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Maynooth University Young Critic programme

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In collaboration with Maynooth University, the Wexford Festival Operas educational project introduces third-level students to the world of opera.

The project sees third-year students at Maynooth University studying 'Opera in Context', where they will review one of our Festival productions.  

Prof. Christopher Morris outlines the importance of such a project, outlining that it has been a very rewarding experience to see students enrolled in their module on opera and to engage with the operatic world. For many of them, it is the first time they will have seen an opera, and their reviews let emerge a genuine sense of excitement for a music genre that, in the words of one of the first opera composers in seventeenth-century Italy, Marco da Gagliano (1608) is "a spectacle very pleasant beyond everything else [ which] the most delightful arts invented by human beings delight not only the intellect but every noble sentiment."

Our special thanks to Dr Antonio Cascelli, Associate Professor in Music and Head of Music Department and The National University of Ireland Maynooth for their continued support and engagement in introducing young adults to opera.

“After the successful collaboration between the Maynooth Music Department and Wexford Festival Opera over the last number of years, the Young Critics Project continues to play a vital part in the education of young students in the college.”
- Dr. Antonio Cascelli, Associate Professor in Music and Head of Music Department and The National University of Ireland Maynooth

WFO 2022 - Maynooth University Students’ Reviews

Course Title: Opera in Context - La Tempesta

On the opening of this year’s 71st Wexford Opera Festival, we had an opportunity to enjoy the wonders of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest or more specifically, Fromental Halévy's version La Tempesta; directed by Roberto Catalano and conducted by Francesco Cilluffo.

Many aspects of this opera can be positively recognized. Its originality regarding the display of various scenes should be mentioned. Shakespeare’s original plot of the play is almost entirely reshaped. The main events are still apparent but presented with a fresh new perspective; more contemporary and suitable for the younger generation. Prospero is no longer the focus of the play as the emphasis shifts to the youthful characters. The focal point of the story becomes Calibano’s attempt to rape Miranda, rather that Prospero’s intention to take oppressive control.

The voices of the evening were nothing short of astounding. Baritone Nikolay Zemlianskikh’s Prospero takes us through a journey with his soft but determined tone that is topped off with an effortless vibrato; while the soprano Hila Baggio impressively deals with incredibly long musical phrases that come with the role of Miranda and makes them look remarkably undemanding. Irish soprano Jade Phoenix brings the role of Ariele to life with her crystal clear highpitched notes, while Giorgi Manoshvili’s wonderfully rich depiction of Calibano with his transcendingly powerful bass doesn’t fail to amaze.

Conductor Francesco Cilluffo’s enticing performance should not be surpassed as he explores the depths of Halévy's score, ever so gracefully. The use of costumes was delightfully simple and straightforward. Ilaria Ariemme’s ingenious idea of long black coats, acting as a contrast to the white garments brings even more clarity to the overall experience. Leaving out flashy clothes or unnecessary prompts, it shifts focus to the crucial part of any opera; the performance.

This modest yet dazzling rendition leaves us with no disappointment. I am honoured to have witnessed such a successful attempt to bring this long forgotten opera to life.

Course Title: Opera in Context - La Tempesta

Before the Wexford Festival Opera brought its 71st year to an annual finish, spectators had the fortuitous opportunity to witness the mesmerizing opera, ‘La Tempesta’ by French composer Fromental Halévy, with a libretto by Eugène Scribe.

Written over 170 years ago, this opera’s early success was mysteriously short lived. It’s alluring story had not since obtained the acknowledgement that it rightfully deserves. That was until director Roberto Catalano chose to revive such a marvellous opera for this year’s fitting theme of ‘Magic and Music.’

Catalano’s artistic vision created a fluid array of creativity for spectators, bringing our imaginations to life. The simple monochrome displays of stonework and costumes cleverly depicted realms of good and evil within this opera’s story. Costume designer Ilaria Ariemme demonstrated this with Miranda and Calibano, as Miranda’s white dress of purity contradicted the darkness of Calibano’s villainous clothes and character.

Francesco Cilluffo’s colourful orchestration delivered both graceful and dramatic passages throughout the performance in an exemplary bel canto style. The strings and brass sections especially delivered a reputable balance of call and response with the operatic roles, elegantly accompanying their voices without overpowering their sound.

