In Tune With Ireland

The annual Wexford Festivalmakes opera great fun

FOR centuries Ireland has produced far more great writers than any country of its size deserved to, but literature seems to have exhausted Irish creativity. There are very few famous Irish painters (though I am fond of Daniel Maclise, Nathaniel Hone, and Jack B. Yeats, the brother of the more famous W. B.), and classical music in Ireland has been a thin business. True, Handel's Messiah was first performed in Dublin, but that's one of those curiosities with which the tediously well-informed music lover can win bets--like the fact that Verdi's La forza del destino was first performed in St. Petersburg or Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress at La Fenice in Venice (bitterly mourned as I write). Since Handel's day Ireland has had no permanent opera company and, for that matter, no proper symphony orchestra, until recently.

And so a half century ago an Irish provincial town seemed about the most unlikely and unpropitious place in Europe to start an opera festival. Something as unlikely as that needs a visionary or a crackpot. Wexford had Doctor Tom. T. J. Walsh was born in Wexford in 1911, and having qualified as a doctor in Dublin, returned to his home town to practice. There he stayed until he died, in 1988, just short of his seventy-seventh birthday, laden with honors and love. He is still missed.

He would be missed if he had been only a good doctor and a good man. But Doctor Tom was also an opera buff, who decided that his town should have its own opera festival. There have been other improbable venues for opera, from Montepulciano, in the Tuscan hills, to Cooperstown, in upstate New York, but I don't think there can ever have been such an odd idea as Doctor Tom's. Wexford had never been notable as a cultural center. It is a pleasant little country town in the far southeast of Ireland, rising imposingly above the estuary of the Slaney River. Two grand Victorian-Gothic churches dominate it, above a warren of narrow streets and alleys running down to the quay.

Having also decided that if Wexford was to have a festival, it needed an opera house, Doctor Tom serendipitously found the Theatre Royal, a delightful Georgian building on High Street. Despite its name, the street is about twenty feet wide, and despite its, the theater is a little gem that at first held fewer than 400 people and even now, after discreet enlargement, holds only 550. The theater was disused for generations, but under Doctor Tom's direction it was cleared out and tidied up, and an opera was put on.

That was in 1951. A mostly Irish cast was assembled, along with what was then the Radio Eireann Light Orchestra, for a few performances of The Rose of Castile, by Michael Balfe, a nineteenth-century Irish composer with Wexford connections, before tiny audiences. Over the next few years the festival presented operas by Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini--most of them then rarely heard, though some now standard repertory. But by the 1960s Wexford had acquired its unique mission: finding fine but little-known artists to perform operas that even the buffest of buffs know only as names from reference books.

THE first year I went was 1969, when Wexford did Haydn's L'infedelta delusa and Verdi's Luisa Miller, and with rare exceptions the eighty or so operas I've heard in the Theatre Royal have been pieces I didn't know before and haven't come upon since. Forgotten works are often forgotten with good reason. I don't think I shall mind not hearing Ricci's La serva e l'ussero or Lalo's Le roi d'Ys again. And a double bill of Don Giovanni and Turandot--Gazzaniga's Don Giovanni and Busoni's Turandot--seemed a little too cute. But there have also been some real discoveries, operas worth the journey in themselves: Massenet's Hérodiade, say, and Dvorák's The Devil and Kate.

Wexford began as an amateur--maybe even amateurish--affair. Doctor Tom was the amateur artistic director until 1966. But the word "amateur" comes from a word for "love," and Wexford is run con amore. Again, productions vary. Every year there seems to be one good, one painful, and one brilliant production. The first night of Spontini's La vestale in 1979 was a memorable fiasco: a sharply sloping stage had been inadvertently cleaned of its intentionally sticky surface, and in the first act the singers tried to sing while sliding downhill or falling over. Sad to say, it was terribly funny, if not for the singers or the director. But it was also at Wexford that I first saw the stellar work of very young directors who have since become internationally famous: David Pountney, who recently directed Philip Glass's The Voyage at the Met, and Nicholas Hytner, who could have retired on the proceeds of Miss Saigon but who has instead gone on to direct The Madness of King George, among other works.

Musical standards have always been remarkable at Wexford. What was long the orchestra of RTE, the Irish broadcasting company, and is now the Irish National Symphony Orchestra, doesn't have the fame (or the money) of the Berliners or the Viennese, but it is damned good. No artist goes to Wexford for the fees, but it is a career showcase, and the management is always looking for good singers who aren't yet megastars. The bright light of the early seventies was the delicious Martiniquan soprano Christiane Eda-Pierre, and of the early eighties the Russian baritone Sergei Leiferkus, who made his Western debut at Wexford before going on to international stardom.

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