Fromental Halévy’s La Tempesta, based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, was commissioned for London. An existing French libretto by Scribe was translated into Italian, the norm for operas from whatever foreign source given in London. The premiere of 1850 was successful, but the work disappeared along with almost all the composer’s 40 operas. After 170 years of neglect, a piece needs resurrection rather than revival, so you send for Wexford Festival Opera.

Jade Phoenix (Ariele) and Nikolay Zemlianskikh (Prospero)
© Clive Barda | ArenaPAL

Scribe had to create a version with action, characters and voice types on the template of 19th-century opera. Shakespeare’s work is dominated by Prospero, and has only one female, Miranda, and while she and Fernando can sing a love duet, more female singing is required. So Miranda’s role becomes active enough for her later to attempt to stab Fernando (they are supposed to be besotted with each other but as the Bard said elsewhere, the course of true love never did run smooth). And since Ariele is a spirit, the soprano register will work well for that role also, and Ariele is seen and heard early on, conjuring the storm for Prospero. Calibano’s mother dies before Shakespeare’s play begins, but is given voice by Scribe. In this production Sicorace is incarcerated unseen, but three times loudspeakers are lowered so she can address her son. So we have an opera with three contrasting female roles.

Hila Baggio (Miranda) and Giorgi Manoshvili (Calibano)
© Clive Barda | ArenaPAL

The plot too is adjusted. Calibano captures Miranda, but his encounter with the shipwrecked sailors, or more precisely his first encounter with drink, enable her to escape. Ariele has more agency, despite being incapacitated for a while by the magic flowers Calibano obtains. There is still the final reconciliation, when all except Calibano prepare to sail back to Naples. Perhaps the main loss is of a truly dominant Prospero. As roles are enhanced around him, he is no longer the compelling puppet master of the Jacobean stage.

In his production, director Roberto Catalano says “the island becomes a construction site where the nostalgia of the painful past can be healed” and set designer Emanuele Sinisi provides an effective colourless set, its back wall bearing the legend “NOSTALGIA”, plus a cement mixer and a pile of bricks. The wall is not just incomplete but has a large hole down to stage level serving as an entrance. In the upper levels of the wall bricked up windows right and left open as required for characters to observe or sing when needed. In later scenes, a huge Homeric statue’s head, still in scaffolding, serves several functions including Ariele’s prison and a tower from which Prospero denounces his betrayers.

Giorgi Manoshvili (Calibano), Jade Phoenix (Ariele) and Nikolay Zemlianskikh (Prospero)
© Clive Barda | ArenaPAL

Not every detail contributes. Small portable lamps placed on the stage floor, and five dressing mirrors framed by florescent tubing, fail to illuminate much. The chorus is Prospero’s court, dressed by costume designer Ilaria Ariemme in long black coats in contrast to the white of Prospero’s and Miranda’s garb. They sang superbly, especially the men in opening the second part with the jolliest number of an uneven score, a drinking song in march rhythm. The orchestra played well under WFO’s Principal Guest Conductor Francesco Cilluffo. No hint of routine here, as they brought a work quite new to them all energetically off the page.

Father and daughter were both sung by impressive debutants. Nikolay Zemlianskikh is blessed with an imposing baritone voice of characterful timbre, unstrained in the upper register. It was difficult to believe this impressive Prospero was his international debut. The Miranda, Israeli soprano Hila Baggio, also has a lovey instrument and sang well, if taxed in the role’s heaviest demands. Ariele has an easier time, or Jade Phoenix gave that impression with her seemingly effortless singing. Sicorace was Emma Jüngling, making the vocal best of her small offstage role.

Giulio Pelligra (Fernando), Rory Musgrove (Alonso), Dan D'Souza (Trinculo)
© Clive Barda | ArenaPAL

As Fernando Giulio Pelligra was ardent and lyrical in his lovestruck encounter with Miranda. Those hard-drinking jesters, Trinculo (Dan D'Souza) and Stefano (Gianluca Moro), and the conspirators Alonso (Rory Musgrave) and Antonio (Richard Shaffrey), sang and acted more than well enough to suggest greater things are coming to them... through talent, not drink or conspiracy.

This work has ten named parts, none of them negligible, and all were well cast. That is quite a tribute to Wexford and its young artists’ development scheme, the Wexford Factory. Three of the cast are members, and another is a former member. One member stole the evening’s vocal honours, including the prestigious biggest curtain call cheer award. Calibano might be an ill-formed monster, but Giorgi Manoshvili deployed his rich bass voice with elegance of line and tone. He persuaded you that his vocal part was written with many a piano and dolce marking – or should be sung as if it is.