Irish eyes are smiling at a Russian star
CILEA: L’ARLESIANIA, Wexford Festival ★★★★★
A CELEBRATION OF RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN, The John Wilson Orchestra (Royal Festival Hall, London) ★★★★★
Griopping: Eleanor Greenwood and Annuziata Vestri in L’Arlesiana
The Wexford Festival is alive and kicking, having survived Ireland’s financial meltdown with just the third week regrettably having to be sacrificed. The new opera house is a thing of real beauty, its dark wood interior offering 800 patrons a comfortable seat, good sightlines, and a warm, resonant acoustic.
And then there’s the festival’s secret weapon – its people. They really want you to have a good time, and nothing is too much trouble. If there’s a more warm-hearted, less stuffy place to enjoy opera, I have yet to find it.
As usual, three neglected operas are presented, and one of this year’s offerings, Francesco Cilea’s L’Arlesiana, is a sure-fire winner. There is such a thing as a justly neglected opera, but not this one.
Most people know the tenor aria Federico’s Lament, made famous by the original Federico, Enrico Caruso. But much of the rest of Alphonse Daudet’s sad tale of a young man driven to suicide by an obsessive love, is at, or near, the same elevated level. And the festival really does the piece proud, with first-class musical and production values.
In the young Russian tenor Dmitry Golovnin they have unearthed a future star. Unusually for a Russian, he sounds really Italianate. He is ably supported by a fine cast led by two young Italians, Annunziata Vestri, darkly impressive as his mother, Rosa, and hugely promising 26-year-old Mariangela Sicilia as Enrico’s spurned fiancee, Vivetta, who tries in vain to save him.
In the pit, David Angus and his players offer sterling support.
Director Rosetta Cucchi and her team present the piece straight, with some cleverly original visual touches to point up some of the turmoil in Federico’s head. Only his over-elaborate death scene jars a bit. I left the theatre thinking, why can’t L’Arlesiana be put on every week?
If you didn’t start John Wilson’s celebration of Richard Rodgers at the Royal Festival Hall thinking him one of the greatest American songwriters, you surely ended up doing so.
A flood of glorious melody, brilliantly attuned to his wordsmiths: light, witty and brittle for the brilliant but unstable Lorenz Hart, way more opulent for the solid, all-American decency of Oscar Hammerstein.
The programme for A Celebration Of Rodgers & Hammerstein quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald: ‘There are no second acts in American lives.’ But with Rodgers, of course, there was: more than 20 years with Hart and almost 20 with Hammerstein.
And thanks to the advocacy of Kim Criswell, I ended up thinking Hart brought out the best in him; more subtlety, more sophistication.
But it’s impossible to knock Hammerstein collaborations such as Carousel and Oklahoma!, where each show has eight or ten stunning numbers. How many contemporary musicals deliver that?
The chief joy of a John Wilson concert is the band. This hand-picked ensemble always play out of their skins for him. Wilson’s energy and enthusiasm is infectious and, remember, he prepares all the scores himself, often reconstructed from film soundtracks.
He also galvanised a generally fine quartet of soloists: Criswell, Sir Thomas Allen, Annalene Beechey and Julian Ovenden.
A quibble or two about Ovenden though. His biography proclaims: ‘Julian Ovenden is poised to become a huge recording star . . . and is about to see his career explode with the release of his debut album.’
If I were him, I’d either sack his publicist or perform a bit better. There’s so much he could learn from the modest and likeable Tom Allen, who brought the house down with This Nearly Was Mine and Some Enchanted Evening.
Ovenden is also the main caveat about Wilson’s new CD, Rodgers And Hammerstein At The Movies (EMI) ★★★★. He just doesn’t have enough vocal heft to be an entirely credible Curly, the cowboy from Oklahoma!, or Billy, the barker from Carousel.
And despite Wilson’s stout denials, the orchestrations made for the movies, utilised here, aren’t a patch on those prepared by Robert Russell Bennett for the stage shows. Not just an anorak’s point, this, Bennett’s really do sound better. But with Joyce DiDonato, no less, singing You’ll Never Walk Alone and Climb Every Mountain, I’m not really complaining.