The main cast encapsulated their roles and brought the magic of opera to life on stage like truly gifted performers. The memorable performance of soprano Jade Phoenix was positively commendable. She made first her professional debut on the night while also debuting the world performance of Ariele’s charming character, in harmony with Halévy’s original intentions for the role. Her polished high tones echo through the vast acoustics of the Wexford Opera House. Hila Baggio as Miranda made the demanding vocal role seem effortless as she adroitly transcended through laborious phrases. Giorgi Manoshvili as Calibano delivered a remarkably powerful bass throughout his scenes, keeping the audience in his grasp from start to finish.

The sheer depth of talent that emerged from this production of ‘La Tempesta’ suggested the theory that music is a form of magic when placed in the hands of the right people. Catalano, Cilluffo, and their spellbinding team proved this hypothesis exquisitely.

Course Title: Opera in Context - La Tempesta

This year, the 71st Wexford Festival Opera was opened with an almost forgotten musictheatrical piece. Under the direction of Roberto Catalano, Fromental Halévys La Tempesta, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic The Tempest, was revived after almost 150 years of neglect. For this reason, little to no expectations towards the staging and performance of the opera existed and the audience was thus ready to be surprised.

This general unfamiliarity of the operatic piece offered artistic freedom to director Catalano, and in cooperation with set designer Emanuele Sinisi and the rest of the talented production-team, he presented his very own, bold and modern staging of a forgotten piece, fully in the spirit of Regietheater. Catalano's staging greatly relies on the stressing of contrasts. The fight between darkness and light, good and evil and love and hate, dominate the opera on a visual, dramatic, and emotional level.

The set-design is minimalistic, abstract, and timeless. A deconstructed white wall with the word Nostalgia written on it forms the backdrop. Scaffolding and a cement mixer are placed on the sides or get rolled to the middle of the stage and awaken the impression of a museum for ancient classical art that is currently under renovation. The lightning then creates optical contracts by highlighting the singers and sets in different and varying shades of coldwhite lights.

These effects are supported and doubled through the futuristic costumes, which also fit into the general black-and-white theme of the production. These features do not only serve to convey the general mood of the scenes but also help to show the character traits and relationships of the operatic personae. In this unconventional way, Catalano offers a new perspective on one of Shakespeare’s classics. Even though the abstract staging does not always seem to be inclined with the rather cheerful, 19th century musical style of the opera, the performance of the orchestra and the cast of singers, all led by conductor Francesco Cilluffo, was excellent.

The singers were able to show their vibrant and well-trained voices in multiple solo-arias and ensemble scenes. Moreover, especially the leading roles, proved a sense of dramaturgic understanding as well, making their characters feelings and emotions tangible for Wexford’s audience – be it live in the theatre or through the online broadcast.

Course Title: Opera in Context - La Tempesta

For the first time in 170 years, the opera La Tempesta, a near forgotten piece of work by French composer Halévy, has been resurrected and reimagined in a youthful and contemporary production by Wexford’s Festival Opera. The opera, based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, is the first modern rendition since its first performance held in Her Majesty’s Theatre London, in 1850. The first performance was an extreme success, though short-lived, as it fell out of existence alongside the latter of Halévy's other 40 operas. To be a witness to this reshaped production is an incredible experience, alongside the outstanding performances from the cast, and interesting modern take.

Roberto Catalano, director, says “the island becomes a construction site where the nostalgia of the painful past can be healed’. This idea of ‘NOSTALGIA’ reappears on the set itself in writing above the jagged cave-like opening in the brick wall in the background of the stage. This acts as the stage entrance, an effective integration of this idea of reconstruction, reflecting what Catalano is doing with the opera itself. His use of abstraction leaves little room for ambiguity, however by utilising a monochromatic construction-site design with the presence of unfinished brickwork, cement mixers and scaffolding, it is clear where Catalano’s vision lies.

The monochromatism is shared in the costume design, where good and evil are literally black and white. This smart and romantic costuming adds a slick feel. The ensemble of black suited figures respond to much of the activity in the scenes, from contorted dancing to arm waving, much of the ambiance is created thanks to this background presence.

The lighting is also quite a defining aspect of the production. D.M Wood uses a range of spotlights, sidelights, and floor lights to illuminate the stage, all of which are cool toned. A fantastic integration of mirrors edged with fluorescent tubing aids in ‘shedding some light’ on the characters self-image. They may be symbolic of Calibano’s self-reflection as he leaves the stage staring at himself in one of the mirrors.

