In a time when the term operatic has come to mean larger-than-life or over-the-top, it's easy to forget that what Samuel Johnson called "an exotic and irrational entertainment" had its origins in 16th-century Florence as the invention of a small group of humanists. The first operas, musical adaptations of classical myths, were devised as courtly entertainments for audiences that could have fit comfortably into a contemporary Manhattan loft. Artistically, these early affairs were experimental and rather primitive. But what a thrill they must have given the initiates, who were witness to the birth of what would become the most complex genre in Western music.
Last fall, when I traveled to Ireland for the annual Wexford opera festival, I had the feeling that I was present at something like the creation. Things began on a less than propitious note. A pokey, two-hour train ride from Dublin down the southeast coast brought me to a small sea-washed town that was hardly a match for the cradle of the Italian Renaissance. As I came out of the station, the only sight of architectural interest was the shell of a ruined abbey, behind a ruined wall. White's Hotel, reputedly the town's leading hostelry, was a modern, no-frills establishment whose visual charmlessness was offset by the buzz of festival-goers. My room was comfortable, clean, and a place you wouldn't want to spend much time in, except asleep.
But Wexford turned out to have unexpected riches--perhaps not so surprising in a land that still clings to its fairy tales. On the face of things, it's a typically modest Irish market town: diminutive square houses and shops snuggled together along a main street chockablock with modest purveyors of Irish produce, Irish beef, Irish woolens, and Irish spirits. The history of Wexford, however, tells a more cosmopolitan tale. It was founded in prehistoric times, settled by Vikings (who gave the town its name), invaded by Normans, attacked by Cromwell, and used by patriots as the place from which to declare the first Irish republic, in 1798--all of which speaks to the familiar observation that Ireland is not just a country of its own, but an island off the west coast of Europe.
The most vivid expression of Wexford's mixture of Irish modesty and international openness is undoubtedly its opera festival. Rather sweetly, the town's shopkeepers use the occasion to dress up their windows in all manner of homemade operatic finery--dolls in ermine and top hat strolling amid the potatoes. A prize is given for the best window.
Before attending the first of the festival's three productions, I wanted to have a look at the place where they were being performed. A young woman at the hotel's front desk gave me directions that seemed straightforward enough. "It shouldn't take you more than seven minutes," she said; but I managed to walk past my destination twice before realizing that behind the plain-fronted façades of several houses on High Street was a 550-seat Georgian opera house, dating to the 1830's, called the Theatre Royal. No opera house was ever so delightfully unoperatic as this one.
And no opera-goers could be more intrepid than the ones I joined that evening. Certainly, the traditions of opera dress were honored: most of the men were in black tie, and most of the women in long gowns that would have fit right in at a Bloomsbury soirée, circa 1935. But not even in Salzburg would so many opera fanatics have strolled along the cobblestoned pavement, apparently unconcerned that their finery was growing damper and damper in the continuous, if gentle, rain.
Even more astonishingly, we were not lining up to see The Marriage of Figaro, with a Salzburg cast of Bryn Terfel and Cecilia Bartoli, or La Traviata, with the latest hot coloratura, but an opera entitled Fosca, by one Carlos Gomes, a Brazilian composer who toiled at La Scala in the second half of the 19th century, deep in the shadow of Verdi. This crowd-pleaser was perfectly in keeping with what is most distinctive--some would say bizarre--about the Wexford festival. Since the event was inaugurated in 1951 by a local opera-loving physician, Thomas Walsh (a bigwig in the village gramophone society), Wexford has acquired an international reputation. Insiders consider it the world's most important presenter of works that fall into the category of "unjustly neglected."
How's this for a sampling of Wexford offerings over the years?Instead of La Traviata or Der Rosenkavalier, the festival has had Fra Diavolo, Giovedì Grasso, La Vedova Scaltra, Le Astuzie Femminili, La Rencontre Imprévue, Der Widerspenstigen Zähmung, The Devil and Kate, and something called Makskaya Noch'. Yes, Wexford has put on La Bohème and Otello--not the warhorses by Puccini and Verdi, but the mostly unperformed works by Leoncavallo and Rossini.
I wasn't sure I wanted to revisit Fosca, a wildly overheated piece involving pirates, a kidnapped Venetian nobleman, and one very screwed-up passion--an opera composed in a style that feels Verdian without ever quite being Verdian. But it was splendidly staged, sung, and played (the musicians were all members of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland), and the high-toned audience was clearly enjoying it as much for the novelty of what they were seeing as for the chat fodder it provided during intermission.
I had more extreme reactions to the festival's other two productions: I Cavalieri di Ekebù and Sarlatán. The former, by Riccardo Zandonai, a post-Puccini Italian who composed in the teens and twenties, is an earnest, indigestible work about a drunken ex-priest who finds salvation in an ironworks run by a mysteriously beautiful figure called, for no apparent reason, La Comandante. Again, the staging and casting were without fault, but placed in the service of a piece of esoterica that never came into focus.
Sarlatán is a robustly Modernist 1938 piece by Pavel Haas, a Czech composer whose promising career was cut short by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Its tale of the rise and fall of a charismatic, philandering quack who might just be a genuine healer was staged with acrobatic energy, and the proceedings eerily echoed the scandal that was then enveloping our man in the White House.
This year's festival promises a similarly challenging stew: Die Königin von Saba (The Queen of Sheba), by the late-Romantic, neo-Wagnerian Hungarian composer Karl Goldmark; Straszny Dwór (The Haunted Manor), by a 19th-century Polish composer named Stanislaw Moniuszko; and Siberia, a little-known work by Umberto Giordano, an Italian specialist in chest-pounding melodrama, whose career straddled the 19th and 20th centuries.
With typical Irish perversity, Wexford has scheduled its festival at a time well after the world's peripatetic opera lovers have had their fill of music festivals and just when the big urban opera houses are starting their fall seasons. Perhaps it's Irish luck, but the oddness of both the timing and the programming has, for more than 40 years, been the source of Wexford's appeal, not only for opera sleuths and music critics but for those who return year after year. They come not to have their tastes confirmed, but to reinvigorate their capacity for discovery. Indeed, Wexford has long been valued among opera cognoscenti for introducing young singers who have gone on to considerable renown. (Janet Baker and Mirella Freni are two of the legendary singers who "broke out" at Wexford.)
I heard many fine young singers of promise, not just in the festival's three main productions but in various recitals around town and in the 90-minute condensations of familiar operas--Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus, Bizet's Carmen, and Puccini's Fanciulla del West--that were performed in the Barn, a rustic auditorium at White's Hotel. And there was one major discovery. I had been impressed by an Italian mezzo-soprano named Francesca Franci when I heard her give a brilliant noontime recital in the town's lovely old Protestant church of St. Iberius. But I wasn't prepared for the power she brought to the part of La Comandante in I Cavalieri di Ekebù. To see Ms. Franci attack this bewildering role--part Mother Teresa, part dominatrix--with such conviction was to understand what has made Wexford a revelation for so many years: here, one can see young stars in the making, less-than-masterpieces in the doing, and opera as it was in the beginning, fresh and full of invention.
Charles Michener, a senior editor at The New Yorker, also writes a column on classical music for the New York Observer.