Take one look at a photo of Olavinlinna, the castle that houses the Savonlinna Opera Festival, and you'll see a picture-postcard beautiful venue. However, when you walk for the first time from the castle gate through narrow medieval corridors towards the performance space, you wonder how opera can be staged there at all. When you reach the generously sized courtyard, it seems impossible that the combination of modern rainproof shell and geometrically irregular stone walls can be anything other than an acoustic nightmare – until, that is, you hear the first notes of the overture, whereupon you realize that somehow, it all just works. Singers seem to have no trouble projecting to an audience of over 2,000, directors are able to turn the various nooks and crannies of the castle's architecture to advantage, and the sheer atmosphere of the place takes over.

© Savonlinna Opera Festival
© Savonlinna Opera Festival
It may not be Giuseppe Verdi’s anniversary in 2016, but it will be the 400th of William Shakespeare’s death, and if you head for Savonlinna in July, you’ll find that the programmers have chosen all three of Verdi’s Shakespeare operas as the great operatic representatives of the Bard’s work. And who’s to argue? Each one of Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff is a masterpiece, each in its different way: Macbeth an early Verdi work bursting with dark energy; Otello the ultimate exploration of how malice can induce the strongest of men to be consumed by his own weaknesses; Falstaff a portrait of a rather weak and despicable man, but a surprisingly affectionate one which blends high farce with real pathos and, ultimately the affirmation of life. There will be plenty of operatic celebrations of Shakespeare next year, but this one is going to be hard to beat.

The 2016 festival is overwhelmingly Italian, with high profile visitors from Ravenna and Turin. Two of the Shakespeare operas, Macbeth and Falstaff, are directed by Ravenna Festival’s artistic director Cristina Mazzavillani Muti, whose husband Riccardo will be conducting a concert featuring Ravenna and Piacenza’s youth orchestra, the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini. The other important Italian visitors are the Teatro Regio di Torino and their music director Gianandrea Noseda, who are bringing productions of Bellini’s Norma, perhaps the opera by any composer that most successfully marries the beauty of bel canto with the high melodrama of romantic opera, and of the ever popular La bohème (2016 is going to be a busy travel year for the Teatro Regio, with appearances in France, Germany and Hong Kong as well as Savonlinna). Noseda and Muti are two great Italian conductors, both with reputations as hard taskmasters and men of extreme precision, so it should be a fascinating chance to compare the two at close quarters.

Carlo Colombara (Don Giovanni) © Timo Seppäläinen, Itä-Savo (2011)
Carlo Colombara (Don Giovanni)
© Timo Seppäläinen, Itä-Savo (2011)
The Italian accent of the festival is completed by one of Savonlinna’s repertoire pieces, Don Giovanni, although this is definitely a local affair: the conductor John Storgårds is Finnish, as are all of the cast with the exception of Sweden's Gisela Stille. There’s one non-Italian opera, but it’s one worth travelling for: Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, based on the novel in which Fyodor Dostoyevsky depicted life in a Siberian prison camp, is a bizarre, episodic opera which mixes extreme levels of misery and tension with dark humour; Bachtrack’s Laura Kate Wilson described the music as “packed with beautiful, soaring strings that make the heart swell” at the same time as containing “a lot of purposefully pained and uncomfortable sounds”. From the House of the Dead will be sung in its original Czech and conducted by Czech Tomáš Hanus; the production comes from Welsh National Opera and is directed by their chief executive and artistic director David Pountney.

Noseda can take his pick of top singers, and the casting that most caught my eye was that of Norma. The title role is celebratedly challenging, but if Elena Moşuc can maintain her outstanding form from Luisa Miller in 2015, that should be a performance to savour, with the druid Oroveso sung by Met stalwart Michele Pertusi. La bohème features Simone Piazzola, a young Italian baritone who we’ve enjoyed seeing from Amsterdam to Munich. Otello features Lebanese-born Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury, who wowed Bachtrack’s Mark Pullinger in Opera Rara’s November  2014 performance of Les Martyrs.

The operas in the festival line-up are complemented by a pair of Schubert concerts – a Winterreise and a Mass – and the annual winners’ concert for the Timo Mustakallio Singing Competition.

The festival runs from 8 July to 6 August. If you're a lover of Shakespeare, Verdi, Italian opera in general, if you're attracted by the setting of opera in a beautiful castle surrounded by lakes, or if you simply fancy seeing opera so far north that the nights are white and you come out of an evening performance in daylight, Savonlinna is the place to go in 2016.

 

This article was sponsored by Savonlinna Opera Festival.