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RODERIC DUNNETT reports from the continuing Opera Festival


Wexford. Photograph copyright (c) Derek Speirs.Wexford is internationally renowned for being a feast of rare opera. Few festivals have laboured so valiantly to overcome the quite unjustifiable neglect of long-forgotten scores, or done it so well, and with such a dazzling rate of success.18th, l9th and 20th century repertoire has all been fetched out of the cupboard and dusted down, thanks to the example of Wexford's postwar founder, Dr Tom Walsh, who nearly 50 years ago aspired to give opera lovers 'not quite what they wanted, but what they might like'. They got his message, and have continued to return in droves.

Hardly surprising. It's difficult to imagine a more cosy, enjoyable, and hospitable corner of the British Isles in which to savour opera's arcane delights. Wexford's relaxed hotels and guesthouses, musical pubs, its wonderful shopping Main Street, which wends it way from the Talbot Hotel to Redmond Square, and the intimate (and aurally satisfying) Theatre Royal all conspire to make Wexford a festival to shout about.

Above all, Wexford demonstrates what staggering results rejecting cowardice, and leading opera lovers firmly from the front, can achieve : it fills seats; yet its unrivalled diet of fresh repertoire has the power to revitalise - and challenge - one's whole perception of the 'popular' - and these days truncated - operatic mainstream.

Through the 13-year stewardship of Elaine Padmore to its current artistic director, Luigi Ferrari (who doubles as artistic director of the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro), Wexford has continued to unearth, polish off and put on display, like a loving curator, some truly glorious repertoire. Marschner, Stanford, Busoni, d'Albert, Lalo, Gazzaniga, Pacini, Fibich, Lortzing, Paisiello, Dargomizhky, Storace - not exactly names on the average opera-goer's shopping list - are among the languishing relics Wexford has exhumed and restored, since Walsh fired his opening shot with Balfe's The Rose of Castile back in l951.

It seems no mean feat ('almost like carelessness') to launch three new opera productions on three successive nights - plus a further clutch of semistaged 'opera scenes' to while away those empty afternoons in the barn of White's Hotel : Rosetta Cucchi's superbly controlled handling of the youthful Rossini's The Silken Ladder, in which a young English tenor, Darren Abrahams, drew universal accolades for his characterful Dorvil (gorgeously voiced, even in high tessitura); a magnificently racy, Samuel Beckett-like Threepenny Opera from Debora Virello, Michal Znaniecki and John Shea; and a Gounod's Faust, supervised by the distinguished Moscow Stanislavsky Theatre répétiteur, Ljuba Orfenova, which above all revealed the splendid gifts (in both presence and projection) of the young Czech Méphistophélès, Frantisek Zahradnicek.

This year's three house productions were Umberto Giordano's Siberia, Karl Goldmark's Die Königin von Saba (The Queen of Sheba) and Moniuszko's Straszny Dwór (The Haunted Manor).

Copyright © Roderic Dunnett, October 21st 1999 

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Festival continues till Oct 31 (Box Office : +353 53 22144; Office : 22400).

The Wexford Festival Opera website, giving detailed information about this year's operas plus a further selection of colour photos, can be visited at

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