Friday, 8 November 2019

Synnott - La Cucina / Rossini - Adina (Wexford, 2019)

Andrew Synnott - La Cucina
Gioachino Rossini - Adina

Wexford Festival Opera, 2019

Michele Spotti, Rosetta Cucchi, Máire Flavin, Manuel Amati, Emmanuel Franco, Sheldon Baxter, Luca Nucera, Rachel Kelly, Levy Sekgapane, Daniele Antonangeli

National Opera House, Wexford - 31 October 2019

With the spotlight is on the older undiscovered works of mostly 19th and early 20th century at Wexford Festival Opera, there was a danger that a new work, the first new Irish opera composition ever presented there, might not get sufficient recognition or attention. La Cucina however turned out to be one of the great surprises of the festival. That's perhaps not entirely unexpected, as Andrew Synnott had demonstrated wonderful dramatic writing for Dubliners at the 2017 ShortWorks programme. Although La Cucina is also a shorter work, modest in its ambition to serve only as a starter for Rossini as the main show, it's a work of great quality in its own right.

Rossini's Adina is the inspiration but so too it appears is the experience of the new director of the festival Rosetta Cucchi who wrote the libretto for La Cucina. In a way, the work is a tribute to opera, as she explains in her programme notes, the challenges of putting on an opera like making a cake, getting all the ingredients and the timing right. What's also apparent however is that the work also serves to bake a cake as a tribute to the departing director of the Wexford Festival Opera David Agler, under whom Cucchi served as assistant for much of that period.

That's very much reflected in the subject, a new apprentice hoping to learn from the master, inevitably makes some mistakes along the way, but the maestro too comes to realise when the time has come to put aside his ways and let his team grow and develop their own ideas and forge their own direction. That could come across as heavy-handed but the piece is scored and staged wonderfully, allowing a lovely variety of events, mishaps and expressions that work on a number of levels. Whether in the workplace, whether in recognition of the situation to a cookery programme fan - the maestro here more fearsome than Gordon Ramsey - or even in everyday situations, there's a recognisable and universal application here.

It's important that we have a meaningful libretto, and with that essential ingredient you have the makings of a wonderful confection. Andrew Synnott's score brings it vividly to life, in the process perhaps even reflecting the Festival's underlying ethos of celebrating the history of opera. In terms of expression, it's very much latter day Puccini in vibrancy, drama and situation, and I'm sure La Cucina would work perfectly alongside one of the parts of Il Trittico, having very much the same tone as that comic masterpiece Gianni Schicchi. There's a touch of Richard Strauss too in the vocal scoring, Máire Flavin gifted with the creation of the role of the sous-chef Bianca that she more than lives up to.

Written as a complementary one-act opera for Rossini's Adina, the connection established here is that the cake being baked in La Cucina is the important wedding cake being baked might well have been for Adina and her forthcoming marriage to the Caliph. La Cucina set Adina up in another vital way and that was the spirit of the production. Adina, it has to be said, is for the most part Rossini by numbers, but as La Cucina notes in its closing observations, quoting Rossini, what matters is that you make the most of life, and if you don't you're crazy.

Wexford played up the exaggeration of life and its crazy idea of a plot in their production of Adina. Essentially there aren't any greater complications or roles or types than you find in L'Inganno Felice (another short given a reduced performance outing at the festival) but Rossini is eminently scalable, reduced or enlarged, and Wexford successfully went for it big time. The previous baking a cake theme also effectively pushes aside any of the dodgy Orientalism that Rossini was fond of using for comic romantic complications in his operas.

Designed by Tiziano Santi, the stage set is a huge cake that contains the lower quarters of the Caliph, the middle section holding Adina's room and the upper level with real life-size wedding cake figures, is used for other purposes, such as the jailing of Selimo when he tries to spirit his love Adina away from a fateful marriage to the Caliph (none of them yet knowing that the Caliph turns out to actually be Adina's father!)

So Adina is pretty much by-the-numbers material, Rossini providing the usual insistent rhythms and rapid-fire singing with some challenging vocal lines for Adina and Selimo, challenges that are capably met by Rachel Kelly and Levy Sekgapane who ring out those high notes beautifully. Musically there's a little more sophistication in the arrangements that is immediately apparent, although there is still some recitative here, Michele Spotti keeping the urgency and lightness of the plotting in place.

Directing both pieces, Rosetta Cucchi's production was certainly impressive in capturing the whole tone of the Rossini philosophy of living life to the full. The stage was filled with extras, all bringing little side-shows of humour, Alfredo the master chef ever present to emphasise the connections between Adina and La Cucina. Perhaps a little too much going on for a relatively simple piece, but life's a big cake and you just have to eat it, and why not add some special icing sugar on top. You can't get too much of that.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera