If murder most foul had the final say in last night’s Medea, tonight’s Wexford Festival Opera billing, Margherita, had a more cheerful message: love triumphs in the end. It wasn’t the only thing that triumphed, for this whole production sparkled and charmed – a veritable tour de force. Italian born, Jacopo Foroni spent a large portion of his life in Sweden. His life was tragically cut short by a cholera epidemic when he was only 33. Margherita was written at the precocious young of 23. Despite its initial enthusiastic reception in Milan in 1848, it quickly fell into decline and has been rarely heard since.

Alessandra Volpe (Margherita) © Clive Barda
Alessandra Volpe (Margherita)
© Clive Barda

The drama unfolds in two acts and takes place in a mountain village. The plot tells the tale of Margherita, a pretty, rich orphan girl who is in love with the soldier Ernesto but who is pestered with proposals of marriage by the well-connected Roberto. Ernesto is falsely arrested on charge of having attacked count Rodolfo, the colonel in Ernesto’s regiment. While languishing in prison, the scheming Roberto promises to release Ernesto if Margherita will marry him. In order to save her lover, she agrees. Count Rodolfo appears and proclaims the hero’s innocence and, on his release, Ernesto is horrified that Margherita has betrayed him and plighted her troth to the villain. Cue for Rodolfo to finally recognise that the man who attacked him was Roberto and who is then carted off to prison and love is triumphant.

Director Michael Sturm sets the action a hundred years later in 1940s Italy which works perfectly well. Stefan Rieckhoff's magnificent sets of crumbling Italian streets are a joy as is the ingenious semi-translucent curtain which allows a spectral Ernesto in Act 2 to bemoan his fate as if suspended in mid-air. Rieckhoff captured the ludic spirit of Sturm’s direction too with the washing line full of clothes making its way across at mock-serious moments. With an eye for slapstick, Sturm imbued the production with constant good-humoured cheer that elicited many laughs. The failed wooing of Margherita by Roberto, aided and abetted by his uncle, was one such example, as was the Colonel’s inopportune entrance on the billing and cooing of Ernesto and Margherita.

<i>Margherita</i> © Clive Barda
Margherita
© Clive Barda

Wexford has assembled an exceedingly strong cast led by the wonderful mezzo Alessandra Volpe. She captured both the innocence and passionate intensity of Margherita with her highly nuanced and expressive voice. As the snow fell in Act 2, her piteous declarations of eternal love for the imprisoned Ernesto wrung our hearts while her duet aria with the sister Guistina was nothing short of magnificent, their golden voices interweaving intricately together. Giuliana Gianfaldoni, who plays the sister, was equally superb, soaring stratospherically high with great power at times and unfolding the pearly notes with such delicacy at others.

The sweet heft of tenor Andrew Stenson’s Ernesto cossetted the ear, while his high C in Act 1 was pure gold. The role of Ernesto presents several challenges: he carelessly loses his hat which indirectly imprisons him and then mopes about his beloved selfless sacrifice to secure his release. It is much to Stenson’s credit that in this production Ernesto comes across as a decent chap wronged rather than a moaning clot. His army superior, Colonel Rodolfo, sung by baritone Yuriy Yurchuk, possesses a rich, deep voice capable of great versatility and his denunciation of the real villain at the end was wonderfully evocative.

Giuliana Gianfaldoni (Giustina) and Chorus © Clive Barda
Giuliana Gianfaldoni (Giustina) and Chorus
© Clive Barda

Much of the comedic limelight was shared by the scheming uncle and mayor, Matteo D’Apolito and the villainous if at times hapless nephew, Filippo Fontana. Frequently in duet together, their rapid patter singing was niftily executed, producing an enjoyable contrapuntal frisson. Both possessed excellent comic timing, D’Apolito squeezing more fun out of a cold than I thought possible, while Fontana inspired a curious mixture of humour and pity as he was hoisted by his own petard.

The chorus of Wexford Festival Opera was in great voice, dishing up some delightful sycophantic touches with the Mayor at the start, excited anticipation of the arrival of the regiment and latterly some comic drunken revelry of the soldiers. Conductor Timothy Myers got the best out of the orchestra, producing music that thrilled with excitement, passion and jocose good cheer.

This is a forgotten gem that deserves to be a regular in the operatic canon. With a superlative production and cast, not to mention the glorious music and engaging storyline, I’d happily watch it all again tomorrow.

*****