Wexford Festival Opera 2013: Thérèse/La Navarraise

Thérèse by Jules Massenet at Wexford Festival Opera 2013. Photo by Clive Barda

Thérèse by Jules Massenet at Wexford Festival Opera 2013. Photo by Clive Barda

Nora Sourouzian in Therese by Massenet - Wexford Festival Opera- Photo by Clive Barda

Nora Sourouzian in Therese by Massenet - Wexford Festival Opera- Photo by Clive Barda

La Navarraise by Massenet  WFO Photo by Clive Barda

La Navarraise by Massenet WFO Photo by Clive Barda

Nora Sourouzian in La Navarraise by Massenet WFO  Photo by Clive Barda

Nora Sourouzian in La Navarraise by Massenet WFO Photo by Clive Barda

Double-bills are rare in opera, logistically the most demanding of theatrical art-forms. Two casts to co-ordinate, twin sets of rehearsal schedules, major scene-shifts and multiple costume changes during performances – the practical difficulties can be insurmountable, the extra costs involved prohibitive.
All of which makes the Massenet double-header at this year's Wexford Festival something special. It brings together Thérèse and La Navarraise, two hour-long pieces the French composer wrote in his artistic maturity, but which are nothing like so well known as his full-length repertoire staples Manon and Werther.
Both shows are dominated by the scintillating performances of Nora Sourouzian in the title roles. The French-Canadian mezzo is, on this showing, a force of operatic nature, singing from the outset of Thérèse with an attack and focused intensity which made you fearful she could ever make it to the brief but harrowing mad scene at La Navarraise's conclusion.
Sourouzian turns out to be indefatigable. The voice itself is a vibrant, richly expressive instrument, thrilling when unleashed at moments of high emotional intensity (there are many in both operas), but retaining its poise and tonal plenitude in more introverted, quieter sections.
Sourouzian acts superbly too, graphically tracing the conflicted loyalties of her love-triangle entanglement in Thérèse, and unleashing the raw passions of a wounded tigress in the blasted militaristic setting of La Navarraise. So well differentiated is her approach to the two characters that you wonder initially, when the curtain rises after the interval, whether it can possibly be one and the same singer.
It says something for the two male leads who also feature in both operas that they are not eclipsed by Sourouzian's brilliance. The French-Vietnamese singer Philippe Do makes a particularly strong impression as Thérèse's former lover Armand de Clerval, and the rich-kid soldier smitten by the penniless foreigner Anita, ‘La Navarraise’ of the second opera's title. Do's ringing tenor is dramatically riveting, and like Sourouzian he seems tireless in what is a sizeable combined sing across the two operas.
Brian Mulligan, the Irish-American baritone, is similarly impressive, especially as Thérèse's André Thorel, the political activist snared by revolutionary uprisings, and haunted by the possibility that his wife's affections have in some way faded. Looking like a young Bryn Terfel, and acting with subtle suggestivity, he adds a patina of style and class to the raw emoting of his two co-principals.
On vocal grounds alone, therefore, this Massenet evening would have rated highly. The major bonus is that both stagings, by the production duo of André Barbe (designer) and Renaud Doucet (director), are also of high quality, adding considerably to the overall impact of the performances. Together Barbe and Doucet fashion a series of visual framing devices for Thérèse which set the action in a broader emotional and historical context, significantly enhancing the resonance of the events played out in Jules Claretie's libretto. 
A team of totally impassive art restorers works forensically at pictures in drawing-room of the chateau, as the main action unfolds around them. One painting – of Armand and Thérèse in happier times – is accidentally dropped, neatly communicating the sad decline of their relationship. Upstage, a portrait of an elderly couple looks on benignly, thoughtfully. Passion fades, they seem to say; one day the fevered intensities of the present moment will fade into the haziness of half-remembered history.
A similar framing device is used by Barbe and Doucet in La Navarraise, where a Picasso lookalike stalks the stage during the overture, contemplating giant cut-outs of his monochrome masterpiece Guernica, the basic ‘set’ within which the action of the opera unravels. Again the message is unmistakable: the battles once enacted with cruel intensity are now history, from which we appear to learn little. New battles inevitably replace the old ones. Will the circle forever be unbroken?
These clever, stimulating glosses on Massenet's raw scenarios not only lock both operas together thematically, but give points of contemporary reference to audiences who might otherwise struggle to connect with the political and historical milieu of the original librettos. It's an object lesson in how to update repertoire successfully, and freshen up obscure, outmoded content.
In the pit conductor Carlos Izcaray whips up a whirlwind in La Navarraise (the more visceral of the two pieces), and allows plenty of elbow-room for the greater harmonic and textural subtleties of Thérèse to fully register. He elicits an edge-of-seat response from the orchestra, who've given an exceptionally fine account of themselves throughout this year's festival.
In sum, this is Wexford at something approaching its finest – rare repertoire, stimulatingly updated, with high-level musical and theatrical values permeating both productions. And in Nora Sourouzian, we had the singer of the festival, in two blue-riband performances which would have graced any opera house on the international circuit.
Terry Blain
  • Review
  • Theatre

Wexford Festival Opera 2013: Thérèse/La Navarraise by Wexford Festival Opera

24 Oct - 2 Nov, 2013

Produced by Wexford Festival Opera
In Wexford Opera House


       Composed by: Jules Massenet
       Libretto by: Jules Claretie
       Directed by Renaud Doucet
       Conductor: Carlos Izcaray
       Designer: André Barbe
       Lighting designer: Paul Keogan
       With Nora Sourouzian, Philippe Do, Brian Mulligan, Damien Pass, Nathalie Moyano González