62o Wexford Festival Opera: Act 3
by George Fleeton © 2013.
Cristina, Regina di Svezia
Wexford’s third and final main stage production Christina, Queen of Sweden(Stockholm, 1849) was, by several lengths, the dark, long-odds favourite at this year’s Festival (as indeed were Smetana’s Hubiĉka, Statkowski’s Mária and Cilea’s L’Arlesiana in previous years).
This is a work composed by Jacopo Foroni who, although born in Verona, did a great deal of his composing, and conducting, in Sweden, following a pattern set by another Italian composer and conductor Francesco Uttini in the 18th century.
Foroni died aged 34, so he belongs to that exclusive club of young lions, such as Purcell, Mozart, Bellini and Bizet, each cut off in his prime from surpassing an operatic eminence already achieved in a short lifetime.
And, like Rota’s opera, discussed here earlier ¹ there is an interesting link to cinema.
Greta Garbo (from Stockholm) – the Hollywood star who wanted to be alone, and whom we mortals could only gaze at as if from another planet – loomed large, en travesti, in the heavily gilded but wonderfully escapist 1933 filmQueen Christina, whose MGM trailer screamed at us: ‘A queen whose love affairs were as modern as tomorrow’s tabloids!’ – a great example of a Goldwynism.
After seeing this quite impressive production (superb in parts) of a most genuine opera rara, it is safe to shout Vive la Reine!
The real Kristina, of the House of Vasa, reigned for twenty-two years, in the 17th century, and her fascinating trials and tribulations are well documented elsewhere.
As a convert to Catholicism, for example, she later settled for a while in Rome’s Palazzo Farnese (where Puccini set Act 2 of Tosca), and she seemingly earned the right to be buried in St Peter’s Basilica.
Australian soprano Helena Dix fairly took this opera – which musically seemed to me to belong to the Verdian school of attacks on history – by the scruff of the neck and shook some real sense into it, in sets which were as supersized as in the Rota and Massenet operas, reviewed here earlier ²
And how nearly mezzo Lucia Cirillo (of whom more later) stole the show in one of those ‘can’t take your eyes off Wallis Simpson’ performances as Maria, Cristina’s cousin and secret lover of the Queen’s favourite Gabriele (so well sung by American tenor John Bellemer).
Foroni’s opera makes a nice companion piece, thematically, with Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera of ten years later.
In scenes subtitled Love, Marriage, Conspiracy, Disillusion and Abdication the similarities with Verdi’s Swedish tragedy, A Masked Ball, although superficial, are nevertheless fascinating.
Had Verdi met Foroni?
Or had he seen,or at least heard of,Cristina?
Foroni conducted a performance of his opera in Trieste in 1850, at exactly the time Verdi was there for the prima of his opera Stiffelio.
So we are left wondering, for both operas have pulses like cannon-fire; and both have clear, credible compelling narratives about duty conflicting with love.
However, overplayed video projections did not help the visual impact of the Wexford production one bit, the parachute jump-cut to a fall was corny, but the conspirators’ arrival on the island by boat worked perfectly.
And while Chamberlain’s return from Munich in 1938 with Hitler’s signature on the ‘peace for our time’ letter was appropriately referenced in Act 1, in Cristina’s radio abdication speech, at the start of Act 3, noticeable by its absence was any reference to Edward VIII’s speech from 1936.
As Cristina walks off stage at the end, with her incongruous little Ryanair-size suitcase, the director of this production felt he should leave his mark on it, like a child’s footprint in wet cement, and so inserts his corkscrew twist into the staging (I won’t spoil the ending) a split second before fade to black.
Hopefully most of the audience missed the con and went home with Foroni’s original, relatively happy ending.
So, altogether now: Vive la Reine!
Some further reflections on Wexford 2013 will follow here shortly, on Down News.
Meanwhile some earlier thoughts on this year’s Festival may be found at