Virginia – Lyric tragedy in three acts to a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, after Alfieri [sung in Italian with English surtitles]
Virginia – Angela Meade
Appio Claudio – Ivan Magrì
Virginio – Hugh Russell
Icilio – Bruno Ribiero
Marco – Gianluca Buratto
Tullia – Marcella Walsh
Valerio – John Myers
Chorus & Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera
Kevin Newbury – Director
Allan Moyer – Set & Costume design
Christopher Akerlind – Lighting design
Séan Curran – Choreography
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 28 October, 2010
Venue: Wexford Opera House, Ireland
This production of Saverio Mercadante’s “Virginia” really demonstrates why the Wexford Festival has served the world of opera so well over the years. Whilst many other festivals and opera-houses explore the margins of the repertoire in the hope of finding a splendid rarity, none but Wexford has done so more consistently. Sometimes one learns why an opera has been neglected, but “Virginia” was an occasion where some reappraisal of received wisdom was surely necessary. Opera Rara recorded it some years ago, a performance to get some idea of the worth of Mercadante’s music, add to which this strong Wexford staging by Kevin Newbury packed an unexpectedly powerful dramatic and emotional punch that caused a considerable buzz amongst the audience and proved that bel canto opera from the middle of the 19th-century can be theatrically thrilling and intense.
The action takes place in Rome in 451 BC. Rome is ruled by the Decemviri led by Appio Claudio. Abusing their patrician status and power they, and particularly Appio, have marginalised the plebeians and passed laws that prevent intermarriage between the social groupings. Inevitably perhaps, Appio has fallen in love with Virginia, daughter of the soldier Virginio. She loves Icilio, once a tribune until Appio’s laws deprived him of such status. Virginia resists all Appio’s bribes and advances, and with the blessing of her father, attempts to marry Icilio in secret. Appio and his henchman Marco interrupt the marriage ceremony. Marco accuses Virginia of illegitimacy by claiming she was the child of one of his slaves who was sold to Virginio’s wife as a substitute for her lost child. Appio attempts to bribe Icilio to renounce Virginia but he refuses and is murdered. The Decemviri are assembled to publically judge on Marco’s claim. Appio has clearly bribed them for they find in his favour. Distraught, Virginio asks to say farewell to the girl they judge he has brought up as his daughter and his wish is granted. Virginia is distressed that her father apparently accepts the judgement. However he produces a dagger and stabs her to death rather than have his family dishonoured. In this way he shows himself to be Virginia’s true father and triggers the rebellion that will topple Appio’s hold on power.
Allan Moyer’s imposing set seemed initially to be set in a stylised ancient Rome with its imposing black marbled walls and garish ‘period’ costuming. However, towards the end of the first scene characters started to appear in modern-day dress and thereby the inference that abuses of power in politics still occur was deftly suggested. Appio’s cavalier attitude to the law and to religion was emphasised by his disrespectful behaviour within the church. Virginia’s domestic scenes took place in a simple kitchen that quickly established that there was a class struggle going on too. Kevin Newbury’s direction enhanced this reflection of modern times. Yes, there was the odd quibble – would so many of the wedding guests have been dressed in mourning black, and why would Virginia and Icilio have made themselves so conspicuous by then wearing white? However, the various confrontations of the major characters were convincingly enacted. Appio and Icilio sparred in credibly macho ways, Virginio’s realisation of his daughter’s predicament and his genuine care of her was touching, and the heroine’s anxiety and inner strength were subtly portrayed.
Newbury was helped by having an extremely well-matched cast of soloists who were all credible actors. In the title-role Angela Meade revealed a sizeable voice, well able to rise above the choral throng in the ensembles that complete many of the scenes, within the second act in particular. Her technique was absolutely secure, and she dazzled in the moments where vocal lines went high above the stave and demanded considerable coloratura agility. The voice has dark colours and Meade was equally as effective in quiet and reflective music. One passage in the final act lingers in the memory where the soprano gradually and quietly joined the orchestra following a beautiful introduction involving cor anglais and harp (both magnificent) in a sustained prayer. Later, surprisingly, this develops into a duet as the baritone Hugh Russell joined in. Meade was touchingly sincere in her acting as well. Virginia’s uncertainty as to what her father intended to do as he drew his dagger was startling. Did he intend suicide and to commit her to a life as a slave or to kill her? Meade caught all this. She won a deserved ovation. I expect we shall hear a lot of her in the future.
Russell’s attractive and resonant baritone was heard to advantage and he has a strong sense of line. Although the character spends much of his time fretting, Russell managed to make his final resolve convincing.
Appio and Icilio are both dramatic-tenor roles. As in some of Rossini’s operas (“La donna del lago”, “Otello”, “Ermione”) there is always the danger that one might out-sing or dominate the other. Here this was not the case. Both have taxingly high parts but Ivan Magrì and Bruno Ribiero sang them with style and fluidity, and fieriness and ring, as occasion demanded. Magrì warmed up in his role as the corrupt politician as the evening progressed and Ribeiro was a dashing and hot-headed adversary for him. The role of Marco does not offer the singer much opportunity for vocal display, but Gianluca Buratto made him a suitably malign presence. The chorus was in sterling voice – and the impact of the finale in this house’s extremely immediate acoustic was overwhelming.
In the pit there was a huge amount to enjoy, too. Mercadante’s music has both momentum and expansive themes, never less than pleasurable on the ear, and Carlos Izcaray’s conducting was well attuned to the drama, and he was very singer-friendly as one must be in opera of this type.
On this showing Mercadante’s “Virginia” deserves to be better known, and certainly has more merit than some staples of the standard repertoire from this period. Why then the opera’s neglect? Essentially the reason is probably that of timing. The opera was completed by 1851, but languished unperformed until 1866, shortly before the composer’s death. The premiere was not afforded a lavish production, and by this time Italian opera was changing. The conventions that characterise the operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini were falling from fashion and Verdi was beginning to make his mark. Mercadante’s “Virginia” simply arrived too late. Wexford has allowed us to realise this opera’s strength. Hopefully other productions will follow.