer Félicien David, much less his 1859 grand opera Herculanum.  In fact, after an 1868 revival at the Opéra, no one had heard it until it was revived in a concert version and recording in 2015 by the Palazzetto Bru Zane's Centre de Musique Romantique Français' continuing project to revive forgotten French scores from the nineteenth century.  The Wexford production represented the first staged performances in almost 150 years.  David's music was virtually forgotten except for his choral symphony Le Désert, which depicts the arrival of a caravan in the North African desert; in his day it was probably his best known piece.  But he was a writer of much choral and chamber music and a few operas, all except for Herculanum in the lighter mode; his charming Lalla Roukh was revived in Washington and New York by Opera Lafayette a few years ago.  With Herculanum he took on the genre of French Grand Opera in the tradition of Auber, Rossini's Guillaume Tell, Meyerbeer and Verdi's Les vêpres siciliennes and Don Carlos.  This is a sprawling four-act work which includes a full ballet and ends with the spectacular destruction of Herculaneum by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C. E. 

(It is not the first opera to include an erupting volcano.  The very first French Grand Opera, Auber's La muette de Portici had the Mute Girl of the title--a part played by a ballerina--leap into Vesuvius' mouth at the opera's climax.  Even earlier, Pacini's L'ultimo giorno di Pompeii ('Last Day of Pompeii') ended with the 79 C.E. eruption, while a more quiescent volcano dominates the background in Così fan tutte.  Many operatic characters sing that they have a "vesuvio" or a "mongibello"--Mt. Etna--in their heaving chests.  Operatic eructions seem particularly suited to stories of volcanic intensity.)

The story of Herculanum involves Christian persecution and is basically a black-and-white affair where the Christian couple Lilia and Hélios are good and the pagan queen Olympia and her brother Nicanor are bad.  In fact, Nicanor is so bad that when he is struck dead by a thunderbolt in Act II when he denies the Christian God, he is replaced by Satan himself, who rising from the ground, takes over Nicanor's body.  The Devil was quite active on the operatic stage in 1859.  Two weeks after David's opera debuted at the Paris Opéra, Gounod's Mephistopheles took the boards in Faust at the Théâtre Lyrique.  The Second French Empire under Napoleon III, was in full swing in 1858, and was strongly supported by the Catholic Church; in turn the "blockbusters" of the Opéra were used to buttress Catholic belief, a cornerstone of the Second Empire.  At the end of Faust the redeemed Marguerite rises to an apotheosis in Heaven at the end of a glorious trio as Mephisto takes Faust to Hell.  At the end of Herculanum as God's vengeance erupts on the wicked, pagan city in the form of a volcano, Satan, showing Olympia the encroaching lava, declares, "Voilà le châtiment!" ("There is punishment!") while the Christians welcome death: "C'est le ciel!  C'est la vie!"  

In the opera's story, the young Christian Hélios forsakes his betrothed Lelia for the pleasures promised by Olympia, who is equated with the pagan gods Venus and Bacchus.  Before the end, however, he returns to Lelia and Christianity.  The moral is clear--Christian simplicity and virtue are good, while pleasure and sensuality are the Devil's work, and will be punished.  In one impressive scene, Satan fires up the slaves to revolt, invoking Sparticus.  Clearly, Napoleon III did not want the working class to rise up, and considered rebellion satanic.  It was ironic, then, that Wexford's production by Stephen Medcalf portrayed the pagans gathered round Olympia and Nicanor as if they were denizens of France's Second Empire instead of ancient Romans.  Nicanor/Satan himself was dressed in military regalia as if he were Napoleon III while the women wore empire-waist dresses.  The Christians, by contrast, were dressed in shapeless dun sackcloth (costumes and sets were by Jamie Vartan).  If David and his librettists Joseph Méry and Térence Hadot intended to boost the regime by emphasizing Christian virtue, Medcalf and Vartan turned that on its political head and associated the bad guys with the Second Empire, although that is hardly a political point worth making some 145 years after the Second Empire fell; only historians are concerned with the corruption and hypocrisy of that period today.

David's music is what must sustain a revival of the piece today, and much of it is very good.  He is a most eclectic composer, and one can hear bits of Rossini, Verdi, Meyerbeer, Offenbach and even a near-quote from Schubert (Der Tod und das Madchen).  There are grand arias in the Italian manner: Olympia's Drinking Song ("Bois ce vin que l'amour donne") and Hymn à Vénus (an aria omitted from the Palazzetto Bru Zane recording because the mezzo was ill at the time of the recording session), Lilia's Credo ("Je crois au Dieu"), Hélios' lovely Romance, "Dans une retraite profonde," and so forth.  Many of these arias morph into ensembles and are punctuated by the chorus.  Best of all the music, to my mind, is a wonderful, instantly rememberable duet in the last act between Lilia and Hélios, "Viens!  La mort, qui nous purifie.". This great, long and supple melody bears the true meaning of the work--death, they sing, purifies us and gives us back our love forever.  As befits a composer well known for his choral music, David's choruses are special too, ranging from bouncy Offenbachian bacchism to the austerity of Gregorian chant or a lovely a cappella chorus sung by the Christians. 


