Margherita review at Wexford Opera House – ‘smile-raising’

The cast of Margherita at Wexford Opera House. Photo: Clive Barda The cast of Margherita at Wexford Opera House. Photo: Clive Barda
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Back in 2013 the Wexford Festival had a hit on its hands with Cristina, regina di Svezia – a rediscovery from the pen of 19th-century Italian Jacopo Foroni, who died of cholera in 1858 aged just 34. Unsurprisingly the award-winning Irish event has taken another look at this forgotten figure, selecting from his slender corpus his very first opera, Margherita, unveiled in Milan in 1848.

It’s couched in the semiseria genre – meaning something fundamentally comic though interspersed with serious scenes: originally set in a small Swiss village, its cumbersome plot describes how returning soldier Ernesto is accused of having taken part in some dastardly crime though eventually vindicated to marry the girl he loves. In Stefan Rieckhoff’s conflict-scarred sets, director Michael Sturm moves the action to post-war Italy – with no harm done.

Back in 1848 the score enjoyed a brief success and its virtues are as obvious as its limitations. As a 23-year-old finding his feet Foroni draws liberally on Bellini and Donizetti, while including several more forward-looking passages. Though the result remains a mishmash it is never less than attractive and in certain places – the first act finale, for instance, which builds up quite a head of steam – genuinely impressive.

If it’s the kind of piece one would happily encounter once without necessarily wanting to do so twice, then the Wexford team know exactly what to do with it. No weak links in a confident cast, with strong vocal leads and apt characterisations from Alessandra Volpe’s wealthy orphan Margherita, Andrew Stenson’s melancholy soldier boy Ernesto, Giuliana Gianfaldoni as his concerned sister Giustina, Yuriy Yurchuk as his colonel Count Rodolfo and Matteo d’Apolito as the bumptious village mayor.

Timothy Myers’s conducting achieves a steady flow of momentum, with the festival’s choral and orchestral forces bouncing merrily along.

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Michael Sturm’s smile-raising staging of Jacopo Foroni’s likeable comedy