Vocalist - Mezzo-Soprano
Snow Maiden/Mines of Suphur at Wexford Opera House
She's shaped inside like the bowels of a cello, wrapped with horseshoe balconies. Walls and staircases are covered in American walnut, dark and succulent. She stretches to 7,500 square metres and contains 780 seats, upholstered in interesting periwinkle-coloured leather. She's called Wexford Opera House, the first to be built in Ireland in modern times, and she's just opened her doors.

Wexford Festival Opera had long outgrown the Theatre Royal, and you must admire the ingenuity of Keith Williams Architects in creating an enticing new structure behind the existing façades. From sketches to completion, the project took five years. You could pick holes if you wanted: seating not kind to the back, icy drafts into parts of the auditorium when street doors are open. But they shrivel alongside the intimate feel, the radiant acoustic and the building's very existence.

Was it wise, though, to open with John Fulljames's production of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden? Opinions may differ. With its gorgeous melodies, fairytale spectacle and sun-worshipping finale, the opera is festive enough, but to these eyes designer Dick Bird's minimalist mish-mash - industrial piping, pink tutus, shopping cart, you name it - seemed a lowering response to the original's imperial pomp. Watching the Tsar bathing in his tub in his ice-locked ship was fun for a while; not so the gauche camping of the Dance of the Tumblers, or the weird Heath Robinson scarecrow during the Prologue.

Still, the Snow Maiden melted nicely, and you couldn't fault the vibrant attack of most of the soloists and chorus, predominantly East European. As the heroine, lack of tonal variety was Irina Samoylova's only weakness; alongside, Katerina Jalovcová stood out as the spiv-like shepherd Lel, and Igor Tarasov shook off early stiffness to make Mizgir a hero almost worth melting for. Helped by an acoustic-friendly pit, the conductor Dmitri Jurowski (Vladimir's brother) whipped up glittering panache from the orchestra. If you shut your eyes, you had a wonderful time.

Wexford kept colour and jollification for its co-production of Carlo Pedrotti's 19th-century trifle Tutti in Maschera, staged in Italy by Rosetti Cucchi last year. Before that we had Richard Rodney Bennett's 1965 The Mines of Sulphur, a darkly humorous slice of country, house Gothic, couched in a reasonably relaxed serial idiom, now returning to the spotlight after years in mothballs. Michael Barker- Caven's production gave us meaty, realistic scenery: prominent staircase, armour climbing up the walls, four-poster bed. Performances were just as solid, with outstanding work by Krisztina Szabó (gypsy Rosalind), John Bellemer, Caroline Worra and Dorothy Byrne.

Was this grim tale finally worth the telling? At the protracted end, you might have said no; but for three quarters of the time it held the attention. Let's drink to many more operas in the festival's spiffy new home.
Geoff Brown, London Times
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