In the hills above Innsbruck, nestled in a belt of woods, lies Ambras Castle. The impressive Renaissance building hosts the oldest early music concert series still running today, now opening the annual Innsbruck Festival of Early Music. With its strict focus on historically informed performances, the festival has played a crucial role in rediscovering and breathing new life into countless Renaissance and Baroque works, particularly opera. Taking place from July 19th to August 27th 2016, this year's events mark the festival's 40th anniversary; under the title TragiCommedia the festival offers a colourful programme ranging from joy to sorrow, light to dark.

Ambras Castle © Hermann Hammer
Ambras Castle
© Hermann Hammer
The festival programme is gilded with concerts celebrating its 40th anniversary by bringing back artists, composers and instruments that were performed in the festival's very first year and/or have made regular appearances in the many years since. Among them are Howard Arman conducting sacred music by Handel from the archive of Stams Monastery, harpsichordist Andreas Staier playing Bach's Goldberg Variations as well as Hiro Kurosaki presenting violin fantasias by Telemann. Most excitingly, the first ever festival concert, comprised of works by Caldara, Couperin, Handel and Bach will be presented again 40 years later to the day on the 24th of August, performed by Lawrence Zazzo, Amandine Beyer, Anna Fontana and Baldomero Barciela. The festival opens with Arias for the Emperor, a number of works with which Venice-born composer Antonio Caldara once used to delight Charles VI and the Viennese court. From those young countertenor Valer Sabadus has selected some of the most beautiful arias to delight audiences of today. In a concert dedicated to another regent, Les Talens Lyriques and Christophe Rousset will present a programme of musical jewels from Charpentier to Marais composed for Louis XIV. 

A matinée that clearly mirrors the festival's motto in gentle tones can be found on one of the later festival days: While little is known about his early life, English Renaissance composer John Dowland today is best known for his yearning melodies such as Flow my tears and Semper Dowland semper dolens. Lutenist Thomas Dunford presents melancholy favourites alongside some merrier sounds that show the composer's sense of humour.

Renato Girolami in the <i>Coffee Cantata</i> © Larl
Renato Girolami in the Coffee Cantata
© Larl
Humour is also one of the main ingredients in a central pillar of the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music. With its focus on early music theatre, opera enthusiasts will be spoilt with three operatic events of more regularly performed works and lesser-known gems. The run is opened by Cimarosa's Matrimonio segreto, an opera buffa full to the brim of hidden infatuations and the hilarious turns and errors that arise from them. The work's entertaining comedy proved such a success upon its first performance that the singers and musicians had to perform it all over again on the spot! To cater for all audience demands, the festival's team has scheduled three staged performances, led by the festival's artistic director Alessandro de Marchi with Giulia Semenzato as the secretly married Carolina, Klara Ek as her older sister Elisetta, Donato di Stefano as Geronimo and Renato Girolami as Count Robinson.

The second operatic fare on the menu this anniversary year is a spectacular discovery: It was not until recently that the composition of Le nozze in sogno was attributed to Pietro Antonio Cesti, who was court composer of the Archduke of Austria at Innsbruck from 1652. It is a carnival opera that centres in on the age-old conflict of the generations, the younger of which manages to arrange a marriage of love despite the older generation's endeavours to ground marital connections on political and financial advantage. It is presented by members of BAROQUE OPERA:YOUNG, a festival project that gives emerging talents the chance to shine in exciting productions. The festival's third wedding, in a children's production of Mozart's Magic Flute, is contrasted with Alceste, the second of Christoph Willibald Gluck's groundbreaking reform operas. René Jacobs, former artistic director of the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music, returns to conduct the performance with the Flemish Baroque orchestra B'Rock in the pit.

Viol Consort Fretwork: <i>The Art of Fugue</i> © Chris Dawes
Viol Consort Fretwork: The Art of Fugue
© Chris Dawes
Contrary to frequent misconception, early music is not just about research and highly academic performance. It is as much about enjoying music and having fun as music of any other period, as some more unconventional items on this year's event list will prove. For audience members whose passion extends from the music of the Renaissance and Baroque into more a contemporary terrain, an intriguing late-night event might spike their curiosity: a trio of seasoned early music practitioners meets a Hamburg-based musician touring the world with dance music ranging from house to techno. If dancing the summer night away to this more exotic mix isn't for you, perhaps the Norwegian Barokksolistene can tempt you to an evening of merry mood in the Landestheater. The musicians are not only masters of their instruments, they are also brilliant entertainers and will enchant their audience with light comedy and musical delights.

In line with the thought of making music accessible, the festival puts on church services that include early music. It also offers a number of lunch concerts serving tasty authentic sound and taking the music right into the city for everyone to enjoy, whether you're a fan of early music, whether you have tickets for the festival's big events or not. 2016's celebrations will tempt both the enthusiasts and the curious to make that trip to Tyrol, and with such varied events in a number of historic locations, there is bound to be something for everyone.