Friday 24 November 2017

Review: Herculanum at the National Opera House - 'Uneven and decidedly long but it has a lot of good music'

Wexford Opera Festival: Herculanum at the National Opera House

Herculanum at the National Opera House
Herculanum at the National Opera House

Pat O’Kelly

There are fireworks outside and inside the National Opera House as the 65 Wexford Festival gets under way. Those inside come with Félicien David’s Herculanum, which ends with Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 AD.

The opera certainly falls within Wexford’s penchant for reviving the forgotten and giving them a welcome, or unwelcome, airing as the case may be. Herculanum is uneven and decidedly long but it has a lot of good music.

First heard in Paris in 1859 there are touches of Berlioz as well as hints of Gounod and even a little Verdi. Some lovely things run through the orchestra while David writes strongly for the voice, particularly in Herculanum’s later acts, there can be more interesting things happening in the pit.

For me the main problem lies with Stephen Medcalf’s predominantly grey sets. Jamie Vartan’s costumes try to make amends but their effect is minimal. Musically matters are considerably brighter once an unsettled Act I is out of the way. With conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud’s obvious understanding of David’s score, his singers respond, in the main, incisively.

Herculanum centres on the pagan queen Olympia and her satanic brother Nicanor against the betrothed Christians Lilia and Helios. A magic potion ruins Helios’ fidelity but Lilia has forgiveness in her heart before Vesuvius destroys all.

Soprano Olga Busuioc and tenor Andrew Haji bring their roles of Lilia and Helios to radiant life with their lengthy Act 4 duet touchingly expressive. Bass-baritone Simon Bailey as the combined Nicanor/Satan is more staunchly effective as the latter.

Mezzo Daniela Pini is occasionally strident as the lascivious Olympia and baritone Rory Musgrave needs more heft for his message of doom.

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