Bayreuth has long been a place of summer pilgrimage for Wagnerians, but within the last couple of years it has rapidly established itself as an attractive destination for lovers of Baroque opera and vocal music. Artistic Director and enterprising countertenor Max Emanuel Cenčić launched the world-class Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival in September 2020, despite the pandemic. Its venue is the recently refurbished 18th-century Margravial Opera House, a perfect venue to explore the treasure trove of Baroque opera rarities.

Concert performance at the Margravial Opera House
© Clemens Manser

Built from 1746–50, the Margravial Opera House is indeed a masterpiece of Baroque theatre architecture and design. Seating around 500, audiences can experience opera in the surroundings and acoustics largely as they were in the 18th century, as the original form and shape, as well as the materials, have been preserved. In 2012, the opera house was named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

This year’s Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival, the fourth edition, runs from 7th–17th September, with two staged productions and a star-studded lineup of vocal recitals in the opera house and also in nearby venues.

A Handel opera will be presented for the first time at the festival, but one that has not been staged frequently. It is Flavio, first performed in London in 1723, featuring the great vocal stars of the time, Senesino, Cuzzoni, and Duranstanti. Unlike Handel’s heroic-themed opera seria of this period, the story is a subtle blend of dark tragedy and lighter, satiric comedy. Indeed, this satirical aspect of the opera is what particularly fascinates Cenčić, who as well as directing the opera also sings the role of the conflicted protagonist, Guido.

In the role of Flavio, rapidly rising young French countertenor Rémy Brès-Feuillet, prizewinner at the Cesti Competition in Innsbruck in 2021, makes his festival debut. The superb cast also includes festival favourites including the extraordinary soprano Julia Lezhneva as Emilia (Guido’s wife), and countertenor Yuriy Mynenko as the King’s attendant. In the pit, Benjamin Bayl will lead the excellent Concerto Köln, who is this year’s Orchestra in Residence.

Opera performance at the Margravial Opera House
© Clemens Manser

The second opera production is an intriguing one. First seen in Athens in 2017, it’s a staging of the alternative version of Monteverdi’s Orfeo based on the earlier 1607 libretto by Striggio which adheres to the original myth – Orfeo is savagely killed by the Maenads rather than being happily reunited with Euridice. Since the music for this scene is not extant, composer Pano Iliopoulous has provided new music (including live electronics) in the spirit of Monteverdi. The production, directed by Thanos Papakonstantinou, features the star tenor Rolando Villazón in the title role, with a distinguished ensemble of soloists. Charismatic Greek conductor Markellos Chryssicos conducts his Baroque ensemble Latinitas Nostra.

Meanwhile, between these opera productions, dazzling vocal recitals take place in various venues in and around Bayreuth, featuring both established and young singers. Versatile German tenor Daniel Behle’s recital at the opera house with Concerto Köln is the only foray beyond the Baroque: he explores the bravura arias of Sarti, Traetta, and Mysliveček – all highly regarded composers of opera seria in their day, but have since been forgotten.

The elegant and sweet-voiced countertenor Valer Sabadus also gives a recital in the opera house with the Orkiestra Historyczna under Martyna Pastuszka making a welcome return. The programme, specially devised for the festival, focuses on the music of Carl Heinrich Graun (1704–1759), which is fitting as he had personal connections to the Margravine Wilhelmine (who commissioned the Margravial Opera House). It features arias from his operas such as Montezuma, Cleopatre e Cesare, and Rodelinda, a work which Wilhelmine had performed in Bayreuth.

The dinner concert at the Eremitage Palace, a favourite place of retreat for Margravine Wilhelmine, has become a popular festival event: an exquisite dinner followed by an intimate candlelight concert performed in the historic surroundings of the Sun Temple of the Orangery. The Israeli male soprano Maayan Licht, who made his festival debut in last year’s Alessandro nell’Indie, sings a selection of Vivaldi and Handel arias with Guy Maori on the harpsichord.

Candlelit concert performance at Bayreuth Baroque
© Andreas Harbach

Meanwhile, at the Ordenskirche in St. Georgen outside the city (shuttle bus provided), the prominent French soprano Véronique Gens presents “Passion”, a programme highlighting strong female figures from French opera such as Proserpine and Alceste in Lully’s opera and Charpentier’s Médée, which she has compiled into a pasticcio opera. She is joined by Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas and the young Ensemble Les Surprises.

The extraordinary Brazilian male soprano Bruno de Sá, who took festival audiences by storm in 2022, also returns this season to give a recital of the flamboyant music of Neapolitan school composers such as Alessandro Scarlatti, Durante, and Hasse, singing both male and female roles.

The Schlosskirche of Bayreuth hosts two recitals. Reginald Mobley, Grammy nominated American countertenor gives a recital of mainly English songs by Purcell and Ignatius Sancho, and the new kid on the block, 23-year-old Honduras-born male soprano Dennis Orellana presents a spirited programme centred on A. Scarlatti’s 7 Arias with Solo Trumpet, with Baroque trumpeter Julian Zimmermann.

A feast of Baroque delights to please not only the ears but all the senses, Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival is the ideal destination to immerse oneself in the music and culture of the Baroque Era, as well as in the rich history of this scenic region.

Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival 2023 runs from 7th–17th September. This preview was sponsored by Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival.