Munich is one of the top European destinations for opera tourists. It’s not difficult to see why. Because of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s repertory system, productions rotate so frequently that it’s possible to spend just a few days there yet catch a number of operas at the Nationaltheater. Each July, its opera festival gives a second showing of the season’s new productions, along with reviving the best shows from previous seasons, often luxuriously cast. Where else would you catch Ambrogio Maestri – the world’s reigning Falstaff – cast in the relatively minor role of Fra Melitone, the irascible monk in Verdi’s La forza del destino? When that cast is led by Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann, you can appreciate why it will be a hot ticket, despite being a revival.

Nationaltheater © Wikicommons | Bbb
© Wikicommons | Bbb
The Staatsoper's season is built around six new opera productions at the Nationaltheater, ranging from Rossini to Schreker. Donizetti’s grand opera La Favorite is the first première of the season, given in the original French version. Donizetti had been busy composing Le Duc d'Albe for the Paris Opéra when its director, Léon Pillet, objected that it didn’t have a leading role for Rosine Stoltz (his mistress). Donizetti swiftly abandoned Le Duc d'Albe (never to be completed, alas) and composed La Favorite, to a libretto by Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz. Ironically, the mezzo role in the opera, Léonor de Guzman, was also a mistress – the favourite of Alphonse XI, King of Castille. However, Léonor is also in love with Fernand who, at the start of the opera, is serving as a monk! A tangled love triangle follows, peppered by jealousy and misunderstandings, which doesn’t end happily. The bel canto role of Léonor is prized by mezzos and suits the velvety voice of Elīna Garanča perfectly. She has sung the role at Salzburg Festival and Deutsche Oper Berlin and recorded the aria “O mon Fernand” (here in the Italian version):

Amélie Niermeyer, who has previously directed at the Salzburger Landestheater, creates this new production with a starry cast which also includes Mariusz Kwiecień and Matthew Polenzani as Léonor’s love interests.

Bel canto of a different sort comes via Rossini. Semiramide was the composer’s final Italian opera seria, premiered in 1823. It has the scale of a biblical epic. Semiramide, Queen of Babylon, has promised to name a successor to the throne and the opera concerns the rivalries – political and romantic – that follow. It’s very much a showcase for exceptional singers.

Joyce DiDonato © Simon Pauly
Joyce DiDonato
© Simon Pauly
The title role was written for the great Isabella Colbran, often described as a dramatic coloratura soprano – the perfect description for Joan Sutherland, who reigned as Semiramide. However, many commentators note Colbran’s exceptionally wide vocal range from F sharp below the stave to E – and sometimes F – above, suggesting she could have been a mezzo with a high extension. Contemporary accounts describe Colbran’s “sweet, mellow” middle register. Mezzo superstar Joyce DiDonato makes her role debut as Semiramide in David Alden’s new production, alongside glittering bel canto singers such as Lawrence Brownlee and Daniela Barcellona.

Staunch Jonas Kaufmann fans will already have seen him tackle the title role in Andrea Chénier in Sir David McVicar’s new production at Covent Garden. It’s unlikely that film and opera director Philipp Stölzl’s staging of Giordano’s opera set during the French Revolution will be as safely traditional as McVicar’s, however. Chénier, an idealist poet, gets caught up in the Revolution and clashes with one of its leaders, Carlo Gérard, who sees Chénier as a dangerous political enemy but also as a rival for the affections of Maddalena de Coigny. Stölzl reunites Munich’s ‘Traumpaar’ by casting Anja Harteros as Maddalena, while Italian baritone Luca Salsi tackles Gérard.

Christian Gerhaher © Jim Rakete | Sony Classical
Christian Gerhaher
© Jim Rakete | Sony Classical
Harteros features in another new staging, Romeo Castellucci’s production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Appropriately for an opera about a song contest, and Tannhäuser’s struggle between the pure Elisabeth and the sexual allure of Venus, some beautiful voices are cast. Alongside Harteros are Klaus Florian Vogt, praised on these pages for his “beautiful command of pianissimo and a lovely cantilena”, and Christian Gerhaher, whose “honeyed singing and silky legato lines” were lavished on the role of Wolfram in London.

Shostakovich’s gritty Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk describes the desperate actions of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage in 19th-century Russia. Despite great early success, it was denounced in 1936 in Pravda as “muddle instead of music” after Stalin attended a performance, after which it was banned in the Soviet Union. Harry Kupfer directs this incredibly powerful opera with Anja Kampe as Katerina Izmailova, the oppressed housewife.

The most intriguing opera to receive a new production this season is Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten (often translated as The Branded or The Stigmatized). It is a dark story concerning a hunchback, Alviano Salvago, who has created a seedy paradise island called “Elysium” in a secret underground grotto for the people of Genoa. Carlotta, daughter of the city’s magistrate, is fascinated by Alviano and wants “to paint his soul” but she is desired by Count Tamare, who attempts to abduct her. Schreker’s lush score deserves to be more widely known. His orchestral Prelude to a Drama draws music from Die Gezeichneten:

This new production is staged by Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski, with John Daszak as Alviano, Catherine Naglestad as Carlotta and Christopher Maltman as Tamare.

The Staatsoper shares the stage with the Staatsballett, although it’s not an equal partnership, with far fewer dance performances than opera. However, two works new to the Staatsballett make their bow in the new season. Spartacus, Aram Khachaturian’s spectacular ballet, received its first staging at the Bolshoi in 1954. Some of the music has become familiar through concert performances, but Yury Grigorovich’s provides great opportunities for dancers, particularly for the male in the title role.

Alice in Wonderland is a much more recent work, created by Christopher Wheeldon for The Royal Ballet in 2011. It is packed with witty choreography – an hilarious parody of The Sleeping Beauty’s Rose Adagio for the Queen of Hearts – and clever special effects which include Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole.

Joby Talbot’s attractive, inventive score is tremendous fun. Another dance highlight comes when Moscow’s Stanislavsky Ballet brings John Neumeier’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the Nationaltheater.

Before the opera season even kicks off, Kirill Petrenko, the General Music Director, takes his orchestra on a European tour with a programme of Wagner and Strauss, including soprano Diana Damrau, a Munich favourite, singing Strauss’ Four Last Songs.

Notable revivals to keep an eye out for during the season include Die Meistersinger (Kaufmann again), Halévy’s La Juive, which has only just premiered and again stars Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak, Boito’s Mefistofele, this time with Erwin Schrott in the title role, and the return of Miroslav Srnka’s new opera South Pole, again with Rolando Villazón and Thomas Hampson as Scott and Amundsen in a race to the pole.

Click here for a full season listing.


Article sponsored by Bayerische Staatsoper.