For many, summer is the time to escape the hustle and bustle of city life and head off into the countryside, or take a holiday abroad. And how better to spend your time than a trip to the opera while you’re there? As part of Festivals Month, here is our guide to what to see, whether at one of the many English country house offerings or a major festival.

Exterior of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus © Creative Commons | Rico Neitzel
Exterior of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus
© Creative Commons | Rico Neitzel

Serious Wagnerians make the pilgrimage to Bayreuth at the height of each summer for the prestigious festival in the opera house the composer had built specifically to stage his music dramas. Each season features one new production of a work from the major canon; in 2019 it is the turn of Tannhäuser. Tobias Kratzer, whose new staging of Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg for Deutsche Oper has just received great critical acclaim, directs a production conducted by Mariinsky maestro, Valery Gergiev. Critics will be most interested in the performance of Lise Davidsen, singing at Bayreuth for the first time. She has just made her role debut as Elisabeth in Zurich and sings it again in Munich before heading for the famous “Green Hill". 

Once again, there is no Bayreuth Ring cycle this season – a new production is eagerly anticipated in 2020 – but those anxious for their fix of Wagner’s saga of gods, dwarfs and giants, head to Budapest. The annual Wagner Days festival takes place in the acoustically superb Béla Bartók Concert Hall (known as Müpa) and features a “concert production” of the cycle, this year featuring new direction and video footage. The cast is rather wonderful and includes Johan Reuter, Stuart Skelton, Catherine Foster and Stefan Vinke, all conducted by the inimitable Ádám Fischer.

Salzburg is one of the most glamorous summer festivals on the operatic calendar. The festival stages seven operas this summer as well as three concert performances. Having raised a few hackles with their production of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito in 2017, the controversial duo of Peter Sellars and Teodor Currentzis turn their attentions to Idomeneo. Sellars can infuriate, although find him inspired. And don’t expect maverick conductor Currentzis to play it by the score… in Clemenza, he cut most of the recitatives and inserted music from the Mass in C minor. Expecting the unexpected may be the best approach.

Salzburg © Mark Pullinger
© Mark Pullinger

Cherubini’s Médée is directed by Simon Stone, who has some high profile new productions in Paris and Munich next season. In Salzburg, he has star soprano Sonya Yoncheva as the vengeful Medea singing opposite Pavel Černoch’s Jason. Damiano Michieletto’s staging of Alcina premieres at Cecilia Bartoli’s Whitsun Festival, but returns to the Haus für Mozart in August, while Barrie Kosky’s take on Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld should be riotous (in the French composer’s bicentenary year). And after its stunning debut in 2018, there’s another chance to catch Romeo Castellucci’s astonishing production of Salome, again featuring Asmik Grigorian.

Théâtre de l'Archevêché, Festival d'Aix © Vincent Beaume
Théâtre de l'Archevêché, Festival d'Aix
© Vincent Beaume

may seem a run-of-the-mill opera for a festival like Aix-en-Provence to offer, but don’t expect a standard staging from Christophe Honoré. His Così fan tutte, which relocated the action to Mussolini-occupied Eritrea in the late 1930s, shocked audiences and critics in 2016. The cast list for his Tosca offers a clue: Catherine Malfitano – a famous Tosca herself – plays “the prima donna” who invites singers to perform a gala in her honour, which awakens events in her past...

For the starriest names, Munich is the best destination. Each of the season’s new productions get another outing – often with the original cast – while house favourites Anja Harteros, Jonas Kaufmann, Sonya Yoncheva and Pavol Breslik are never far away.

Some festivals can be worth it for their picturesque settings. Italy will always be a draw: the open-air Sferisterio stadium in Macerata has been staging opera since 1914. This summer, it stages three crowd-pleasers: Carmen, Macbeth and Rigoletto. Head a little further north up the Adriatic coast and you arrive in Pesaro, birthplace of Rossini and home to the Rossini Opera Festival. The two new productions this summer are Semiramide and L'equivoco stravagante; there is a revival of Demetrio e Polibio.

The floating stage on the lake in Bregenz offers spectacular opera on a huge scale. The main production runs for two seasons – tickets are usually harder to secure in a staging’s first season. This year sees a new production of Rigoletto by Philipp Stölzl, featuring – by the look of the trailer – a circus setting.

Opera-lovers queueing for Savolinna Festival © Valtteri Hirvonen
Opera-lovers queueing for Savolinna Festival
© Valtteri Hirvonen

A 15th-century castle setting awaits operagoers in Finland for the annual Savonlinna Opera Festival. The open-air medieval setting can be perfect for some operas, such as Tosca, where there are actual battlements from which the plucky soprano can leap! Co-productions are common. This summer features a pair of David McVicar stagings: Rigoletto from Covent Garden and I masnadieri which will just have premiered at La Scala. The Volksoper brings its famous production of Die Fledermaus which is “as bubbly as Champagne”.

In the United States, Santa Fe Opera attracts top singers from around the globe. It also boasts five new productions in its 2019 line-up, including Jenůfa from David Alden (with Laura Wilde in the title role and Patricia Racette as the Kostelnička) and Poul Ruders’ The Thirteenth Child – a “fairytale thriller” inspired by the Brothers Grimm.

From New Mexico to East Coast, Glimmerglass Festival always has varied and inventive programming under its artistic director, Francesca Zambello. This season, for example, features a co-production of La traviata, which rubs shoulders with John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles and the world premiere of Blue by Jeanine Tesori.

The country house opera scene in the UK is an experience in itself – including trekking into the countryside with a picnic hamper for the long interval – which is quintessentially English. Glyndebourne is still the most prestigious. This season sees three new productions: in Berlioz 150 year, Richard Jones applies his unique style and flock wallpaper to La Damnation de Faust; Fiona Shaw directs Massenet’s Cendrillon (already tried out on last autumn’s tour); and the duo Doucet and Barbe direct Die Zauberflöte.

Getting ready for a picnic at Glyndebourne © Mark Pullinger
Getting ready for a picnic at Glyndebourne
© Mark Pullinger

The best of the rest include new productions of Porgy and Bess (Grange Park Opera), Das Rheingold (Longborough) and (Garsington). And for Londoners who don’t wish to venture beyond the capital, Opera Holland Park always puts on a great season. Cilea’s L’arlesiana is this year’s verismo rarity, but the most mouth-watering casting comes in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, featuring Natalya Romaniw in the title role of the blind princess and David Butt Philip as Vaudémont. After last year’s terrific Turn of the Screw, ENO returns to Regent’s Park for a new open-air staging of Hansel and Gretel. You can even take something to nibble in the interval. Gingerbread, anyone?