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  • Chris O'Rourke

Wexford Festival Opera 2023: L’aube Rouge

Andreea Soare as Olga in Wexford Festival Opera's L'Aube Rouge by Camille Erlanger. Image Clive Barda


Quentin Crisp claimed fashion was for people who don’t have style. On the evidence of Wexford Festival Opera’s production of L’aube Rouge (The Red Dawn), he might have been on to something. Like its composer Camille Erlanger, this drama lyrique from 1911 quickly fell out of fashion. With two World Wars and the Russian revolution rewriting the world’s DNA, an opera about revolutionaries in a century when Communism came to be feared was unlikely to enjoy universal appeal. A situation compounded by L’aube Rouge’s frantic and fractured score quickly sounding dated, and a libretto by Arthur Bernède and Paul de Chouden sounding patched together at best. Yet Erlanger’s tale of star-crossed lovers is not without some style. Evident in Ella Marchment’s energetic production.

From the outset, imminent danger is cleverly foreshadowed by a digital countdown projected onto the curtain. Rising to reveal a motley crew of revolutionary discontents being surprised by the Governor's daughter, Olga. This being Moscow, one man’s terrorist proves to be another man’s revolutionary. Throughout, Communism and Christianity might seem to make for strange bedfellows, but in 1911 Communism was seen as a political panacea with moral ties to Christianity. Yet mixed messages do abound, reflected in Holly Pigott’s set and costumes. If the intent was to evoke an imaginative space, it's minimalism proves not minimal enough as shopping trollies, concrete stairs and plastic boxes co-exist uneasily with early twentieth century costumes. With the final act presenting dancers resembling extras from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Even allowing for the opera's demanding scene changes, in trying to inhabit too many imaginative spaces Pigott’s anti-spectacle sees imaginative connections quickly become confused and conflicted.

Andreea Soare as Olga and Andrew Morstien as Serge in Wexford Festival Opera's L'Aube Rouge by Camille Erlanger.

Image Clive Barda

A lot like Bernède and Chouden’s libretto, sung in French. A patchwork of half developed ideas, it foregrounds the battle between the political and the personal; its efforts at politics straining while those at love faring rather better. The arrival of Olga’s lover, Serge, to save her from death at the hands of his comrades, leads into one of several delightful duets as the lovers, now alone, declare their devotion. Offering welcome release from Erlanger’s hyperactive score. Like soundtracks to RKO serials, or Universal horror movies, Erlanger’s rollercoaster of snapping musical phrases and dynamic thematic shifts proves thrilling if wildly erratic. Its structure and motifs suggestive of a cliffhanger Flash Gordon meets The Wolfman hybrid. In which duets come as close to rounded out songs as L’aube Rouge can manage. Where singing and music cease wrestling each other and musical phrases are allowed to breath and grow. Offering momentary relief from the incessant, rapid musical renegotiations that pose unnecessary vocal challenges which singers navigate successfully, for the most part. Even as music presents additional challenges in terms of volume.

If the second act plays clever with a deceptive wedding, it highlights narrative as a daisy chain of operatic tropes flimsily held together. Several scenes making handbrake skids into unbelievable and unsubstantiated reversals even for opera. Olga, getting married to renowned surgeon Pierre de Ruys at her father’s request, discovers Serge is still alive having believed him dead. Their reunion facilitating another fine duet, this time between Olga and de Ruys, followed by a glorious exit as the reunited lovers flee to Paris. But this is opera, where the course of true love rarely runs smooth. Especially when duty calls as the lover’s French haven is visited by old friends sharing their plan to assassinate a Grand Duke by way of a suicide bomb. Leading to Serge being shot, accused of being a coward and a traitor. In a twist Barbara Cartland would have enjoyed, Serge is restored to life by his rival de Ruys. Olga appealing to the surgeon’s sense of duty to compel him to renounce his desire for revenge. Yet love, once again, is foiled by duty as the recovered Serge decides to assassinate the Grand Duke for the cause. Sharing a heartbreaking farewell with Olga, Serge rides off into a literal red dawn, the final flourish in Daniele Naldi’s impressive lighting.

ndreea Soare as Olga and Andrew Morstien as Serge in Wexford Festival Opera's L'Aube Rouge by Camille Erlanger.

Image Clive Barda

In line with Wexford Festival Opera’s theme of Women and War, soprano Andreea Soare’s impassioned Olga presents as a lover first and a fighter second. A woman suffering on account of the violent madness of men. Choosing personal love over universal sufferance, Olga echoes Nora Clitheroe in O’Casey’s The Plough and The Stars. Yet while Olga’s dilemma is vividly realised, other aspects aren’t articulated so well. If, under Marchment’s sweeping direction, movement is visually and dramatically arresting, Marchment plays thematically safe for fear of spilling completely into melodrama, where L’aube Rouge belongs, whilst avoiding questions suicide bombers and the Russian regime evoke in a contemporary audience. Straddling both camps, L’aube Rouge loiters in a neutral No Man’s Land. A little more bravery, or a lot more kitsch, might have given L’aube Rouge greater definition. Under Guillaume Tourniaire’s baton, Erlanger’s rollercoaster score is given full and vivid life. But at a cost, with tenor Andrew Morstien’s Serge paying the bulk of the price. Whilst Morstien’s tone sounds sublime, a lack of power frequently finds singing sitting just beneath the music, leaving Serge looking and sounding weak. Morstien not alone in his struggle. Tenor Thomas Birch, baritone Roy Musgrave, bass Giorgi Manoshvili and baritone Philippe-Nicolas Martin’s (de Rhys) often finding themselves striving to rise above Erlanger’s overpowering music, as do soprano Emma Jüngling, soprano Ava Dodd, and mezzo soprano Dominica Williams. Yet when music and singing come together the experience is a delight to listen to, albeit a short lived delight. Only Soare avoids the compromise, singing with clarity and power and breathtaking ease. Where others aspire towards moments of realism, Soare clearly saw the melodramatic writing on the wall and nails it with an unapologetically exuberant performance. Marrying dramatic highs with singing that plumbs emotional depths only hinted at in the libretto, Soare delivers with stunning consistency. Apparently there are no recordings of L’aube Rouge in existence. When rectifying that shame, Soare should be afforded first refusal.

Wexford Festival Opera's L'Aube Rouge by Camille Erlanger. Image Clive Barda

In L’aube Rouge there are no memorable songs and little by way of memorable music to speak of. But there are memorable operatic moments. True, it’s not a great opera, but in its dealings with wild devotion, passion and revenge, murder, madness and storming exits it's often an enjoyable one. An opportunity to rediscover one of opera’s missing historical links whose flaws are compensated somewhat by its uniqueness. Elevated, in this instance, by a sublime Soare rescuing Erlanger’s Olga from the graveyard of unsung tragic heroines. For that alone, there's much to be grateful for. Celebrating its 72nd risk taking outing, Wexford Festival Opera continues to enrich opera's present by reclaiming its past, sifting through the dust at times to uncover long forgotten jewels. A stylish move. Proving, yet again, that style never goes out of fashion.

L’aube Rouge by Camille Erlanger, libretto by Arthur Bernède and Paul de Chouden, runs as part of Wexford Festival Opera on Sunday, October 29, Wednesday, November 1, and Saturday, November 4.

For more information visit Wexford Festival Opera


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