Wexford Festival Opera 2023 Review: Zoraida di Granata

Claudia Boyle’s Stand Out Performance in Bel Canto Rarity

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Clive Barda)

Anyone who has heard Opera Rara’s recording of Donizetti’sZoraida di Granata” must have been very excited by the Wexford festival’s decision to put on a fully staged production. It is a veritable bel canto feast with beautiful arias and ensemble singing, stretching over a period of approximately three hours.

“Zoraida di Granata” premiered in Rome’s Teatro Argentina in 1822. It was the fifth of Donizetti’s 70 plus operas to be produced and his first big success. It received a further production in Rome in 1824 in a heavily revised format, and productions quickly followed in Munich and Lisbon, making it his first opera to be seen abroad. Originally, the opera was written for tenors in the two leading male roles; however, before its opening night, one of them fell ill, and the role of Abenamet was revised for contralto, which was then retained for the 1824 version. It was the composer’s original 1822 score for two tenors that the Wexford festival decided to stage.

Ravella’s Brave Attempt to Rescue the Dramatic Tension

While musically the production lived up to expectations, as a dramatic spectacle, it ran out of steam after about two hours and then meandered, somewhat tediously towards the finale. The problem is that very little of interest happens beyond the usual love triangle that occurs in many operas. The characters indulge in reflections on the situation in which they find themselves, and there are the standard confrontations between the main characters in a series of exchanges. They are all expertly crafted and were given fine renditions by the strong cast, but it all became too repetitive.

The program provides the audience with an interesting backstory of murder, internecine conflict and the overthrow of the King of Granada, who also happens to be Zoraida’s father. Of course none of this is staged, but more importantly, nothing as interesting as this happens over the course of the entire opera.

The usurper, Almuzir, is in love with Zoraida, who happens to be in love with Abenamet, the new king’s head of the army. The narrative relates how Almuzir attempts to thwart their love and win Zoraida for himself, which of course he fails to do. There are offstage battles and threats of the city falling to the Spanish, but again, none of this is enacted on stage. Finally, Almuzir’s champion, Ali, is defeated in one-to-one combat by Abenamet, and Almuzir admits his wrongdoings and blesses his now-former enemy’s union with Zoraida. There are a couple of twists and turns along the way, but the underlying sentiments are simply repeated, and the addition of a couple of minor characters adds nothing of substance. The opera could have been shortened by 30 minutes or so without impacting the drama and may well have sharpened its effect.

Obviously, this is a structural problem of the work itself and cannot be laid at the door of the director, Bruno Ravella, or the set and costume designer, Gary McCann, who made a fine attempt to keep things moving and provide a suitably interesting and atmospheric backdrop. It was something of which Ravella appeared to be acutely aware. In his program notes, he convincingly focused on the political aspects of the story, identifying Almuzir’s need to marry Zoraida as much for political as for romantic reasons, as he needed to widen his support when he faced threats from both within and outside the city. This also gave rise to a sense of claustrophobia and paranoia. McCann’s gloomy set caught the atmosphere superbly with his dark Moorish edifice that rose up at the back of the stage, littered with rubble caused by war, which bathed in semi-darkness by Daniele Naldi’s lighting. A metal structure hung above the stage, again suggesting the carnage of war. When Abenamet found himself imprisoned, the structure was lowered to create a smaller, more confined space. It all worked very well.

However, Ravella then expanded his notes into what were tangential concerns that appeared to be an attempt to add more depth and relevance to the narrative than actually exists. His decision to set the opera during the 1992-96 Siege of Sarajevo, for which McCann furnished suitable military and modern attire, rather than Granada, made complete sense. However, he went on to explain why the action was specifically set in the city’s National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a Moorish-styled building constructed in the 19th century that was destroyed in the fighting in 1992, which he viewed as a “symbol of both the resilience of its culture and the tragedy of its destruction.” In the opera’s final scene, the metal structure was tilted forward and lowered towards the stage but was now a colorful glass mosaic, symbolizing “the strength to rebuild and the hope for a better future.” It certainly added a bit of interest, but the relevance to the actual drama seemed forced and drew attention away from the theme of the festival, “Women and War,” to which Ravella had paid careful attention by highlighting the suffering and position of the opera’s only two female characters, Zoraida and her slave Ines. It was undoubtedly a brave attempt to keep the audience engaged, but it was not fully integrated, nor did it have the necessary dramatic power to rescue the narrative.

A Musically Compelling Performance from All Involved

The conductor, Diego Ceretta, elicited a beautifully clear and nuanced reading from the Wexford Festival Opera Orchestra that added in no small measure to the dramatic impetus of the work with its sensitive changes of pace, excellent dynamic contrasts, and the attention he gave to the singers’ efforts in bringing their emotions to the fore. It was also a reading that captured the work’s rhythmic appeal and shone a light on Rossini’s influences on the composition. It was in every way a reading of beauty, but ultimately, it was unable to compensate for the libretto’s structural weaknesses.

The star of the evening was undoubtedly soprano Claudia Boyle, who produced a stunning, truly bel canto performance in the role of Zoraida. She captured the full depth of her character’s emotions. Of her many impressive vocal qualities, it was the versatility and control along with the detail and delicacy she was able to inject into the vocal line that really stood out. And she really knows how to use her talents to good effect: in her Act one confrontation with Almuzir, she used her fabulous coloratura to chide him, shooting out the notes in staccato fashion, directly towards him as if they were bullets. On other occasions, however, she danced nimbly across the line, exhibiting dazzling flexibility. In the emotionally affecting romanza “Rose, che un di spiegaste,” she was able to display her vocal sensitivity with a beautifully crafted reading that penetrated the depths of her despair in what was one of the most moving pieces of the evening. Although her aria “Se non piango” ran it close, expecting to be executed, she voiced her final thoughts with a delicate expressivity that beautifully captured the deep poignancy of the moment.

Tenor Konu Kim produced a commanding performance as Almuzir. He was vicious, demanding and devious to the extent that his renunciation of Zoraida, so that she could marry Abenamet, could only be explained by the lack of opportunity to do otherwise; it was impossible to believe he had a change of heart. Kim sang with a very strong, confident voice, which enabled him to exude a natural sense of authority and power. His singing was also expressively forceful and versatile, which he brilliantly illustrated in his Act one confrontation with Zoraida. It was a sparky affair as both singers went for each other with increasing abandon.

The role of Abenamet was played by tenor Matteo Mezzaro, who produced a strongly defined, suitably ardent portrait. He possesses a resonant, secure voice and his ability to hold the line under pressure was impressive. He has a well-developed technique, and his singing was expressive and dramatically attuned to the situation. Unfortunately, on a personal level, I found his voice very difficult to listen to; it has a strong, strange nasal quality, which often detracted from the performance. However, it was not a universally shared opinion, and he received rousing applause at the final curtain.

Soprano Rachel Croash produced a clearly defined reading of Ines. Her singing was confident and expressive, while her ability to push the voice and imbue it with feeling while remaining firm and in control was impressive.

Tenor Julian Henao Gonzalez put in a good performance in the role of Almanzor, in which he showed off his appealing timbre and ability to characterize through the voice to good effect.

The Head of the Guards, Ali Zegri, was given an accomplished performance by baritone Matteo Guerzé.

It was an evening of excellent bel canto singing, yet the audience did not leave the theatre as one would have expected. The reason, simply put, was that the opera was too long. It does not possess the dramatic strength to hold the attention over a period of three hours, despite the director’s imaginative efforts.


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