Cast, Chorus & Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera at National Opera House, Wexford, on 29 October 2022

The 2022 Wexford Festival’s theme of ‘Magic & Music’ continues tonight with the strangeness of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. We hear and see it as reimagined in 1850 by Parisian grand opera composer Fromental Halévy, in his only Italian opera, and the only work of his commissioned for a London theatre. Why it sank without trace remains a mystery and, on the strength of tonight’s performance, a recording of this work is overdue.

Any opera based on a play has to be selective – it takes longer to sing words than speak them – and in Eugène Scribe’s oddly-shaped libretto the balance is skewed towards an earnest power-play between Prospero (Nikolay Zemlianskikh) and Caliban (italicised as ‘Calibano’, sung by Giorgi Manoshvili) over the fate of Prospero’s daughter Miranda (Hila Baggio).

Even Caliban’s mother, Sycorax (‘Sicorace’ – sung by Emma Jüngling), only referred to in the Shakespeare play, makes an appearance as a disembodied voice, egging on her son to greater mischief. All of this adds to the darkness – while subtracting from the humour – of the original, though the greater influence of female characters is also notable here.

Giorgi Manoshvili (Calibano)

Conductor Francesco Cilluffo brings us into the heart of Halévy’s expressive score, encouraging some beautiful playing from the Festival Orchestra, complementing and never overpowering the voices. Director Roberto Catalano’s production concept, a largely black-and-white affair, seems to evoke the surrealism of Giorgio de Chirico and (possibly) Federico Fellini, with its suggestion of classical forms and the label ‘Nostalgia’ carved into a broken wall.

This helps concentrate the brutish qualities of the opera’s text, reflecting a harsh reality (sometimes literally, with blinding mirrors) and a brittle flatness back to the audience.  Perhaps we are facing into a repressed memory?

Fortunately, the singing soars above all of this. The impressively young cast is led by baritone Nikolay Zemlianskikh’s Prospero, finely expressive, and the soprano Hila Baggio works well with the long and taxing role of Miranda.

Giorgi Manoshvili’s Calibano is especially impressive, his richly powerful bass easily transcending the limitations of the character in this version of the story. As well, amazingly making her professional debut only now, the Irish soprano Jade Phoenix brings the sprite Ariele to brilliant musical life with dazzling coloratura and finely-pitched top notes. While this production will not win over everyone, as an opera La Tempesta is definitely worth a listen, and deserves the recognition that this revival brings.

For more information about Wexford Festival Opera, see: La Tempesta will be given live once more on Thursday 3 November, and this performance will also be broadcast on RTÉ lyric fm and live-streamed on RTÉ Culture.

Pictures © Clive Barda/ArenaPAL