Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and this is certainly true in relation to the Wexford Festival Opera. Shakespeare is at the heart of its 70th anniversary. On 21st October, the festival offered a concert performance of Ein Wintermärchen (The Winter’s Tale), the final opera by Hungarian-born Viennese Composer Karl Goldmark (1830-1915). Composed in 1908, it is a fine late-Romantic work with sumptuous scoring and passionate discords.

Sophie Gordeladze
© Lasha Bakuradze

Shakespeare’s plays have long been a source of inspiration for operas and symphonic poems; The Winter’s Tale, with its melodramatic moments and intense psychological drama, has been adapted by several different composers. The plot is convoluted, spanning a period of 16 years; two distant countries, Sicily and Bohemia; and five main characters whose stories are told and ultimately intertwined. Leontes, the King of Sicily, suspects his wife Hermione has been unfaithful with his visiting friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia. Falsely accused she dies, as does her son, while her newborn daughter Perdita is exiled. Brought up by shepherds, she later falls in love with the son of Polixenes. The marriage is forbidden and they elope. On returning to Sicily, the statue of her mother comes to life, with everyone reconciled.

Stripped of costumes, sets and acting, we were left with the passionate, lush orchestral music and the contours of the voices to guide us through the psychological intrigue. Happily, the singers were of such calibre that had us enthralled right from the get-go. The sopranos Sophie Gordeladze as Hermione and Ava Dodd as Perdita were outstanding in their roles as mother and daughter. The former was heard in Act 1 and the latter in Act 2, then reuniting only briefly in the final septet at the end of Act 3. Gordeladze imbued her Hermione with wonderful sensitivity, soaring gracefully on the high notes as she convinced Polixenes to extend his stay, her coloratura softly caressing the notes. Her later defence of her innocence was impassioned and piteous, her fortissimo showing a finely controlled strength while her touching pianissimo would have melted the sternest of hearts.

Dodd was equally impressive. In contrast to the intense and sinister first act, Act 2 is a cheery, pleasant affair. Possessing a golden voice, her virtuosic octave leaps and vocal gymnastics were dispatched with tremendous verve and panache, wooing both the audience and her prince, Florizel. In that role, Daniel Szeili was good, although he was a tad too dominant at times in his duets with Dodd.

As Leontes, Burkhard Fritz brought all the complexities of his character to life with his rich tenor voice, starting off as a hail-fellow-well-met type, cordially inviting his friend to stay longer with him. Yet within a few moments of his wife having convinced him, he forcefully conveyed the rabid and destructive jealousy that will destroy his family. He imbued each note of his Act 3 repentance with true grief, while his most profound moment for me was when he asks his wife’s forgiveness at the end. His voice throbbed with a heady mixture of love, forgiveness, self-doubt, despair at the past and the seeds of hope for the future.

Fritz was well matched by the fine heft of baritone Simon Thorpe as Polixenes. One of the few characters to have a role in all three acts, he conveyed his pure-as-the-driven-snow attitude rather well. One wonders though why in Act 2 he falls into a similar authoritarian trap as his erstwhile friend Leontes did, these kings not seeming to learn from one another’s mistakes. Baritone Rory Musgrave, as the cupbearer Camillo, possessed a pleasant voice that was lacking in projection. Niamh O’Sullivan was an icy Paulina. Coolly detached from the drama, she was the wonderfully clear voice of conscience for Leontes. Her passionate defence of her queen was impressively controlled.

The chorus of WFO was excellent. Whether singing the terrifying shriek of death in Act 1 or the amusing, jolly numbers in Act 2, their versatility and their characterisation was terrific. But the final word must go to the orchestra of WFO. Conductor Marcus Bosch did a fine job in wringing every ounce of emotion he could from them. At times, it was successfully done, such as the light, frothy gaiety of Act 2. At other times however, the reduced forces (due to Covid measures) meant that instead of the sumptuous, lush sounds demanded by the score, it sounded all too meagre and strained, particularly in the string section.

All in all, tonight was a fine performance which deserves the full treatment of set, costumes and acting – oh and regularly outings too.