Wexford Festival Opera's Tracy Ryan chats to British stage director Stephen Medcalf (director of Herculanum and Italian music critics' prize Best Director, 2005) and uncovers a spoiler (shhh) and some good advice!
This is your fifth time directing for the Wexford Festival Opera - 2013, Cristina regina de Svezia (Winner of the Best Re-Discovered Work at the International Opera Awards & Best Production at the Irish Times Theatre Awards), 2012 - A Village Romeo and Juliet, 1992 - Il Piccolo Marat and 1995 - May Night. What drew you to Félicien David's almost forgotten (until now) Herculanum?
I love this period of French Opera with its high emotions , bewitching women, big tunes and dramatic choruses. Herculanum has much in common with a contemporaneous opera that I have directed on a number of occasions, Gounod's Faust with its theme of innocence corrupted and its angels and devils. Besides, (spoiler alert) who could resist the challenge of erupting Vesuvius at the end!
Mozart's Così fan tutte and David's Herculanum both use Mount Vesuvius as a backdrop - what other similarities if any are there between Così fan tutte and Herculanum?
In both operas Vesuvius stands as a potent symbol of sexual passion, but with very different intentions. In 'Cosi' the ' vulcano d'amore' smokes ominously in the back ground to remind us that we suppress our true desires at our peril. To deny sexual attraction is to deny our humanity. To recognise and contain it is Mozarts enlightenment philosophy: men should acknowledge feminine desire and treat women as creatures of flesh and blood not stone.
The opposite is true from the more puritanical Victorian perspective of David. Of course the volcano remains an clandestine sexual symbol but its overt presence is as a guardian of morality. In the highly sexualised societies of Herculanum and Pompeii (it's more famous neighbour) it's rumbling represents Gods anger against the beauty worshipping world of Olympia and her brother Nicanor and the hedonistic Kingdom they rule. Divine vengeance threatens, and even the innocent Christians will be destroyed - their souls alone are up for grabs.
What do you think is the role of opera in society and the future of opera in both the UK and Irish society?
The role of opera in society is - like any of the arts - to remind us what it is to be human. It can inform and educate through entertainment and it provides spiritual nourishment in a materialistic world. Opera has a difficult future as it is constantly under the threat of funding cuts and loss of sponsorship. But so are all the arts. I believe there are enough believers in this most sublime of art forms (when you get it right) that it will survive. Wexford will remain a flagship for opera in Ireland.
Of all your opera productions, do you have a favourite?
I suppose of my own work I will always treasure a production of Strauss's Capriccio with my wife, Susan Gritton singing the Countess (Grange Park Opera). She made the final scene of that opera exquisitely touching. I am also fond of my production of The Magic Flute (seen all over Europe) made in an empty space with six dancers and six props. I am a huge fan of simplicity and the Flute is a great example of how opera can be childlike and profound in the same instant. Mozart for me is the greatest composer of opera that ever lived (by a margin). He reminds us in almost every bar of the capacity of human kind for infinite cruelty and infinite tenderness. His instinctive understanding of human nature is unparalleled and his music, superficially so perfect, somehow reaches deep into our inner recesses.
What do you enjoy most about being a director?
I love the first time I listen to a piece of music with the thought that I will direct it/the images and ideas that flood into my mind. I thrive on the collaborative processes which result in the finished product - a shared moment of magic in the rehearsal room when suddenly you sense that everyone senses that something special has just happened.
Herculanum runs at the National Opera House 26, 29 October and 1, 4 November. Book tickets here by emailing email@example.com or calling 1850 4 OPERA/+353 53 912 2144.