Saturday 16 July 2022

Rediscovered rarities, new opera and young artists: I chat to Rosetta Cucchi, artistic director of Wexford Festival Opera

National Opera House in Wexford (Photo Ger Lawlor.)
National Opera House in Wexford (Photo Ger Lawlor.)

Founded in 1951 in Wexford in Ireland (population around 20,000), Wexford Festival Opera has become known for its resurrection of undeservedly neglected and rare operas. The festival is based at the National Opera House which was developed in 2008 on the site of the historic Theatre Royal. This year's Wexford Festival Opera takes as its theme Music and Magic, with three main operas by Fromenthal Halévy, Félicien David and Dvorak along with a selection of pocket operas that range from an Alfred Cellier operetta to a contemporary work inspired by the life of Henry James. 2022 is the second season that artistic director Rosetta Cucchi has planned. She took over for the 2020 season, but the programme of Shakespearean works was postponed to 2021. 

Rosetta Cucchi (Photo Wexford Festival Opera)
Rosetta Cucchi (Photo Wexford Festival Opera)
Rosetta is, however, not a new face in Wexford, she first started working at the festival as a repetiteur under Luigi Ferrari, ending up as assistant to David Agler (2005-2019), as well as directing several productions such as the 2017 staging of Franco Alfano's Risurrezione. Rosetta was in London recently where she accompanied soprano Ermonela Jaho at one of the festival's international concerts celebrating its 70th anniversary. I was lucky enough to be able to meet up with Rosetta whilst she was in London, to have coffee and chat about this year's festival and how she sees the festival's future.

But we started by talking about the theatre itself. My last visit to Wexford was in the late 1980s, well before the creation of the new theatre. For Rosetta, the current theatre in Wexford is very special indeed, both in terms of its aesthetic and its acoustic. Designed by Keith Williams Architects (with acoustics by Arup), the auditorium uses a great deal of wood and Rosetta describes performing there as being like playing inside a violin. Yet for all its modern aspects, the shape of the theatre is traditional.

Both this season and last year's (the first she programmed as artistic director) had over-arching themes, and with both of them, the theme came first. For her first season as artistic director Rosetta wanted to use Shakespeare, she wanted to start her tenure with works inspired by the great poet, and one of the most operatic poets. And, of course, there was no trouble finding music, as well as Ambroise Thomas' Le Songe d’une nuit d’été, Karl Goldmark's Ein Wintermärchen and Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi, there was Alfredo Catalani's Edmea, not at first sight Shakespearean, but for Rosetta, the plot has many Shakespearian themes (including elements of The Winter's Tale), as well as being a wonderful opera.

Catalani: Edmea - Wexford Festival Opera 2021 (Photo Clive Barda/ArenaPAL)
Catalani: Edmea - Wexford Festival Opera 2021 (Photo Clive Barda/ArenaPAL)

Similarly for this year, the theme of Music and Magic came first, and the main operas are Dvorak's Armida (from 1904), Fromental Halevy's La Tempesta (from 1850) and Félicien David's Lalla Roukh (from 1862), and whilst the magic aspect of these is fairly clear, Alberto Caruso's new opera The Master is at first less obvious. The Master sets a libretto by Colm Toibin based on his novel, The Master, about Henry James, and Rosetta delightedly points out that several of the characters in the opera are ghosts, so it is perfect for the season. Toibin is a great friend of the festival, and Rosetta invited him to give the Dr Tom Walsh lecture in 2021 (this is an annual lecture series named for the founder of the festival). He showed her his libretto for The Master and it seemed perfect for the festival's pocket operas, shorter operas done in the afternoon to piano accompaniment.

Halevy's La Tempesta, with its touch of Shakespeare, is the type of opera that Wexford is looking for, written in 1850 and performed at Her Majesty's Theatre, in London and Paris it was then forgotten. Written by Halevy and librettist Eugène Scribe, it was commissioned for an English theatre and Scribe's libretto was translated into Italian (at the time, grand opera in London was frequently in Italian), So an Englishman asking a Frenchman for an opera in Italian. It was a great success and was then performed in Paris (in Italian) at the Theatre des Italiens. Rosetta originally found a vocal score, but this was unfinished, and then a manuscript but there were lots of differences between the two. There are two versions, one where Ariel is a dancer and one where Ariel is a soprano. Rosetta finds the version with a dancer fascinating, unfortunately, there are no orchestral parts for it. For her, it is a beautiful opera; the prologue is romantic, with elements of Schumann and Sturm und Drang, with the main opera being bel canto. 

Thomas: Le Songe d’une nuit d’été - Wexford Festival Opera 2021 (Photo Clive Barda/ArenaPAL)
Thomas: Le Songe d’une nuit d’été
Wexford Festival Opera 2021 (Photo Clive Barda/ArenaPAL)
David's Lalla Roukh, Rosetta describes as typical Orientalism evoking the 1001 Nights. And the libretto is based on a poem by the Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779-1852), which meant we have an opera that is perfect for the season's theme with a link to an Irish poet. The festival staged David's earlier opera, Herculaneum, in 2016, whilst Stanford's opera, The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, also based on Thomas Moore's poem, was heard at Wexford in 2019.

Rosetta loves the fact that the three main operas present three different kinds of magic, Shakespeare's Prospero, Orientalism and fairy tale, and the Middle-Eastern sorceress Armida. Also, La Tempesta and Lalla Roukh are quite similar in date.

The third opera, Armida, was another discovery, and Rosetta loves Dvorak's music. Armida was his final opera and it premiered in 1904. The subject matter was very much of the 18th and 19th centuries (both Rossini and Gluck wrote operas on the story), but music had changed and Dvorak had to find the right music for the story for the time. This was a long process. For Rosetta, the music is amazing and the opera is more about the war inside a person.

