Cast, Chorus & Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera, at National Opera House, Wexford, on 28 October 2022

Wexford Festival Opera owes its international presence to staging rarely-seen, barely-known, or otherwise obscure operas, mostly from the 1800s. Occasionally something more recent gets shown, or (less frequently) something even older. The 1904 opera Armida, by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak is somehow both old and new, a modernist work from the early 20th-century that harks back to the very beginnings of opera. The original story-line — Muslim enchantress Armida entraps, falls in love with, and then is betrayed by the crusader Rinaldo — was doled out again and again on the baroque stage, creating a kind of European myth for its time. When Dvorak took it on, however, the story was long out-of-date. Worse, the scenario confused purists by playing pick-and-mix with the source material, when it opened there were so many problems it was viewed a failure (having the composer die shortly after didn’t help), and so the opera became an eccentric rarity, perfect for Wexford. The only question is: why wait so long? Maybe its awkward reputation makes it a risky venture, even now.

The good news is that they needn’t have worried — or perhaps now is the right time. The work produced tonight is a fascinating opera, given a compelling reading, directed and designed by Hartmut Schörghofer. The oriental fantasy that one might expect (pitting virtuous Christians against malevolent foreigners) becomes instead something more ambivalent, and unexpectedly closer to current issues. The work that emerges is a ‘post-truth’ opera: the question of which side is ‘good’ is left open, with the story retold in a way that allows for more than one perspective. While Armida (Jennifer Davis) remains the beguiling enchantress of old for blind hermit Peter (Jan Hynk) and the crusaders who follow him, she is perhaps misunderstood. By her own account, she becomes an innocent force for good — betrayed not by a reformed Rinald (Gerard Schneider) but instead by sorcerer Ismen (Stanislav Kuflyuk), from her own side, secretly working through his jealousy.

There is a lot to enjoy in this engrossing production. Co-produced with a Czech company (Tyl Theatre, Plzen), tonight’s performance benefits from some fine central-European voices: Stanislav Kuflyk, Jan Hynk, and Jozef Benci (Hydraot) all impress, with rich voices that easily project across the Wexford auditorium. Tenor Gerard Schneider similarly brings an urgent energy and power to the role of the conflicted Rinald.

For local audiences, it is also exciting to see emerging Irish talent being included on stage. The young baritone Rory Dunne sings the roles of the Muezzin and the crusader leader Bohumir with warmth and grace (with the off-stage Muezzin offering an especially atmospheric presence). The star of the evening, however, has to be soprano Jennifer Davis in the title role. Having already impressed London audiences as Elsa in a recent production of Wagner’s Lohengrin (a comparable role to Dvorak’s Armida) she sings the role beautifully, with superb tone, focus, and projection, bringing this Armida to life both musically and dramatically.

Visually, the diagonal design, with reflective screens and occasional back-projected images, creates fine sequences of stage pictures, and the sense of spatial depth that this work needs. Taking on a complex and perhaps incomplete work, this production offers a great deal. Audiences have a treat in store — and food for thought. See it if you can.

For more details of Wexford Festival Opera, see: There are further performances of Armida on 2 and 5 November.

Pictures © Clive Barda/ArenaPAL