The musical performance of Giorgi Manoshvilli, playing Calibano, was outstanding, illustrating a genuine menace to the character. Alongside Miranda, played by Hila Baggio the Israeli soprano, who pumps energy into her performance and shows incredible vocal stamina. Finally, Ariel, played by Irish soprano Jade Phoenix, took the win with her professional debut. Her bright and energetic tone, alongside her characters mischievous and powerful characteristics made for a near perfect choice for Ariel.

Overall, this production of La Tempesta may not be everyone's taste but succeeds in achieving the vision that director Roberto Catalano intended.

Course Title: Opera in Context - La Tempesta

Marking the 71th year of the Wexford Opera Festival was the staging of Fromental Halèvy’s La Tempesta. Through musical prowess and dynamic staging, the audience is treated to the unique methods in which a story can be told. As one of the many operas to have been inspired by Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, this performance sticks out, with multiple aspects working together to grant this opera its individuality.

The staging of this opera is undoubtedly noteworthy in its daring decision to maintain a black and white theme, only utilising blue for the occasional prop needing to stand out. With the main characters dressed in white and background performers dressed in black. A focus is placed on the singers whilst the background performers move in a manner that highlights their emotional state, along with certain themes. This is one of the many imaginative decisions made by director Roberto Catalano, and despite facing the challenge of telling the story effectively alongside his creative vision, Catalano was able to land on his feet. Maintaining audience engagement and the opera’s emotional impact whilst providing a unique visual aspect. The constructive teamwork between set designer Emanuele Sinisi and costume designer Ilaria Ariemme is also undeniable.

The singers and orchestra played a major role in holding the narrative together amidst the unusual staging. Under conductor Francesco Cilluffo’s guidance, the Wexford Festival Orchestra played faithfully and without error, delighting the audience with its timbre and steady rhythm. The individual strengths of the singers were on full display during this performance. Hila Baggio skilfully portrays a childlike innocence fitting of her character through her singing tone and facial expression, balancing a gentle presence with a strong voice projecting a challenging melody. In contrast, Giorgi Manoshvili’s singing retained ferociousness, clearly communicating his character’s intentions and threatening aura through his mannerisms. Particularly noteworthy is soprano Jade Phoenix’s performance, garnering a well-deserved applause in the middle of a scene. Her method of singing provides the illusion of effortlessness, as though every high note were merely a sigh. This being her professional debut, Phoenix has already made her name memorable.

After a difficult era for performers and music enthusiasts alike, the enthusiasm present on the stage and within the audience is evident. To bring a live audience back to the stage is essentially breathing new life into those performing. It is wonderful to witness, and after watching this opera I am excited to see what future performances have in store.

Course Title: Opera in Context - La Tempesta

This revival of Halévy’s La Tempesta, in a co-production with Teatro Coccia from Novara in Italy, left this viewer wondering why the work had disappeared for over one-hundred-and-seventy years since its 1850 première in London until its reappearance at this year’s Wexford Festival Opera.

This performance left no stone unturned to be faithful to Halévy’s score and Scribe’s libretto, while also bringing a modern 21st century interpretation to it, for example, in the world première of casting Ariele as a female singer rather than Ariel the male dancer. The contemporary staging and costumes set the tone in creating the generally dark atmosphere of the work. The virtually bare stage is not fully lit at any time, but clever use is made of spotlights and footlights to lift the darkness when necessary. The storm scene is particularly effective as the black, shiny plastic costumes of the sailors look drenched and crackle like heavy raindrops. The use of subdued shadowy lighting in the niches above the stage when Prospero and Ariele sing is very effective in conveying that they are unseen by Miranda and Fernando. The wall speaker used for the disembodied voice of Sycorax, sung by Emma Jungling, is a clever device which allows her character to be morally distanced from the appalling advice she is giving to her son Calibano.

The orchestra led by Fionnuala Hunt and conducted by Francesco Cilluffo bring Halévy’s score to life with their sensitive playing. The soprano Hila Baggio plays the role of Miranda beautifully, showing her soft side as she sings with Fernando, and 2 her strength of character in trying to deal with Caibano’s advances. Caibano’s two sided nature is also brilliantly demonstrated by the bass Giorgi Manoshvili as he submits pitifully to Prospero’s domination but then shows his brutish side in his abduction of Miranda. The baritone Nikolay Zemlianskikh brings Prospero to life with his impressive and expressive singing, while Jade Phoenix’s Ariele brings a welcome light touch to the general darkness of the opera. The Italian tenor Giulio Peligra must be complimented on performing the part of Fernando while unwell.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable evening, leaving us wondering why it had taken so long for this opera to be revived