Herculanum by Félicien David at Wexford

The Wexford Festival is certainly a venue for curiosities and there can hardly have been an opera for which that expression is more apt than Herculanum composed in the mid-19th century by Félicien David, a name unknown to all but specialists in French romanticism. Set in Roman times, it is a work in the grand opéra style, in which political power and pagan sensuality are pitted again the early Christians and their virtues. The libretto suffers from some banality, whether from the delights of drink and debauchery or, at the opposite extreme, the merits of sobriety and piety, but it is enlivened by a cynical and brutal proconsul whose appearance is later adopted by Satan. And God’s displeasure is marked by an earthquake and the eruption of Vesuvius. As regards music, there are some impressive original moments in the orchestral score, for example, the rumbling in the lower strings, but the pattern and style of the solo vocal passages are somewhat too predictable.The most impressive aspect to the performance was certainly Stephen Medcalf’s colourful and energetic production. Brilliantly conceived movement of the admirable chorus provided a lively backdrop to the proceedings and the drama between the principal characters, sharply outlined by powerful lighting, was played out in front of Jamie Vartan’s monumental abstract decors. Setting the piece in the early 19th century helped in distancing the simple Christians (and other victims of colonialism) from the vicious Roman society. The ending, as the evil world is covered in lava and ashes, was beautifully staged. Jean-Luc Tingaud and the Wexford Festival Orchestra supplied an idiomatic accompaniment. Simon Bailey as the Nicanor and Satan was strong both vocally and dramatically. Daniela Pini as Olympia was suitably imperious but did not always have sufficient flexibility of voice to cope with the coloratura passages. Olga Busuioc made for a highly plausible Christian victim but her soprano thickened under pressure. As Hélios, her Christian partner, Canadian tenor Andrew Haji was physically less plausible but sang magnificently.