To opera lovers all over the world, Bayreuth means Wagner: the summer festival dedicated to the German composer is one of the most famous and well-respected in the industry. But in Bayreuth there are two opera houses: the Richard Wagner Festpielhaus, and a Baroque jewel, the Margravial Opera House, built in the middle of the 18th century. This theatre, whose spectacular interior was designed by the Italian architect Bibiena on the model of the old imperial opera house in Vienna, is currently a museum for most of the year, except two weeks in the summer, when it hosts the Bayreuth Baroque Festival.

Max Emanuel Cenčić at the Bayreuth Baroque Festival
© Łukasz Rajchert

Max Emanuel Cenčić, one of the most renowned world countertenors and director of the Festival, talks with enthusiasm of the location and its history. The Margravial theatre was built by Wilhelmina, daughter of the King of Prussia and married to the Margrave of Bayreuth. She was much more than a patron of the arts: she surrounded herself with artists, singers, dancers, actors, in a cultural community with bohemian overtones, quite unusual in that time, where artists were little more (or less) than servants. She was a composer herself, and built the theatre not as part of the castle complex, but in the middle of town, with a capacity of over 600 people. This was not a royal theatre, for the enjoyment of the Court. It was rather meant for the town people, and it featured works by the most famous musicians and artists of that age. Wilhelmina von Bayreuth was an entrepreneur and a very ambitious woman, ahead of her time. 

The festival, in its current incarnation, went live in 2020, in the middle of the pandemic; it is dedicated to Italian opera seria, which is in large part the genre performed at the Margravial Theatre in the 18th century. The main focus is on less known works: the resurrection of operas hardly ever heard by modern audiences. 

Cenčić highlights how the Festival he had in mind was one of great ambitions. “The quality of the productions is my greatest concern”, he says. “We strive to engage the best orchestras, the best singers, to put together performances which may serve as a benchmark for future revivals of these forgotten gems”. To maintain flexibility, the Festival does not have a resident orchestra, but employs different ensembles: this year the main orchestra will be the {oh!} Orkiestra, conducted by Martyna Pastuszka.

The main production will be the staged opera Alessandro nell’Indie, on a libretto by poet Pietro Metastasio, with music by Leonardo Vinci, from 1730. The premiere was in Rome, which, in those days, was one of the most important cultural European centres, home of all the most important composers: Vivaldi, Porpora, Leo, Sarro (Corelli was playing first violin for Handel, when he was in Rome!) In those times, women were not allowed to perform on stage in the Papal States, so there were plenty of castrati specialised in female roles. 

To honour this tradition, Alessandro will be performed by an all-male cast. I ask Cenčić what are the challenges in putting together such a performance: “Finding the singers!” he replies. “You need so many that it becomes very challenging to find the right performers, with the correct quality. Five years ago I couldn’t dream of it, but I have since found some exceptional young countertenors to complete the cast, together with established stars of the calibre of Franco Fagioli and Jake Arditti. You can’t cast an opera like this with just anybody,” he says. His perfectionism is delicious.

Cenčić is not singing in Alessandro, but he is the stage director, a role that he has taken up in recent years. I ask him what kind of production is going to be: “The libretto presents some difficulties: it tells the story of Alexander the Great in his Indian campaign, and neither Metastasio nor Vinci knew anything about India. The ‘India’ that they present to us is a fantastic place sprung from their imagination, full of the prejudices and the colonial attitude of the time. In order to avoid hurting modern sensibilities, it was natural to place the action in a location that would convey this sense of orientalism: the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. It is not India, it’s what the colonial culture thought India looked like, and so it is true to the spirit of the opera”. 

The concept is one of a play-within-a-play: the opera is staged in the Royal Pavilion, with King George IV playing Alessandro. The production will not tour, but it will be shown on Mezzo, Arte, Medici TV, where the streaming of performances from the Bayreuth Baroque Festival has enjoyed much success in the past.

Artistic Director Cenčić with Creative Producer Georg Lang and Executive Director Clemens Lukas.
© Łukasz Rajchert

Another opera presented at the Festival is Giovanni Bononcini’s Griselda, an obscure jewel from the 18th century. Several singers chose the aria “Per la gloria d’adorarvi” in their concerts (including Pavarotti and Sutherland), making it well known to the general public, but the opera has never been performed in its entirety. One of the reasons is that only the score of the arias, the overture and the choruses survived to this day – thanks to the publication by John Walsh – but all the recitatives are lost. Cenčić asked a modern composer, Dragan Karolić, to re-compose the recitatives, to allow for a meaningful, coherent performance. “Of course somebody will clutch their pearls at the idea, but the alternative was to not be able to put together this performance at all. After all, very often in the Baroque period (and up to the early 19th century) the recitatives were written by assistants, or pupils of the main composers, and Karolić did a very good job. We hope Bononcini will forgive us”, jokes Cenčić.

In Griselda Cenčić will sing the role of Gualtiero, written for the famous castrato Senesino. I ask him what is his relationship with his own voice nowadays: “I try to follow my body and my spirit as a singer, to do what is in my physical and spiritual capabilities in any given moment”, he replies. “We all need to be aware of our limitations, and, as I get older, I try to find roles where I can be convincing. With age comes experience, and one can use the changes in his body to try new roles, new repertoire. I have recently focused more on alto roles; at the beginning of my career I felt my lower range was perhaps not strong enough, but now my voice has developed in that direction, so I’m exploring Senesino’s roles, and this has been most rewarding. 

“Being a singer is a voyage; the relationship with your voice is like a romantic relationship: when you’re young you fall in love, everything is exciting, then you get your heart broken, then maybe you find happiness later in life, and understand that all the ups and downs were necessary to bring you where you are now”.

As a Rossini enthusiast, I cannot resist asking him about his venture in this repertoire. Cenčić recorded a CD of Rossini arias in 2007, creating something of a sensation, as (with the exception of Aureliano in Palmira) Rossini never wrote for a castrato, only for female mezzos. “It was a bit naughty of me,” he quips, “a countertenor singing Rossini was simply not acceptable for many critics. Some appreciated the result, some (mostly Italians) were horrified, and one – who listened to the CD ‘blind’, not knowing who was singing – took me for a woman! It was great praise for me, because a natural female sound is what I always strive for”. 

Cenčić remembers how easy Rossini was for him, how liberating – “the voice could breathe and roam free”. As a boy soprano, he sang music of the Classical and Romantic period very often, it was part of his musical upbringing. “I absorbed and interiorised that style as a child. Singing Rossini was like revisiting my childhood, it was the crowning moment of my first career, before the voice broke. I grew up watching my parents (a soprano and a conductor) performing Italian belcanto, and all the inspiration of those days came back”. It’s easy to hear that in his recordings, he shows a great sense of this style.

After the CD there were a few concerts, but it took another twelve years before he was casted in a staged production of La donna del lago in Lausanne. “I was very happy to do that, because I knew it would be my first and last chance to sing Rossini on stage. It is now a closed chapter of my career”.

My last question is about stage fright: does someone who’s been on stage for his whole life still suffer from it? “I suffer from terrible anxiety when I need to go on stage, you never really get over it. It is scary, because sometimes it’s such that you really can’t control it. But, in the end, all you can do is walk on stage and do your best”. And, luckily for us, his best is wonderful.

Click here to see all the upcoming Bayreuth Baroque Festival events.

This article was sponsored by the Bayreuth Baroque Festival.