Notes from Around the Sundial: A Kiss in Wexford

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A Kiss in Wexford

I've written about the Wexford Opera Festival before. Every year at the end of October, this three-week festival takes place in the custom-built opera house in Wexford, the southeasternmost town in Ireland. There are usually three operas staged in rotation so that anybody can see all three operas on three successive nights.

I'm actually not a great opera fan, so one a year is good enough for me. The last Monday in October is a public holiday in Ireland, and Mrs G and I generally visit the Festival on the Sunday night of the holiday weekend. There we meet my sister Azara and her friend M, who go for the full three operas.

This year, the opera was starting at 5pm, so we left home at about one and took a leisurely drive down to Wexford. It's two hours by road (three by rail but that's a different story). We called into a shop along the way and bought some pre-made sandwiches. The sun was shining the whole way and the autumn colours on the trees were just beautiful. When we got to our mobile home, we had an hour or so to eat our sandwiches and change into our formal clothes.

Dressing Up

Wexford is the one occasion in the year when I wear formal costume, other than when I'm performing with my choir. I wear the full 'black tie' get-up with dinner jacket, wing collar shirt, hand-tied bow tie and musical motif cuff-links. It's quite a job to tie the bow tie – when I got it first, I had to download a YouTube video of a very helpful American, a southern gentleman, demonstrating how it's done. There are only two mirrors in our house and they're both upstairs. The computer with YouTube is downstairs. My first few attempts involved watching the video downstairs, running up and looking in the mirror as I tied the tie completely crooked, running down again to check the video, and so on. But that was a year ago. I can now tie it from memory, and the mobile home has a mirror, so it didn't take too long. Mrs G dolled herself up in her finery too, and we were ready to go.

The Venue

The Wexford Opera House was originally a tiny cinema, which they converted into an opera house. The stage had only room for about 10 people on it, and the audience seats were really cramped. Nevertheless it attracted a following and eventually after 50 years they were able to afford to build a proper opera house. But the space available was still very restricted because it is right in the middle of the town and they couldn't expand outwards very much. The auditorium is big and spacious, but the various access ways are rather restricted. We arrived with 10 minutes to spare and quickly found Azara and M. Getting to our seat involved pushing our way through the crowd, the bar and past people just as intently going the opposite direction. Eventually we were settled in the stalls, in about the fifth row - Azara looks after the tickets and she always gets us a good seat. We had a great view and were right up close to the singers.

The Opera

The Wexford Festival Opera, as they like to be called, specialises in obscure works. Some are little-known works by famous composers. Others are works which never got performed because the governments of the day disagreed with them. For example, one a few years ago had been first performed just before the Second World War. Then the next day the composer, being Jewish, was taken away to a concentration camp and never seen again. The opera was never performed again, until it hit the stage in Wexford. Of course some of the operas are little known because they are genuinely not very good - they probably deserve to be forgotten. So it's a mixed bag. You never know when you sit down and the curtain rises whether it will be a gem or a dud. But even the bad ones are usually rescued by good staging and phenomenal singing to produce a pleasant evening's entertainment, so we're never disappointed. And to liven things up, we always have a bottle of champagne between the four of us at the interval, so the second half is even more pleasant.

This night's performance was 'The Kiss' (Hubicka) by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana. He is normally considered to be the Czech Republic's 2nd composer after Dvorak. I wasn't really familiar with his work other than the tone poem 'Vltava' which charts the course of the Vltava river from its source through the forests of Bohemia, over the rapids, its triumphant passage through Prague and then off into the distance. There were definite shades of Vltava throughout this opera. The music was absolutely glorious and the singers excellent. In keeping with the obscure operas, the singers in Wexford tend to be unknown too, but usually go on to better things - many famous singers started out in Wexford. So we may hear more in future years of Pumeza Matshikiza, the stunning lead soprano, or bass Bradley Smoak.

The Plot

Opera's biggest weakness, besides the expense of the productions, is the stupidity of the plots. This one was no exception. A young farmer, Lukas, loves a young woman, Vendulka, but is persuaded by his parents to marry another woman. Now the other woman has died, and the opera starts at her funeral, where Lukas meets Vendulka and realises they still love each other. On the spot he asks her to marry him and she agrees. In front of all the villagers, he asks her for a kiss but she refuses. She says it would be disrespectful to his dead wife. He is really annoyed at this and goes off in a huff, spending the next week in the local tavern drinking and carousing with lots of women. Vendulka thinks she has lost him and is in despair.

There's a curious interlude, when Vendulka's aunt, to take her mind off things, announces that she needs some help with the smugglers. It turns out that the aunt is part of a smuggling band. The leader of the band, Matous, sings a song in a glorious bass voice about how quietly the smugglers work through the night avoiding the patrols of the government troops. There are shades of Gilbert and Sullivan's "With Catlike Tread" here, from the Pirates of Penzance. Then the sun comes up and there's a beautiful soprano aria welcoming the skylarks that sing of the dawn. The opera ends with Lukas and Vendulka being reconciled and sealing their love with a kiss.

The Surtitles

Some people are put off opera by the fact that it is normally in a foreign language. This one was in Czech, which probably nobody in the audience understands. But Wexford is equipped with 'surtitles', as are most opera houses. These screens above and to either side of the stage display a translation of the words as they are sung. There's usually no problem understanding what's going on, particularly since the songs tend to be fairly repetitive.

Post Opera Dinner

After the opera, we walked to what has been described as the best Italian restaurant in Ireland, La Dolce Vita. The chef is Italian and has been living in Ireland for many years. Normally the restaurant does mainly lunches, opening only on Saturday nights for dinner, but during the opera festival they make an exception. We sat down to a delicious three-course Italian meal. I had a creamy risotto for starter, a main course of venison, with orange and lemon tart for dessert. With wine and coffee this came to only €35 a head, a real bargain!

Saying Goodbyes

Azara and M always stay in a hotel in Wexford for their three-day holiday. We said goodbye to them and headed out to our mobile home (Mrs G driving as she had not had any wine). Mobile homes are really designed for summer holidays and are not good at keeping out the cold of late autumn, so it can be a bit chilly, but we managed to keep warm. The following morning I had work to do, preparing the mobile for the winter – it's unoccupied until March so I needed to drain the water out of the pipes to prevent them freezing over the winter. Then we drove back up to Dublin with the sun still shining. All in all, a very enjoyable short break with a bit of culture and good food.

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