Armida (1904) was Dvořák’s tenth and last opera and, outside his homeland, has been neglected like all his other operas except Rusalka. Determined to devote his final years to opera but stuck for a suitable libretto, he turned to a tale from Tasso that had been put on stage almost a hundred times since the 17th century, from Lully to Rossini. The story of love between the crusader Rinaldo and Saracen sorceress Armida was not an obvious choice for the new century, and it failed. Wagner’s 1882 Parsifal told of Christian knights on a quest, a sorcerer and a magic garden, but even then seemed a throwback in a post-Carmen era. Though this production is shared with Pilsen’s JK Tyl Theatre, Armida is not much given even in the Czech Republic. So it is ideal for Wexford, the festival where dead operas return to life.

Jozef Benci (King Hydraot) and Jennifer Davis (Armida)
© Clive Barda | ArenaPAL

Austrian director, set and costume designer Hartmut Schörghofer, in his Wexford debut, takes the bold view that Armida is best taken at face value – crusades, magic and all. With a libretto that Lully might have recognised, why not have some scenic spectacle the Sun King would have applauded? With brilliant videography from Raffaele Acquaviva, we see a substantial Crusader encampment, and a magic castle and garden conjured up, thrown down, rebuilt again, all at the wave of a wand. At times lighting designer DM Wood might illuminate scenes more, but perhaps using video inhibits this.

Stanislav Kuflyuk (Ismen)
© Clive Barda | ArenaPAL

Given the demographics of an opera audience, there might have been a thousand years of opera going experience in the O’Reilly Theatre. But how many had ever seen a huge dragon fly into a scene, to help beleaguered lovers make their escape? Contemporary composers will now be re-reading their Tasso or Tolkein and commissioning Schörghofer and colleagues to design their next operas for the Game of Thrones generation.

Thomas Birch (Roger), Josef Kovačič (Ubald), Chris Mosz (Dudo) and Andrii Kharlamov (Gernand)
© Clive Barda | ArenaPAL

There were other more familiar operatic delights on show, such as fine singing. The Armida of Wexford debutant Jennifer Davis was much anticipated, ever since her success as Elsa in Wagner’s Lohengrin at Covent Garden. She did not disappoint, with lustrous tone powerfully projected, and notable stage presence whether disingenuously abasing herself before a crusader commander or derisively repulsing a rival sorcerer. Her lover Rinald was Austrian-Australian tenor Gerard Schneider, who matched Davis’ vocal calibre, commanding a tonal range from soft endearment to ringing call-to-arms. Ismen, his sorcerer rival for Armida, was Stanislav Kuflyuk, dominating several scenes with authority and vocal fluency, and from his initial political deference to the King of Damascus, to his Act 4 demise, he convinced in driving the wandering plot along its course.

Jennifer Davis (Armida) and Gerard Schneider (Rinald)
© Clive Barda | ArenaPAL

Of the numerous smaller roles the vocal standout was Jan Hynk as Petr, whose firmly-focussed bass exuded religious certainty as the priest who “sees snakes slumbering” in Armida’s eyes. With thirteen named roles taken by a dozen singers, there was again no weak link in Wexford’s casting. Someone in this Festival team really does know who to call.

Jan Hynk (Petr), Gerard Schneider (Rinald) and Chorus of Wexford Festival Opera
© Clive Barda | ArenaPAL

Yet another debutant was Czech conductor Norbert Baxa, clearly master of Dvořák’s late operatic idiom, with its familiar Bohemian manners modified to enable contrast between the music of Saracen and Christian. The WFO Orchestra offered up rich effects, and given the martial subject, finally reversed Rafael Kubelík’s dictum that “in Bohemia, the trumpets never call to battle, they call only to the dance”. Chorus Master Andrew Synott prepared the Wexford Festival Opera Chorus for three premieres on successive nights, each with a substantial choral element, male, female and mixed. Their outstanding work is not the least element in the festival’s success.