Operagoers need little persuasion to pack their picnic hampers – or their suitcases – to chase opera in wonderful locations at the wealth of festivals across the world. As part of our Travel Month this April, we take a look at what some of the top festivals have to offer this year.
Country house opera was born and raised in East Sussex. Glyndebourne established the genre in the 1930s when John Christie decided to stage opera in the grounds of his manor house. He and his wife, singer Audrey Mildmay, had been inspired by the examples of Bayreuth and Salzburg to create something similar, but on a smaller scale. Early productions focused on Mozart, who still plays an important part of the festival. This season sees a new production of La clemenza di Tito by Claus Guth. Other highlights include the world première of Brett Dean’s Hamlet, with a knockout cast led by Allan Clayton, Barbara Hannigan and Sarah Connolly, and Cavalli’s Hipermestra, an opera receiving only its second production since it was composed over 350 years ago!
Other UK venues have successfully muscled in on the Glyndebourne formula matching a beautiful venue to fine opera with a long interval for leisurely picnics and socialising. Garsington Opera is now established at the Getty estate at Wormsley Park, its picturesque surroundings including its own cricket pitch, thus combining two quintessential slices of England. The 2017 festival sees the Philharmonia Orchestra make its Garsington debut, playing under Jac van Steen for Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, which is directed by Michael Boyd who was responsible for the festival’s excellent production of Eugene Onegin last summer. Handel’s Semele is perfect country house opera fare – light and frothy – as is Mozart’ masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro.
The crowded UK summer season gets even busier this year. Grange Park Opera has split from its idyllic Hampshire home into the brand new Theatre in the Woods in West Horsley, leaving The Grange Festival in its place. Wasfi Kani’s fabled powers of persuasion have wooed Joseph Calleja to sing his first Cavaradossi in Tosca, while Die Walküre and Jenůfa complete a strong line up. The Grange Festival, under the artistic direction of Michael Chance, has an attractively-cast Monteverdi’s Ulisse and veteran director John Copley has a wonderful ensemble for Albert Herring – two smaller scale operas which are perhaps more appropriate for the tiny theatre than some of the ambitious blockbusters GPO attempted in recent years. The new company has vowed to improve access to the venue, particularly for those reliant on public transport.
Longborough has a proud Wagner tradition, especially when conducted by Anthony Negus, and Tristan und Isolde is the pick of its 2017 festival, with a cast led by Peter Wedd and Lee Bisset. If Longborough is associated with Wagner, Aldeburgh is inextricably linked with Benjamin Britten. Highlight of this season’s festival should be Netia Jones’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Opera North also brings Billy Budd to the Snape Maltings.
Festival opera is available in London too, without the grand trappings of a country house and picnic hampers, but available at cheaper prices and with a real buzz of excitement. Opera Holland Park puts on a handful of productions each summer, but its speciality is rare verismo. Last year, Mascagni’s Iris was the draw; this season, it will be Leoncavallo’s Zazà.
Buxton Festival likes to offer rarities. This year Verdi’s original 1847 version of Macbeth should draw an audience. Edinburgh International Festival features a strong operatic line-up this year, including a couple of productions from Turin’s Teatro Regio (La bohème and Macbeth), Peter Grimes in concert and Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s trio of Monteverdi operas which is touring this year.
In Europe, there are plenty of opera festivals to choose from, led by Salzburg and Bayreuth. At Salzburg, maverick conductor Teodor Currentzis, whose Mozart has caused waves on disc, is at the helm for a new Peter Sellars production of La clemenza di Tito. Nina Stemme stars in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk but all eyes (and ears) will be on the Großes Festspielhaus in August for Anna Netrebko’s role debut as Aida. Before the main summer festival at Salzburg, there’s Cecilia Bartoli’s Whitsun Festival, where Diego Fasolis conducts both Handel’s Ariodante and Rossini’s La donna del lago, both starring the Roman mezzo-soprano. Dedicated Wagnerites make the pilgrimage to Bayreuth every year, where each season features a new production of one of his major music dramas. This year, it’s the turn of Die Meistersinger, with the fascinating twist that it’s being directed by Barrie Kosky.
Festival d’Aix draws the connoisseurs to Provence, where the open-air Théâtre de l'Archevêché hosts many of the performances. This season, there's The Rake’s Progress and Don Giovanni, while Dmitri Tcherniakov directs what should be a fascinating Carmen in the Grand Théâtre de Provence (click here for our full season preview). There are plenty of open-air festivals which stage productions on a spectacular scale from the Arena di Verona to the floating stage of Bregenz, where Kasper Holten’s triple case production of Carmen plays this season. In Finland, Savonlinna is a must-see – open-air opera in a castle, which this year features the world première of Aulis Sallinen’s Castle in the Water… a site specific performance if ever there was one. Their season also includes a visit by the Bolshoi Opera, bringing Iolanta and Eugene Onegin.
Rossini has two festivals devoted to him – one in sunny Pesaro, where Le siège de Corinthe is the headliine new production this season, the other in Rossini in Wildbad, where – in a neat twist – Antonino Fogliani conducts Maometto II, the opera which was revised for Paris as Le siège de Corinthe! There are plenty of festivals dedicated to Handel, of which Göttingen always has an operatic performance – this season, it stages Lotario, conducted by Laurence Cummings.
A festival on the radar for most people, although run by a regular opera company in its regular house, is the Munich Opera Festival at Bayerische Staatsoper. Each summer sees a feast of productions, often including reprisals of new productions from earlier in the season, staged with many of opera’s superstars. Want to see Anja Harteros, Jonas Kaufmann, Joyce DiDonato, Elīna Garanča and Aleksandra Kurzak performing within a few days of each other? Then Munich’s your city.
In the United States, the opera festival landscape is dominated by Santa Fe, with its open-air Crosby Theatre and its white sail wind baffles. Each season it puts on five productions, often including a new work. This season sees the première of Mason Bates’ The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs which is bound to cause huge interest. Santa Fe becomes the latest venue to stage Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel, this time in a new production by Paul Curran. Also in the US, Glimmerglass features a strong line-up, the highlight of which is Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, directed by Francesca Zambello. Caramoor’s music festival always features a bel canto rarity – this year it’s Bellini’s Il pirata with a tasty cast headed by Angela Meade.
Operagoers don’t even need the excuse of summer to head to an opera festival. Several of the best take place outside the summer months. If you’re desperately seeking rarities then Wexford, tucked away in the Emerald Isle, is essential. This season, its three main stage operas are Cherubini’s Medea (in Italian, starring Operalia winner Lise Davidsen), Jacopo Foroni’s Margherita, and Risurrezione by Franco Alfano (the composer who completed Turandot). Teatro Regio in Parma holds its annual Verdi Festival each October. This season, you can catch rarities Stiffelio and Jérusalem. If it’s rare Donizetti you want, head to Bergamo in November, where the Fondazione Donizetti stages Il borgomastro di Saardam, Che originali! and Pigmalione.
Then you can have a brief rest before the whole cycle starts up again in 2018!