Wexford Festival Opera 2021 Review: Edmea
Director Julia Burback Turns A Banal Drama Into A Psychological ThrillerBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Clive Barda)
The theme of this year’s Wexford Festival Opera is “Shakespeare in the Heart,” a title that allows for a wide interpretation. Of the three main operas only one is actually based on a Shakespeare play, Karl Goldmarks’ “Ein Wintermärchen,” which is a representation of “A Winter’s Tale,” although the Wexford Factory is also presenting a production of Bellini’s “I Capuletti e i Montecchi” based on “Romeo and Juliet.” Ambroise Thomas’ opera “Le Songe d’un nuit d’été” is a reimagination of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in which Shakespeare himself becomes one of the main protagonists, while the third opera Alfredo Catalani’s “Edmea,” takes a more oblique interpretation of the theme.
Rather than engaging directly with Shakespeare, “Edmea” was chosen as it reflects the spirit of the bard, most notably in the character of Edmea herself, who like Shakespeare’s Ophelia, is subject to the decisions made by men about whom she can and cannot love. Both go mad and whereas Ophelia drowns, Edmea attempts suicide by drowning, but survives. Whether one can accept such a liberal interpretation of the theme is of minor importance, but it certainly lies within its compass. More importantly, however, is that it was an excellent production and arguably the most successful of this year’s operas.
At the heart of director Julia Burbach’s interpretation lies Edmea’s attempt to drown herself, brought about by her being forced by Count Leitmeritz to marry Ulmo and give up Oberto, the man she loves. Burbach sees the drowning as a metaphor for a psychotic break, in which Edmea descends into the world of her subconscious, populated by known and unknown characters, possibly imaginary, possibly taken from her reality. It is an escape route from the real world, a world with which she is unable to cope. It is only with her proposed marriage to Oberto following Ulmo’s death in Act three that she is able to recover and return to a state of normality. Not only is it an interpretation that fits neatly with the libretto’s overall dramatic structure, but by taking advantage of certain ambiguities it also matches the detail, notwithstanding the occasional minor glitch. Moreover, Burbach intelligently added detail to deepen the context, such as by highlighting the fact that Edmea had to grow up without a mother figure, which throws her deeper into the clutches of a male-dominated world.
An Imaginative & Creative Team
Burbach was ably supported by Cécile Trémolières whose imaginative sets designs and dazzling, eye-catching costumes played their part in creating an engaging and dramatically cohesive staging. In particular, the costumes of the characters who populated Edmea’s subconscious were wonderfully flamboyant and bizarre and worked brilliantly in highlighting their incoherence. Cameron McMillan, the movement director, must also take credit for enhancing the sense of otherworldliness with his intelligently choreographed scenes, in which Edmea often moved to a different rhythm than the rest of the cast whose behavior always appeared slightly out of kilter, especially in the dances.
For Acts one and three the stage was divided into two levels. On the upper level was a normal room with a window looking out onto a garden. The lower level was a reflection of the upper level, except everything was upside down, so that the chairs were on the ceiling. It was Edema’s subconscious, the place where she disappeared to when she threw herself into the river, and from where she emerges when she regains her senses. It is also the area inhabited by the chorus, whose members are refractions of Edmea. Act two was mainly an open space allowing for the inhabitants of Edmea’s subconscious to indulge themselves, firstly in a tavern, and then at a ball given by Baron Waldeck.
It all came together well and elevated Antonio Ghislanzoni’s standard Romantic libretto, full of overstated and self-indulgent emotions with a conventional plot into a psychological thriller.
Strong Musical Direction
The musical side of the production was in the hands of Francesco Cilluffo, who elicited a dramatically satisfying performance from the Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera. Whist he successfully captured the tempestuous emotions which overwhelmed the characters, it was never at the expense of the engaging melodies which litter the score. It was also a lively and insightful reading, one which brought out the work’s contrasts and ambiguities. A good balance between the orchestral sections was maintained throughout, and he was supportive of the singers, who in turn responded with fine performances.
First Class Performances From The Principal Singers
In the title role was French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels, who four years ago produced a superb performance in the role of Katiusha in the festival’s production of Alfano’s “Il Risurrezione.” She is an excellent singing actress, evidence of which was clearly on display in her interpretation of Edmea. Her transition from the external into her internal world allowed her to adopt two distinct portrayals of her character, both of which were convincingly molded to fit the different situations. In what was a nice touch, she beckoned to the other characters to join her when she descended into her subconscious, making it clear that this was her creation, her world.
