Strawberries and opera: these are the two associations I have of Wexford from childhood; the former marking the height of summer, the latter mid-Autumn. Tucked into the South-East corner of Ireland, the internationally renowned Wexford Festival Opera specializes in rediscovering infrequently performed operas. Opening this year’s festival was French composer Félicien David’s four-act grand opera Herculanum, a work which was first recorded just two years ago. With last night’s cast in fine voice, a strong case was made for more regular appearances in opera houses around the world.

The plot borders on the ludicrous as it mixes themes of love, religion and politics with all the subtly of a cement mixer. The story is set in the Roman town of Herculanum, near Pompei in 79AD where a chaste, Christian couple – Hélios and Lilia – are up against the machinations of a wicked, pagan Olympia and her brother, the proconsul, Nicanor. Olympia successfully seduces a weak-willed Hélios with the aid of a magic potion, but Nicanor is firmly rebuffed in his advances on the upright Lilia. The brother, in a fit of pique, declares that Lilia’s God does not exist whereupon he is promptly dispatched from this life by a thunderbolt (or as in this production, by a well-aimed rock to the head by Lilia). Nicanor is replaced by Satan who shows Lilia her betrothal’s infidelity. The Devil then proceeds to steer the story towards its apocalyptic conclusion where one and all perish in the explosion of Mount Vesuvius but not before Lilia forgives her erring lover.

There were some mystifying and raunchy moments in director, Stephen Medcalf’s conception of the opera. Instead of 79 AD, it was set in the early 19th century and while the regency-style costumes and military uniforms were elegant and the monastic habits austere, the historical replacement did not satisfactorily explain why there would be Christian slaves in a country which, in the 19th century, possessed the centre of Christianity. While Olympia’s court is dedicated to the pleasures of the flesh, the threesomes, incestuous and lesbian kissing were quite squirm-inducing and seemed far-fetched too in its 19th-century context.

The stage set by Jamie Vartan was minimal but very effective. The menacing presence of Mount Vesuvius loomed in the background and as the opera progressed it belched forth smoke and lava bubbled inside. The explosive eruption at the end was incredibly effective with the red lights realistically representing the lava flowing over everybody while the grey lights brilliantly suggested the encrustation in ash. The large number of interlocking crosses in Act II was an ominous portent of suffering for Lilia as she resisted Nicanor while Satan’s fiery entrance from inside the stage was suitably terrifying.

The five vocal soloists did a masterful job of what is not an easy score. The sweet heft of Canadian tenor, Andrew Haji’s voice, coupled with his convincing acting, made for a wonderful portrayal of the vacillating Hélios. His aria as he accepts the drugged chalice “A toi, reine ou déesse” was sung in a warm tone brilliantly capturing the moment as awakens to the sensual pleasures’ of Olympia’s court while his duet aria with Lilia in Act IV as he repents of his infidelity was sung with genuine remorse.

Daniela Pini sang with fine control as Olympia, her mezzo-soprano coloratura soaring beautifully in her hymn to Venus, “Viens, ô blonde déesse”. In spite of all her success at seducing Hélios, Pini came across more as an ice-queen than an irresistible temptress.

Romanian Soprano Olga Busuioc was magnificent as the spurned Lilia. Possessing a golden tone and a pearly coloratura voice, she made it utterly believable that Hélios would have left everything for love of her. Imbuing her role with utter convinction and great sensitivity, her piteous wailing of her lover’s infidelity in Act II or her confrontation of Hélios in Olympia’s court with her aria “Je crois au Dieu” Act III would have melted the heart of the most hard-hearted libertine.

Simon Bailey did a fine job, firstly as the villainous proconsul, Nicanor, and then as Satan, particularly in Act IV as he frees the slaves from their fetters singing the technically fiendish chromatic scales to great effect. Rory Musgrave, in the more minor role as the Christian prophet, did not possess a huge voice and lacked the gravitas necessary to thunder out his moral denunciation. The chorus of WFO sang lustily and with obvious enjoyment of the work.

Finally, conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud kept the musical tension up until the final moment, eliciting sensitive orchestral shading throughout. He got the best out of the Orchestra of WFO, managing the tricky coordination between singers and orchestra with aplomb.