Jacopo Foroni - Margherita
Wexford Festival Opera, 2017
Timothy Myers, Michael Sturm, Yuriy Yurchuk, Matteo d'Apolito, Alessandra Volpe, Andrew Stenson, Giuliana Gianfaldoni, Filippo Fontana, Ji Hyun Kim
National Opera House, Wexford - 1 November 2017
The opera semiseria is a deeply unfashionable form of opera, but if anyone can give an unknown and unfashionable opera like Jacopo Foroni's Margherita an airing and bit of polish it's the patron saint of lost operas, the Wexford Festival Opera. The rediscovery of the rare and wonderful has more or less been their mission over the 66 years the festival has been running in Ireland, to such an extent that they are even experts on Jacopo Foroni, having staged the similarly obscure Cristina, Regina di Svezia back in 2013.
And Margherita similarly seems to be well worth the effort. It's a beautifully constructed piece and wonderfully entertaining - but it definitely needs all the skills of a sympathetic conductor and orchestra, a fine chorus and singers who are capable of making something more of this type of opera and bring it to life. Wexford's lavish production gifts Foroni's opera with all that, but Margherita also gets the additional sparkle that it really needs from a suitable direction that knows exactly what to do with it.
I can't say I've been convinced by other examples of opera semiseria that I've seen by Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti or Halévy. The comedy tends to sit rather uneasily with the melodrama for a modern audience who have a different concept of opera, and the plots - usually involving a young maiden in a Swiss village whose virtue is unjustly impugned - are often banal and ludicrous. Bellini barely gets away with it in La Sonnambula, and Donizetti's Linda di Chaumonix has its merits, but a firm directorial hand can help in these cases and Michael Sturm's direction of Margherita for Wexford gets the tone exactly right.
The life-or-death romantic plot of Margherita, unsurprisingly, doesn't really add up if you look too closely at it. Margherita's dream of marrying Ernesto is put into jeopardy soon after he returns from the war, when he is accused of having killed a man. The supposed victim was seen by Giustina arguing with two men in the woods, but his identity is unknown and there's no body. Despite this the Mayor, Ser Matteo with the backing of the community see fit to have Ernesto locked up and face a death sentence on the basis that his hat was found in the vicinity of the scuffle.
It suits the Mayor of course, partly because he is too lazy to look into the matter, but also because his nephew Roberto has intentions to marry Margherita himself and inherit a fortune that will pay off his debts. Margherita agrees to sign an agreement to marry Roberto, who promises that he will use his influence to have Ernesto released from prison. What a dilemma for the young woman. One can only hope that the 'victim', Count Rodolfo, turns up on time to explain what has happened and prevent this terrible injustice for occurring. Which, evidently, is exactly what happens...
If the plot doesn't give you much to engage with, the quality of the singing is excellent. Foroni and librettist Giorgio Giachetti ensure that everyone is generously given their moment in the spotlight and they all take it well, with Alessandra Volpe as Margherita and Giuliana Gianfaldoni as Giustina particularly entering very much into the spirit of the piece. Andrew Stenson's Ernesto lives up to his name and is a little more earnest - but that seems to be his nature and the male roles are rather less well-defined than the female roles here. The other male roles tend to rely on comic timing and interplay, and that is handled well by Matteo d'Apolito and Filippo Fontana as Matteo and Roberto.
As thin and ludicrous as the plot is in Margherita, you somehow feel inclined to go along with it. That's principally down to Foroni I think, who sweeps you along persuasively with the most gorgeous, melodic, effervescent music, keeping the dramatic developments progressing well (even if not convincingly), without too many of the tedious side developments (weddings, dances) that usually litter the opera semiseria. Even the new mayor's opening ode to laziness is relevant to his character and nature. It's also a clever strategy on the part of the director Michael Sturm that he doesn't feel the need to present this in any kind of naturalistic fashion.
That doesn't necessarily mean that you have to go cartoonish (as was the case with the Zurich production of Jacques Fromental Halévy's Clari), but rather the director Michael Sturm and set and costume designer Stefan Rieckhoff play to the nature of the work itself. Or even play up to its absurdities, so that Ernesto, for example, isn't just thrown into prison but rather more dramatically led up a hangman's scaffold to ramp up the drama to the scale of the sentiments. At the same time it's essential to keep up a flow and momentum going so that the audience don't have to think too hard about what is going on and start questioning the dubious aspects of the plot.
It's not so much to cover-up deficiencies, and direction shouldn't be about trying to make Margherita more credible; what is important is capturing the spirit of the work, and that's done here very cleverly here. The background remains a war-torn village street scene where the idea of a community is established in lively choral scenes. The other scenes are superimposed and layered on top of that, whether it's the interior of Margherita's bedroom, a prison or a scaffold, with sparing use of projections and a tree or a moon lowered into place when required. It gives the work cohesion and flows beautifully in this way, carrying the audience along on its buoyant rhythms and melodies.
Links: Wexford Festival Opera