She possesses a wonderfully versatile voice that allows her to maneuver easily and smoothly between registers, take leaps in her stride, deliver complex lines full of subtle accents and pleasing embellishments, and coat her singing with intense emotion. However, it is her ability to use these skills to develop her character which really impressed, and enabled her to produce a wonderfully expressive and dramatic singing performance.
The Italian tenor Luciano Ganci playing the role Oberto was excellent. He has a very attractive, versatile voice that maintains its quality over his entire range, with no thinning or harshness in the upper register, and fills out beautifully when he opens up the voice in a crescendo. His phrasing was intelligently crafted to successfully characterize Oberto, which was particularly successful in scenes in which he let rip with his anger. His arias were beautifully delivered, exhibiting a sweet lyricism, as he poured out his strong emotions. A minor quibble is that he appears to rely on the voice to carry the characterization, and although his acting was certainly to an acceptable standard, he gives the impression that it is of secondary importance.
The duets and the interaction in general, between Duprels and Ganci, were some of the highlights of the performance. Both have strong, secure, clear voices, in which they are able to give meaning to the text, but with very different vocal personalities which created a pleasing contrast. The second act duet was cleverly presented with Oberto standing on a raised level, representing Edmea’s external world, to which she responds still confined within her own subconscious.
Is There Another Victim?
Baritone Leon Kim was cast as Ulmo, the servant in love with Edmea who, under pressure from the Count, is happy to marry her, but ends up taking his own life so she can be free to marry Oberto, the man she loves. So, the question must be, is Ulmo a victim or an opportunist who sees the error of his ways? At the end of the opera, he asks Edmea to kiss him on the forehead when he is dead. Brubeck has Edmea walk away. There is no kiss. Edmea does not forgive nor sympathize with him. It is a reasonable response, after all, he married her against her will and caused her breakdown. However, Kim’s Ulmo was a very sympathetic character, and rather than having the audience unequivocally on Edmea’s side this opened up an area of uncertainty, which depending upon your viewpoint can make Ulmo appear as the opera’s real victim; a servant is no position to resist the Count, and whereas Edmea was able to recover from her trauma, there is no way back from death, and importantly he never did consummate the marriage.
It was an excellent performance from Kim, who convincingly displayed Ulmo’s deep love for Edmea: tongue-tied, shy, and brooding at the beginning, devastated by her rejection at the end, but his love never wavered, and he killed himself so she could be happy.
It was also an impressive singing performance. He possesses a strong, secure, flexible voice with a warm, attractive timbre, which he employed with intelligence, crafting lines rich in emotion.
Excellent Supporting Cast
Ivan Shcherbatykh cut a suitably unpleasant figure as Il Conte di Leitmeritz, and managed to terrify Edmea, who cowered into the corner when he turned on her. He possesses an attractive clear-toned bass, in which its dark coloring gave him the necessary gravitas to convincingly stamp his authority on those around him, although he could be a little underpowered on occasions.
Bass John Molloy, costumed as a French revolutionary soldier, made an impressive and authoritative Baron Waldeck, in which a well-placed beauty spot on his cheek made him appear somewhat effete and foppish. It was a nice contradiction that added an extra dimension to his character. He possesses a firmly grounded voice, with a pleasing timbre which he employed intelligently to develop his character.
Tenor Conor Prendiville, a member of the Wexford Opera Factory, was parted in the lively role of the jester Fritz. Taking full advantage of the opportunity, he produced an energetic, confident, and well-acted performance, in which his strong stage presence captured the attention. He sang with a clear, expressive swagger, and displayed skill in characterizing the voice.
Conall O’Neill, another member of the Wexford Opera factory, also acquitted himself well in the role of the Innkeeper, in which he too displayed a good stage presence.
The chorus, under the guidance of Chorus Master Andrew Synnott, had a fairly large role, especially in the central act in which they were required to populate the tavern and then the Baron’s party, but it also had a significant role in Acts one and three. Moreover, it was not a passive chorus, rather it was constantly on the move, which brought a high level of energy and depth to the staging. Its singing was vibrant and dramatically engaged throughout.
Overall, this was a very enjoyable production, and a large element of the success has to go down to the director and her team. Their representation turned what is a fairly banal drama into an excellent piece of theatre, and provided Catalani’s music with a staging in which it could be fully appreciated.