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Wexford Songfest at St. Iberius

My favorite recital venue, anywhere in the world, is St. Iberius Church on Main Street in Wexford, Ireland. Built in the eighteenth century and famed for is flawless acoustics, St. Iberius puts the singer and pianist practically in the lap of the audience. We sit there, rejoicing in the complete absence of any emotional distance from the music being offered up to us. While I was recently attending the sixty-sixth season of Wexford Festival Opera, I enjoyed a bountiful sampling of Lunchtime Recitals, held at St. Iberius nearly every day of the festival at 1:05 p.m. These are among the festival’s most popular events. If there wasn’t a single recital this year that swept me away in its totality, as has been the case in the past with Laura Vlasak Nolen, Claudia Boyle, Luigi Boccia, Barbara Quintiliani, and others, there were plenty of golden moments to savor in each program.

On November 2, three Italian artists, mezzo-soprano Raffaella Lupinacci, baritone Filippo Fontana, and pianist Giorgio D’Alonzo, joined forces for a collection of chestnuts that included “Una voce poco fa,” in which Lupinacci announced herself as a Rosina with attitude to burn. She knows how to deliver a potent musical climax; her voice opened up thrillingly at the top in the Rossini, as it did in her impassioned yet beautifully nuanced “Parto, parto” from La clemenza di Tito. Fontana performed a set of tried-and-true Tosti songs, including “Ideale” and “Serenata,” with crowd-pleasing assurance, and D’Alonzo was a witty and nimble partner throughout. It was a highly satisfying program that felt a little complacent, and could have benefited from a little imagination and some spirit of risk-taking.

November 3 brought mezzo-soprano Alessandra Volpe, who also took a safe programming route, opening with a selection of all of the hit arias from Carmen. She acquitted herself brilliantly in all of them, but my favorite was the Card Aria, “En vain pour éviter,” in which she dropped easily and gracefully into a dark and ravishing lower register; she never pushed the dramatic points, and let them unfold naturally. She also worked magic with a flawlessly shaped “O ma lyre immortelle” from Sapho (the opera was staged at Wexford in 2001). Volpe’s registers are impeccably knit together, and her voice brightens as it climbs the scale in an exciting way. She also offered up some surprising textual spin on Salvatore Cardillo’s perennial favorite “Core ‘ngrato” and, more surprisingly, on “Torna a Sorriento.” Clearly, she never assumes that your familiarity with a piece of music means that she doesn’t have to be dramatically and musically present every second. My only complaint was that once again, I would have liked her to program some more unusual and contrasting rep. Tina Chang was her astute and exciting accompanist.

On November 4, tenor Gerard Schneider gave the most thoughtfully programmed recital that I heard this season at Wexford. A native of East Melbourne, Australia, Schneider has one of the most beautifully produced and attractive male voices I’ve heard in some time. He has a solid core to his voice and his high, soft singing is mesmerizing. He also seems incapable of uttering a gauche or unmusical phrase. He opened his program with “Im wunderschõnen Monat Mai,” “Aus meinen Tränen spriessen” and “Ich grolle nicht” from Schumann’s Dichterliebe, sung with a masterly textual sensitivity. He scored a triumph with Vaughan Williams’s “Silent Noon” and the aria “Horse Hoofs, Horse Hoofs” from Hugh the Drover, which he announced as a work about “freedom and loneliness on the road—something an opera singer feels quite strongly.” His pianist, Andrea Grant, the festival’s Head of Music/Répétiteur, gave the most searching and complete accompaniment to this aria I have ever heard. In both Liszt’s “Im Rhein, im schönen Strome” and Ben Moore’s lyrical “His Heart That Flutters,” Schneider showed off his gift for lifting easily into his gorgeous upper range. With a nod to his professional beginnings in musical theater, Schneider saved his crowd-pleasers for the end: a radiantly voice version of Les Miz’s “Bring Him Home,” and an oddly unsatisfying “Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha. (I was grateful, however, that Schneider didn’t over-sing the number as nearly everyone does.) At the very end, he brought out his guitar and accompanied himself on Peter Allen’s “I Still Call Australia Home” while I amused myself by fantasizing about Dame Joan Sutherland performing the same number.

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3 Comments

  1. Dear Brian,
    I enjoyed your comments very much!You mentioned “Hugh the drover”.by Ralph Vaughn Williams.I saw this opera in new York City(I think it was the Bronx opera) with a friend , Don Yule the late sorely missed Basso NYCO . It was delightful.I often wonder why it is not done more?Especially after Stallones film “Rocky“Thanks for your insights which always conjure up memories .

    • Thank you, Nino. You and Judy should go to Wexford one of these years. I can promise you both that you would love it. I love HUGH THE DROVER as well. And Gerard Schneider is just a marvelous artist.

    • Thank you, Nino. You and Judy should go to Wexford one of these years. I can promise you both that you would love it.

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