“Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.” The quote from the Bard's Hamlet links in nicely to director Julia Burbach’s approach to Edmea, by Alfredo Catalani, at this performance by Wexford Festival Opera. Although it is not actually based on any Shakespearean play (the theme of this year’s 70th festival), its theme of madness does provide a link, admittedly a fairly tenuous one, to Ophelia. The plot is one of melodrama, madness and self-sacrificial love.

Leon Kim (Ulmo), Luciano Ganci (Oberto) and Anne-Sophie Duprels (Edmea)
© Clive Barda

The central character, Edmea is in love with Count Oberto who is about to depart on a long journey. The Count’s father disapproves of Edmea and is forced to marry a servant called Ulmo who loves her passionately, but unrequitedly. Edmea loses her reason and, like Ophelia, attempts suicide by jumping into the river. She is rescued by Ulmo and the two journey around the countryside, although Edmea has lost her mind. They return to the Count's castle where she regains her senses on Oberto’s declaration of love. In a self-sacrificial gesture, Ulmo kills himself so that Edmea and Oberto may be united.

Burbach conceives the opera from Edmea’s perspective, treating it more as a psychological exploration of her mind and madness rather than a linear progression of the narrative. This authentic and original approach results in some highly creative ideas. It is at its most convincing with the fun and zany sets of designer Cécile Trémolières in the opening act, where we see two identical rooms with the one below upside down, the chairs and tables hanging from the ceiling. As Burbach says in her notes “the mirror structure of the set design allows us to view a dual world from the very beginning of the opera, reality and the subconscious underwater world side by side.” This is accompanied by a chorus of ladies, all dressed identically with red-haired wigs, who cleverly represent the complex emotional turmoil taking place inside Edmea's head.

Edmea at Wexford Festival Opera
© Clive Barda

What creates more mystery than light, is Act 2’s complex exploration of the subconscious. Here, Trémolières’s attractive 1950s costumes of the first act are set aside, and the jesters and Oberto are dressed in Napoleonic era costumes. This might make more sense if, in the final act when reason returns to Edmea, the characters revert back to their original selves rather than the fantastical imaginings of Act 2.

Soprano Anne-Sophie Duprels brilliantly captured Edmea’s madness, with mercurial shifts of mood from the tragic and the intense to the flighty and fey. Her voice opened up as the opera progressed, revealing itself in all its glory in its upper reaches. Her Act 3 aria and subsequent duet were sung with great sensitivity.

Edmea’s lover, Oberto, was sung brilliantly by tenor Luciano Ganci. The sweet heft of his voice excelled in the higher registers too, like a sports car, purring effortlessly with power and potential, eliciting immediate admiration. His many duets with Edmea were the highlights of the evening. He was no slouch when it came to acting too; his flashes of anger and despair Act 3 on learning that Ulmo stands in his way of his happiness were real, while his declarations of love possessed a searing intensity.

Anne-Sophie Duprels (Edmea) and Luciano Ganci (Oberto)
© Clive Barda

Leon Kim's Ulmo was a rival to Oberto in more ways than one. His frustrated, unrequited love was piteous, while his dog-like loyalty to his mad wife Edmea was touching. Deep, rich and powerful, his baritone voice was redolent of impotent fury at the beginning of the opera only for this to cede over time to one of great poignancy when he realises that nothing short of his own death will ensure his beloved Edmea’s happiness.

Bass Ivan Shcherbatykh as Oberto’s father, the Count of Leitmeritz, fitted the trope of authoritarian father well though a tad more projection was needed at times. Conor Prendiville, as Fritz the jester, possessed fine comic timing, adding much-needed light-heartedness into an intense opera. The chorus of ladies and the male jesters and soldiers were excellent, singing lustily and acting with jollity when required and surrealism at other times.

Edmea at Wexford Festival Opera
© Clive Barda

Conductor Francesco Cilluffo did a terrific job in gleaning every bit of emotion out of the orchestra and co-ordinating perfectly with the singers. From the front row, the orchestral sound was sufficiently intense and passionate, despite the reduced members of the orchestra. All in all, this was a highly imaginative and original take on Catalani’s rarity. 

***11