One would love to see (just once) a production of a French Grand Opera as it was meant to be, with great weight placed on spectacle.  David's work, at its premiere, was famous for the spectacular settings and costumes, especially the total destruction of Herculaneum at the end.  Alas, I have never seen such a production and probably never will.  It is just too expensive and probably overwrought in an era which puts minimalist emphasis on the aspect of spectacle in opera.  Wexford's production was largely black and white, with a scrim depicting a realistic volcanic cone (I can't say whether it was really Vesuvius), which bubbled with red lava in the last act.  A cone-like structure dominated the set too, but there was no attempt to recreate the lavish gardens and palaces of Olympia in the ancient city.  A number of abstract gray crosses dominated the hill where the Christians gather.  The black and white and gray worked in the end when red lava (a projection) overflowed on a tableau of ash-covered chorus members lying in poses we all know from the body-casts of those caught in the eruption in Pompeii and Herculaneum.  It was a very effective tableau for David's eruption music, if not quite the grandeur we would have had in 1859. 


Of the singers, Romanian soprano Olga Busuioc as Lilia was the best.  She has a strong voice and good control, and she acts well.  Her Hélios was Canadian tenor Andrew Haji.  Mr. Haji is so large of girth that it was difficult to believe that the wispy Daniela Pini as Olympia would be attracted to him.  His voice had the herculanum3sweetness of a true French tenor at times, but for the most part he was only adequate in the role.  The same could be said for Ms. Pini as Olympia.  Her "Hymn to Venus" is apparently full of coloratura, but I did not hear it in her rendition.  I think she is supposed to be a Dalila-type character (as in Saint-Saëns' opera), but she was a very staid seductress, both vocally and in her acting, striking poses as the opulent queen from exotic middle eastern lands.  Simon Bailey as Nicanor/Satan was the only well known singer (to me); he was better as Satan than he was as Nicanor for some reason.  The Christian prophet Magnus was sung by Rory Musgrave.  Once again, the super-active chorus excelled all expectation as both lusty pagans and humble Christians.  Jean-Luc Tingaud made a strong case for the score, much of which won Berlioz' praise at first hearing.  It is indeed a score worth hearing, a melodious score with many fine moments, and especially that wonderful duet in the last act, which by itself elevates David to the realm of the masters.


The other main-stage work this year at the Wexford Festival was Samuel Barber's Vanessa to a libretto by his long-time partner Gian Carlo Menotti.  Vanessa was a hit with the public when the old Met first produced it in 1958, but many critics did not find it very good.  Andrew Porter, then writing for the New York Times found it syrupy like warmed over Cilea or Giordano.  When the Met revived it in the early 1960's, it flopped.  When a European production was tried at the Salzburg Festival, it was savaged.  Since that time,  there have been occasional productions in America--at St. Louis, by the New York City Opera and last summer by Santa Fe Opera, but it is fairly unknown in Europe, and the Wexford presentation was an attempt to win a European audience for the opera.

The story, set in an unidentified "northern country" around 1905 centers around three women of different generations and the man who throws their lives into chaos.  Vanessa has had an affair with a man named Anatol twenty years earlier, and as the opera opens she nervously is waiting for his announced return.  She lives in a grand house with her mother, the Baroness, and her niece Erika.  When Anatol arrives, it is not her lover (who has died), but his son.  Anatol sleeps with the innocent Erika on the snowy night of his arrival, but Vanessa finds him a suitable substitute for her lost lover.  Her life is opened again to romance and meaning, but Erika, now pregnant, is bitterly depressed.  She loses the baby in a miscarriage, Vanessa marries the much younger Anatol, the old Baroness is silent, and a lot of snow falls.

In 1958, Barber wanted Maria Callas to sing the title role, but she declined.  Rosalind Elias sang Erika, and much later the Baroness for the 2007 New York City Opera revival.  Regina Resnik, who by the 1950's was singing a lot of old women, was the original Baroness.  Sena Jurinac also withdrew rather late in the rehearsal process, and Eleanor Steber was finally recruited for the role.  Rosalind Elias sang Erika, and much later, in 2007, the NYC Opera revival.  Regina Resinik, who by the 1950's was singing a lot of old women, was the Baroness.  In Wexford, the Baroness was sung by a svelte, upright Rosalind Plowright, while Canadian mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule was Erika and Vanessa herself was sung by British soprano Claire Rutter.  I particularly liked Ms. Sproule, who sang and acted very well.  She gets the opera's best known piece, the Act I aria "Must the winter come so soon," an aria added by Barber for the young Elias, who complained that everyone else had an aria except for her character.  Young American tenor Michael Brandenburg sang Anatol and the Old Doctor was Mames Westman.  All were good.


