Bloody and sensational, Wexford Festival Opera opened its 2018 season with a double bill of operas in the verisimo tradition; L’oracolo, an opera in one act by Franco Leoni, followed by Giordano’s three act Mala vita. Both plots are typically melodramatic, featuring the usual tropes aplenty – love triangles, black-hearted villains and broken-hearted heroines. In particular, L’oracolo felt like a rollercoaster, with lots of action packed into its single act but not enough time for developing characters or storyline. It recounts how villainous opium dealer Cim-Fen kidnaps a young boy in order to blackmail the poor father (Hu-Tsin) into giving him the other daughter in marriage. Double murder punctuates this lurid storyline.

Cordelia Chisholm's sets were thoroughly opulent and magnificent, an equal feat of engineering and artistry. It featured a three-storey square block of buildings redolent of Chinatown in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century which turned niftily to reveal different street scenes; at first a red-lit opium den, and later a Chinese Herb store or residential scene.

Director, Rodula Gaitanou’s approach to the opera’s relentless sensationalism was to ramp it up and make the ending even more shocking and gory. In the libretto Uin-Scî, the learned doctor and father of murdered Uin-San-Lui, merely strangles the villain, props him on a bench and pretends to talk to him to avoid detection by the passing policeman. Not content with exacting revenge, Gaitanou’s Uin-Scî starts performing a gruesome surgical removal of the villain’s heart which he bears aloft in gloating triumph before the policeman catches him in the act at the end. It had the audience gasping audibly but it seemed needlessly sensationalist.

The singers were a delight: Leoni’s opera might wallow in its own gore but he knew how to write wonderful vocal melodies something Leon Kim, Joo Won Kang, Sergio Escobar and Elisabetta Farris rejoiced in. Kang’s Cim-Fen was suitably robust and evil while his voice had power and in his middle range real charm. Farris’ voice dripped with sadness and pity. The sweet heft of Escobar’s tenor was as impressive as his acting, both here and in Giordano's opera. There was a nobility and depth to Leon Kim's Uin-Scî and, despite his final bloodthirsty incisions, he moved us in his grief.

The street scenes with the Chinese New Year parade of the dragon were fantastic, as were the chattering children and the excellent festival chorus. A final word of congratulations to Cillian McCamley who acted terrifically as the kidnapped child. 

After the interval the block of buildings remained but we had moved from Chinatown to Little Italy in New York for the next opera, a shift that worked seamlessly. The action of Mala vita, which takes place in a slum of Naples, recounts the complicated love life of Vito, a cobbler, who has a mistress called Amalia, but after praying for a cure for his tuberculosis he swears to marry a prostitute, Cristina, so as to save her from a life of sin. Amalia has no intention of relinquishing Vito to anyone, least of all, to a fallen woman, while Cristina, who enjoys her new moral high ground, is equally determined.

Gaitanou’s modernisation was tasteful and clever and even the changed ending, where Cristina, instead of returning to the brothel from whence she came, commits suicide, possessed good dramatic impetus. Chisholm’s costumes were elegant with a fine eye for detail: red shoes for the adulterous Amalia, white nightgown for the prostitute and spiv suit for the cuckolded Annetiello.

Escobar imbued Vito with a thoroughly believable moral ambiguity. His first aria, “O Gesú”, in which he prays to be released from his disease, possessed true fervour. There was undeniable chemistry between him and the very coquettish Francesca Tiburzi as Cristina as they both gave a delectable rendition of their love duet while his capitulation into his old carnal ways with his previous lover rang true too. Tiburzi was magnificent in her role as Cristina: she soared at the top of her soprano range while her lament in the final act would have melted the stoniest of hearts. In her mid range, she unfolded her line with a pearly delicacy.

There was power and brilliance to mezzo soprano Dorothea Spilger’s Amalia. Her encounter with Cristina at the clothes-line was delightfully shrewish while her winning back of Vito was forcefully passionate.

Conductor Francesco Cilluffo and the Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera gave a wonderfully invigorating and energetic account of both scores, giving fine and sensitive support to singers and chorus alike.