A Verismo Double Bill at Wexford

After disappointments this year at Wexford, the festival ended for me on a brighter note with a well-fashioned, solid double bill of verismo opera. No; not Cav and Pag but Leoni’s L’oracolo and Giordano’s Mala Vita. The Leoni is a torrid piece set in San Francisco’s Chinatown with no shortage of violence, lust and greed but also – of course – sentimentality. The music is compelling if not particularly original and conductor Francesco Cilluffo endowed it with the necessary passion. Joo Won Kang was a sufficiently nasty villain, complementing his physically aggressive movements with a gruff edge to his singing. Leon Kim’s baritone may have been somewhat short on volume and colour for the pivotal role of the learned, philosophical doctor who turns out to have an unsuspected violent streak but, as the lovers, Sergio Escobar (despite being a little too conscious of the splendour of his tenor voice) and Elisabetta Farris offered attractive lyrical relief from the gloom and doom.

Mala Vita, an early work by Umberto Giordano, emerged as the major discovery of the 2018 festival. Yes, of course, the plot, focussing on a prostitute whose promise of salvation remains unfulfilled when her saviour returns to his erstwhile lover, is trite but the libretto (by Nicola Daspuro) and score are written with such conviction that in this performance the piece proved to be irresistible. That was in part due to Cilluffo’s obvious affection for it but mostly to some great acting-singing by the two female leads, Francesca Tiburzi and Dorothea Spilger.

Rodula Gaitanou directed, and Cordelia Chisholm designed, both parts of the evening. Their approach was unremittingly realistic so that, for example, incidents of violence were portrayed in horrific detail. Perhaps the mark was overstepped at the end of L’oracolo when the revenge-taking doctor rips open the chest of his son’s murderer and removes his heart. This was a mistake not so much because it was in grotesquely bad taste but rather because the audience understandably reacted with laughter, thus destroying the dramatic impact of the scene. Subject to this and some anachronisms which inevitably arise in verismo opera – the tenor, desperately ill and feeling on the point of death singing out with full, ringing, healthy tone – the gritty approach to the trials and tribulations of an urban society gave colour and life (as well as death) to the operas and interacted most effectively with the music.