Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

The Welcome Ghosts of Opera Past...

The Wexford Festival line-up lives up to expectations

Some good news! The Wexford Festival Opera programme, as far as I am concerned, meets most of the good intentions put before us more than half a century ago by Tom Walsh. It gives us two works by 19th century Italian masters Gaetano Donizetti and Gioachino Rossini and in a way they are "discoveries".

What I have heard so far of the music they contain also makes them attractive choices. The Rossini is modest in scope, a one-act opera, or farsa comica, which is to be part of a double bill with Emmanuel Chabrier's Une Education Manquée. Then there is a farsa deliberata, a modern work by John Corigliano, an American composer who has set out to present a story in the spirit of three worlds of mixed attraction to opera-lovers: the French Revolution, life in the Palace of Versailles, and the haunting, creative world of Beaumarchais, whose plays have been used as libretti for Mozart and Rossini as well as others.

In contrast with last year's offerings, for the gala opening of the new Wexford Opera House, melody commands the stage for much of this year's presentation. This is in marked contrast with the rather heavy, wordy text of the Mines of Sulphur, by Richard Rodney Bennett and the sheer length of the Rimsky-Korsakov, where heavy seas lie between the islands of acceptable music.

Donizetti's Maria Padilla is a late work, dating from 1841 when the composer was coming to the end of his operatic output. It was, in fact, his 58th opera out of a final total of 65, all performed in his lifetime bar two. That lifetime itself took a downward course during these years and the sweet lightness of tone and sentiment of earlier and highly amusing operas like Don Pasquale disappears.

That particular opera was enriched by the fact that Donizetti composed it for four singers he knew very well, Visi, Mario, Tamburini and Lablache. It was played for the present day, but convention also demanded colourful costumes, so those of the 18th century were worn. The convention has generally stuck, though anything can happen in visual presentation these days and we are right to worry about this: it is the sword of Damocles that hangs over every modern production.

Even with the reputation he had earned by the end of the 1830s, Donizetti faced failure in a number of late operas. Rossini faced a similar fate. Indeed Donizetti took over libretti intended for Rossini, because Rossini, after the failure of William Tell, decided to compose no further operas.

Was there a crisis for opera itself at this time in the 19th century? The question is too immense for the space it needs, and the detail required, raising many questions about the changes and shifts in artistic creativity and public demand.

Without casting any gloom over music that is attractive, even if at times sombre, it has to be said that during this last period of Donizetti's life he became subject to fits of melancholy and abstraction which developed into intense forms followed by attacks of paralysis. He was living permanently in Paris by the time he composed the Wexford offering but returned to his home in Bergamo in 1847 and died in April of the following year.

Maria Padilla has been a neglected work, in part because it is not stylistically what people first associate the composer with. It is intense and melodramatic and the Wexford joke, taken from George Bernard Shaw, is somehow appropriate. Shaw said: "Italian opera plots are invariably about a soprano and a tenor who want to make love, and a baritone who wants to stop them."

It is in the nature of the art form that this process of desire and obstruction can go on for a good deal of time and needs to be sustained by a level of musical invention that often strain the limits of democratic belief and conviction. Where they do not it is good opera since ultimately one has to believe in the drama of the action.

The Rossini work in this year's Wexford Festival in no way foreshadows the gloomy detachment from the art form decided on in later life by this most agreeable of all opera composers. Rossini was a lucky man and luck in art is important as it is in so many other areas of achievement. He made a friend of the Marquis Cavalli and at the age of 18 he was commissioned by the manager of the San Moise Theatre in Venice at the instigation of the marquis to compose an opera for performance there.

It was an opera buffa in one act, La Cambiala di Matrimonio (or The Marriage Market) and it was well-received. The theatre interested itself in the works of young unknown composers but in the case of Rossini he remained loyal to it during his early formative years, so that five out of his first nine operas were first performed there.

The Marriage Market is linked with another one-act operetta, also the early work of the composer, in this case Emmanuel Chabrier who at the time was studying law and working in the Ministere de l'Interieur in Paris. He produced two one-act comic operas in quick succession, one of which, The Star, was the only Chabrier work to reach audiences in London during the composer's lifetime. It was by far the more successful of the two works. The other, to be performed in Wexford, was overshadowed in the composer's lifetime but came to be admired greatly by that exacting twentieth-century composer, Maurice Ravel.

If one can think of all these ingredients being put together into a modern opera, then The Ghosts of Versailles promises to fill the bill. Another title for it might have been The Ghosts of Opera past!