Last autumn saw the 60th-anniversary Wexford Festival. What would the legendary Dr Tom Walsh, who founded it all those years ago, think about what has happened to his creation? I imagine he would be pleased, even proud. The new opera house would surely be beyond his wildest imagination—it is state of the art, acoustically magnificent, comfortable and welcoming. Thank heavens it was finished a matter of months before Ireland’s financial crisis.
On the evidence of this year’s offerings, Dr Tom would be impressed by the musical standards under the leadership of the current artistic director David Agler, who has renewed his contract. Orchestral playing and choral singing were indeed of festival standard, and it was good to see Irish names in the lists of both. The casting, too, was of festival standard, recalling the heady days of Elaine Padmore—there was some really classy singing. The only cloud on the horizon was fewer performances on weekdays. As we all know, the more performances you give, the more money you lose. Apart from that, punters can look forward to the next 60 years with confidence.
The repertory was typical Wexford: homage to bicentennial Ambroise Thomas with, apparently, the first staging of La Cour de Célimène since the original run in 1855 (October 21); yet more Donizetti, a composer whom the festival has served well, in the shape of his 1839 comedy Gianni di Parigi (October 23); and in between a real rarity, Roman Statkowski’s Maria (1906), virtually unknown outside Poland until the Editor wrote about it twice in recent issues, and not all that well known inside Poland, yet eminently worth staging.
Statkowski is seen as Poland’s operatic missing link between Moniuszko and Szymanowski. His musical language has been described as ‘conservative’—nothing wrong with that, especially at this distance in time. He was plainly inspired by Tchaikovsky, and there are worse models—just as Verdi was inspired by Donizetti and Wagner by Weber. So we get Big Tunes, a luscious love duet, Polish national dances, powerful battle music, and pages of really well-crafted arioso. The music held the attention throughout.
Statkowski’s own libretto is drawn from an early Romantic poem of 1825 by Antoni Malczewski, set in 17th-century Ukraine. Wac³aw has married Maria, daughter of a District Governor; Wac³aw’s father, the Count Palatine, has dynastic ambitions for his son, and engineers Maria’s murder, having sent Wac³aw off to war. Wac³aw returns and commits suicide. There are faint echoes of Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe and Verdi’s Luisa Miller in these father-child relationships.
The Polish-born, British-resident director Michael Gieleta wrote in the programme about his traumatic childhood in 1980s Poland, and reset the action at that time, with the Count Palatine as a high-ranking communist apparatchik, and the District Governor a Solidarity activist. There were many projections and indeed films from Gdañsk—the whirring of the projector was no aid to appreciation of the music—and the Polish ambassador to Dublin said he recognized his younger self in one of them. It was not clear whom Wac³aw was sent away to fight. There were some clichéd symbols—you knew the Count was a baddie because he smoked four cigarettes in Act 1 alone, and you knew Wac³aw was an intellectual because he wore glasses. The dances were nicely done, and there was a certain morbid interest in what might be seen as a typical Soviet-style evening reception.