As the opera ended, the tramp, leaning on his laden shopping trolley, slowly crossed the stage in front of the cast taking their bows, fixing the audience with a withering, disdainful gaze. Head shaking knowingly, he ambled off stage right.
Only to remerge, sans trolley, from rear stage to acknowledge his rightful acclaim in line with his fellow performers. Rightful, as he had been the unusual narrator who brought the fairy-tale opera, Lalla-Roukh, to life at the O’Reilly Theatre in Wexford’s National Opera House.
An observer, he delivered a running commentary from the side-lines, or when wandering among the cast, explaining the plot and propelling the action at a satisfyingly oomphy pace.
Orpha Phelan, the director of Félicien David’s 1862 opera-comique, maestra of “oomph”, claims that when given the task of mounting the exotic oriental work in 2022 Wexford she had a visitation from “the mother of invention”. Mother invented the narrator device and supplied sundry other strokes of genius.
Phelan was born in Kilkenny. Now she is based in London. With nineteen directing jobs notched on her belt, a theme is emerging. There is a relish for taking on challenging operas. Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream, Michael Rev Gordon’s Raising Icarus are just three examples from her Rolodex. Each has been well reviewed. All are difficult.
Rosetta Cucchi, Wexford Festival’s director, chose a Magic and Music theme for 2022. The choice of Lalla-Roukh as one of the three fully staged operas was inspired, as the work is based on a poem of almost the same name – Lalla Rook, (would some better-informed reader please let me know why the spelling was changed?) – by the celebrated 18th/19th century Dublin poet, Thomas Moore.
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Moore was eclectic. Writer of poems, political “squibs”, and lyricist. He wrote the words to The Last Rose of Summer and The Minstrel Boy. He is also credited with losing the memoirs of his friend, Lord Byron. Which may be just as well.
Moore has a close Wexford connection. There’s his mother. Then there’s the Thomas Moore Tavern, a firm favourite in the Cornmarket. I and my ever-changing band of opera pirates have been loyal customers for 45 years. Curiously, operas seem more interesting after a visit.
The opening scene of Lalla-Roukh was a complete surprise, a café front – O’Rourke’s Emporium. Rourke – Roukh. Geddit? The café is genteel, early 20th century perhaps, and is slowly filled with clientele. Meantime, our tramp/narrator delves into a very 21st century wheelie bin and discovers a discarded book. He begins to read aloud.
Intentionally, I had not read a synopsis or any of the background programme notes. I find the blank sheet approach is a good test for an unfamiliar production. If an opera is incomprehensible as the action unfolds, requiring a pre-brief, I think the director has failed.
As our tramp/narrator began his reading, the lights inside the emporium dimmed and the oriental characters of Moore’s poem appeared, replacing the nattily clad coffee quaffing clientele.
At the stroke of a well-delivered narrative, we had flown from a street scene straight from Dubliners to Persia. Lorcan Cranitch, a well-known Irish actor – TV drama such as Cracker, and The Royal Shakespeare Company – took us there. His tramp was cynical, intellectually curious and delivered a running commentary on the action that cut out swathes of dull recitatifs and was at times hilarious.
The plot is simple and follows a well-trodden path of oriental intrigue. Lalla Roukh, the daughter of the Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb, has been promised in marriage to the King of Bukhara. The king has sent a courtier, Baskir, to accompany the princess and ensure safe passage.
Enroute, in Delhi, Mirza, Lalla Roukh’s maidservant, is complicit in encouraging a mysterious minstrel to woo her mistress. What could possibly go wrong?
The princess is so taken by the minstrel that when she arrives in the King of Bukhara’s palace, she resolves to shove off back to Delhi and find her new love.
Baskir threatens the minstrel, blackmailing him into renouncing Lalla Roukh in exchange for his life. The minstrel seems to accept Baskir’s terms. Lalla Roukh, on hearing of the pact, tells Baskir she will renounce her engagement in front of the whole court anyway.
The comic courtier’s goose is well and truly plucked, stuffed, trussed and slotted into the oven at Regulo 7. Cooked!
The king, in all his finery, emerged and turned out to be – yes, the minstrel. He had wanted to discover if Lalla Roukh loved him for his own merit rather than his wealth. Perfect ending. A man of the world, the tramp seemed to hold a contrary opinion. Lalla should have clocked him.
Steven White conducted the redoubtable Festival Orchestra. He caught the lyricism of David’s music perfectly. Wexford, famous for its revivals, has tapped a goldmine in the now ignored David. In the mid 19th century, he was popular and respected by his contemporaries. His work does not deserve to lie dusty in the cupboard.
Christophe Colomb, La perle du Brásil, Herculanum. Just three of his operas that would merit a Wexford glance.
Voices were fabulous. Gabrielle Philiponet, a French lyric soprano, sang Lalla-Roukh. David’s music was range testing. Philiponet was flawless. And, sufficiently self-willed and gamine to be a convincing tomboy, but never over the top.
Her minstrel lover, Nourreddin, was Pablo Bemsch, a highly experienced Argentinian tenor with a beautifully fluent voice, but a rather wispy presence. He lacked the authority of kingship. Or, for that matter, minstrelship.
Baskir, traditionally played as Lalla-Roukh’s confidante, was a comical self-deceiving fusspot. Ben McAteer, a northern Irish baritone with a flair for Gilbert and Sullivan, was perfect in his Charlie Chaplinesque portrayal of the put-upon custodian.
The opera sparkled with visual tricks. A platoon of blue soldiers trying hopelessly to detain Lalla-Roukh marched a complex pattern in mechanical unison but collapsed hilariously in a well-ordered line when pushed with her finger. There was a rip-off of Ireland’s internationally famous Riverdance troupe in a mock ballet sequence.
Madeleine Boyd designed the set and costumes. Over the top seems to be Boyd’s credo. Why the chorus featured a bull, I wasn’t sure. When he appeared in a backstage room which looked onto the narrow High Street as I was walking back from the performance, I knocked on the window to give him a thumbs up. He dipped his horns in appreciation.
This was Wexford at its inventive best. A work inspired by an Irish poet, which swept all before it when a version by composer Charles Edward Horn was first performed at the Theatre Royal, Dublin in 1818, and an opportunity to create a contemporary comic romp. Time for a revival.
Lalla-Roukh carried off the honours at this year’s festival. The other two main stage operas, Dvorák’s Armida and Halévy’s La Tempesta were good enough, but beaten to the post by Moore’s unwilling bride.
More about them, the burgeoning smaller magical operas, and the surprising pop-up events that made this year’s Wexford a triumphant bounce back from Covid blues, anon.
And Another Thing!
The Arts Council announced on Friday it is cutting English National Opera’s (ENO) £12m subsidy at a stroke, forcing the company, whose home is London’s Coliseum, to either close its doors, or relocate.
Manchester has been suggested. A £17m transition fund has been dangled to tempt the company to roll over meekly.
The decision was heavily trailed in a recent Spectator article by Rupert Christiansen. Christiansen called for exactly what the Arts Council has delivered in its bombshell – cutting support, forcing relocation out of London and revamping the repertoire. Either Christiansen has the gift of second sight, or he was the beneficiary of a well-directed leak.
The immediate question is, can ENO fill the £12m black hole? Everyone seems to be filling black holes these days, so I hope they have the stomach for a fight and will give it a shot.
£12m is about 40% of ENO’s current budget, so it would be an uphill task, but with the asset of the Coliseum under the company’s control, there is room for imaginative thinking. Let battle commence.
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