The pocket opera programme also includes Cinderella by Alma Deutscher (who was just 11 when she completed the work) and Alfred Cellier's The Spectre Knight. Cellier was a contemporary of Sir Arthur Sullivan and wrote The Mountebanks with W.S. Gilbert (to a libretto that Sullivan had rejected). Rosetta felt the programme needed something can laugh at, and as the lighter piece it works with piano.

Looking ahead, Rosetta wants to keep on with what Wexford has become known for, researching operas that have become lost. And she points out that Wexford would not be alive and famous without this rediscovery of lost operas. But for her, rare opera is a wide spectrum and she feels that new commissions are a good way of presenting operas that have not yet been listened to, and there are plans to have artists in residence. The festival will be presenting two parallel lines, old opera and new opera. 

After all, if they did Verdi's La Traviata, lots of other companies perform the work as well. Whereas what Wexford can offer is a time-warp, you can listen to La Tempesta as if for the first time. Wexford is a small festival, though valued and committed, and she sees the combination of rare operas and new commissions as her future with the festival.

Rosetta regards Wexford as the springboard for her career as an artistic director, she started everything in Wexford. And on becoming Wexford's artistic director she wanted to create something which supported the careers of the current generation of young artists. The result is the Wexford Factory which started in 2020. A factory of artists which started in the chaos of 2020 and worked, it became very fruitful. The intake is biannual, the most recent cohort has just been announced (Deirdre Arratoon, Michael Bell, Seán Boylan, Eoin Foran, Ami Hewitt, Emily Hogarty, Corina Ignat, William Kyle, Peter Lidbetter, Sarah Luttrell, Giorgi Manoshvili, Hannah O'Brien, Megan O'Neill, Leah Redmond, Richard Shaffrey, and Nikolai Zemlianskikh). The 2020 group gave Rosetta lots of satisfaction, many are going on to successful careers and one won a prize at the Belvedere Competition in Vienna, and they have become her friends.

National Opera House in Wexford (Photo Ger Lawlor)
National Opera House in Wexford (Photo Ger Lawlor)

She wants to make it about more than singers, to enlarge the factory to other kinds of artistic jobs. Wexford has a duty to do this, and she certainly has a duty. She points out that Wexford has a very special atmosphere, artists never forget it. On Monday before we met, she and Ermonela Jaho performed at St John's Smith Square, and it transported them back 20 years to their first performances at Wexford; Wexford still lives in their hearts. People feel at home in Wexford, this is perhaps a tribute to the volunteers who are a big part of the festival; the atmosphere is why people come back. So Rosetta feels that it is good for Wexford to grow a new generation of artists.

The 2020 cohort of the factory met every month by Zoom, and they gave them the possibility of inventing their own project. They could choose the location and the repertoire, and Wexford provided the technology to film and record. The result was each created a 30-minute filmed project, Wexford guided but the young artists were in charge. The project gave the young artists the security, the reassurance to be themselves. Rosetta wants the factor to give the artists the courage to be themselves. The new group was auditioned in October 2021 (and PwC has announced its sponsorship of the scheme for the current intake). They start in September 2022, and Rosetta has told them to be ready to smile. She wants them not to be shy, and she sees the factor as being not just about singing. 

During the festival, there are pop-up events, and the young artists from the factory become brave. They do performances in the street, in pubs and elsewhere, popping up and playing for ten minutes. Rosetta describes it as like a flash mob, but behind there is lots of preparation, and organised chaos; this is what makes it unique.

When I wonder whether there will continue to be undiscovered operas, she laughs and comments that they will never run out of old operas. Libraries such as the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, and that in Naples, have 1000s though she points out that not everyone is a masterpiece. But there are plenty waiting to be discovered. 

What she would like visitors to take away from the festival is its spirit, its essence. There are beautiful opera festivals everywhere, and the unique thing is the spirit that keeps it alive. After all, it is simply a little town in the middle of nowhere, yet its spirit allows it to create work of high quality. She first arrived when very young, to be a repetiteur at the festival and pitched up at the street where the theatre was wondering whether she was in the right place. Having experienced grand Italian theatre, the humble entrance to Wexford was a surprise; she was only sure she was in the right place when she saw a door marked 'Stage door'. Then inside, she was entering her fairy tale.

The artistic director at the time was Luigi Ferrari. He had come across her in Italy, where she was playing the piano for Bernstein's Candide. Ferrari was the artistic director of the festivals in Wexford and Pesaro, this latter was her home town so when he asked her to come to Pesaro she was delighted. Then he mentioned that he also had a festival in Wexford...

Alfano: Risurrezion - Niamh White, Anne-Sophie Duprels - Wexford Festival Opera, 2017 (Photo Clive Barda)
Alfano: Risurrezione - Niamh White, Anne-Sophie Duprels - Wexford Festival Opera, 2017 (Photo Clive Barda)

She was also studying theatre and Ferrari offered her a pocket opera, to direct and play the piano for it. This was Rossini's La scala di seta, her first opera as director. Her 2017 festival production of Alfano's Risurezzione is now going around the world. She has not directed any work at the festival since 2020, but she will be directing one in 2023. She will not be directing at the festival often, just here and there, there is too much else to do!

The 71st Wexford Festival Opera is from 21 October to 6 November 2020 at the National Opera House in Wexford, with Fromental Halévy's La Tempesta, Félicien David's Lalla-Roukh, Antonín Dvořák's Armida, Alma Deutscher's Cinderella, Alberto Caruso's The Master, Alfred Cellier's The Spectre Knight, Conor Mitchell's The Selenites, and a gala concert with Daniela Barcellona.

Full details from the festival website.

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