The festival founded in a small town on the south-east coast of Ireland in 1951 has thrived on the most unlikely of premises: the revival of forgotten operas.
Recently named Opera Festival of the year in the 2017 International Opera Awards, Wexford opens its 67th season with a double bill of rarities from the Italian verismo (or realist) tradition.
Director Rodula Gaitanou and designer Cordelia Chisholm set them within the same brilliantly executed tenement block, which revolves during the course of the action to show the audience different facets: Franco Leoni’s L’Oracolo (The Oracle) is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Umberto Giordano’s Mala Vita (Wretched Life) in Little Italy.
Both turn out to be punchy, theatrically viable pieces. With its plethora of crimes – including an unusually gory ending rather bloodier than the one conceived by the composer and librettist – L’Oracolo provides an hour of murder and mayhem, with the villainous opium-den owner Cim-Fen (the intimidating Joo Won Kang) eventually despatched by local sage and oracle Uin-Sci (the quietly determined Leon Kim), but not before he has abducted the young son of wealthy merchant Hu-Tsin (the desperate Benjamin Cho) and murdered his rival Uin-San-Lui (the ardent Sergio Escobar).
Three of these singers reappear in Mala Vita. This is a dour but compelling tale of a tubercular cobbler Vito (Escobar again, vocally powerful though dramatically sketchy) who, in order to obtain divine healing, takes a vow to save a fallen woman (Francesca Tiburzi’s heartfelt Cristina) by marrying her, but he is persuaded by his own married girlfriend (Dorothea Spilger’s fierce Amalia) to renege on it – with devastating consequences.
There’s much to admire in both pieces, with some spectacular choral singing as part of the two highly effective scores, brought back to vivid musical life by conductor Francesco Cilluffo.