The Wexford production, by Rodula Gaitanou, moved the action forward from 1905 to the 1950's of the composition, and placed it in North America instead of a cold, northern European country.  This did not make much sense since there are references to countesses and baronesses in the text. Not many of those in the woods of northern Minnesota.  Nor did the inspiration of the film "Sunset Boulevard" for the set do much for the opera: Los Angeles is not noted for frigid weather and heavy snows.  Still it snowed a lot in the highly realistic set of the interior of Vanessa's house (by Cordelia Chisholm); it snowed outside and in the dining room too, perhaps a little too obviously symbolizing the chilly atmosphere which inhibits the characters.


Menotti's interesting libretto smacks of Chekov, Ibsen, and Strindberg, and not just because of the cold, northern setting.  The characters are reticent and 'bottled up'.  Vanessa has been waiting for twenty years when the opera opens and she has had all the mirrors in the house covered all that time; she evidently fears growing old.  She is sexually suppressed.  When her love affair with Anatol blooms, she uncovers the mirrors and the many paintings that the reclusive and enigmatic Baroness has done of her.  In the end, when Vanessa leaves with Anatol for a honeymoon, perhaps never to return, Erika and the Baroness are left alone in the cold house, and Erika, now the mistress, orders that all the mirrors be covered again.  It is 'her turn to wait now'.  The Baroness starts painting portraits of Erika.  So there is a good dose of Dicken's Miss Havisham too. 


The music shows various influences,  late verismo to be sure, and even Berg, but it is mostly movie-score quality--movies made in the 1950's.  There are lots of dramatic surges from the orchestra which do not always match the emotions of the characters; it is a big orchestra and very brassy.  I found it dull.  Barber ends with a quartet, the inspiration of which is obviously the trio in Rosenkavalier, but we are miles and miles from the musical inspiration in Strauss' great opera.

The production in Wexford was excellent, the singing was very good, the orchestra and chorus under Timothy Myers was everything that it should have been.  But the opera leaves me cold.  I wondered how I would feel about it, having not liked it much when I saw it in the Met revival in the 1960's.  The characters are still uninteresting and not involving.  The music is not unpleasant, but it is dull.  The cold,winter atmosphere is appropriate.  To paraphrase Cassius in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, 'The fault, dear reader, lies not in the stars (the singers), but in the opera itself.'  Vanessa, I am afraid, leaves me cold.  Will someone turn up the heat?


The Festival was rounded off as usual by three short works at popular prices: Walton's The Bear, based on a Chekov story, Vaughn-Williams' Riders to the Sea, a setting of the John Millington Synge play, and Donizetti's 1836 farce Il campanello.  The Bear, a comic work about a young widow whose overt grief is leavened by the knowledge that her late husband was a philanderer and a gruff, rude, angry man who comes to collect a debt which her husband had owed.  They argue vociferously, and then fall in love.  Sarah Richmond, Rory Musgrave and Ashley Mercer were super in this simple work, well directed by Kyle Lang and accompanied by the brilliant Andrea Grant at the piano.  The overwhelming tragic Riders to the Sea was very well directed too, by Catriona McLaughlin.  It is an opera about women in the Aran Islands who lose their men, one by one, to the sea.  There are three principal women and a female chorus, and only one man--and he drowns.  Benjamin Laurent played the piano for this work, which sets Synge's poetic text.  All of the women acted superbly, but Maurya (Lara Harvey) had too much vibrato in her voice.  The Donizetti farce should be a melodious riot, but it wasn't: Director Roberto Recchia, whose work is usually so fine, stuffed his farce too much, or farced it with too much stuff.  Besides the drinking song included in the score, we also got the brindisi from Lucrezia Borgia, the brindisi from Cavalleria Rusticana and even "It's de-lovely" from "Anything Goes."  It was all a bit too much, and kept the inherent humor from blossoming, or so I thought.

At the end of the last opera in the Festival, everyone stands and sings "Auld Lang Syne" and promises to return another year (for Foroni's Margherita, Cherubini's Medea and Alfano's Resurrezione).  I hope to be there for this very special festival in a special town on the Irish coast.

Photographs courtesy of Wexford Festival Opera

Charles Jernigan

Published by Opera Pronto for the Colorado Opera Network