Why go to a Baroque music festival? You may have favourite works from the period, which have stood the test of time. Or the opposite: you’re jaded with hearing the same old symphonies and concerti and the festival gives you a chance to sample the thousands of baroque works that aren’t often played. You may be fascinated to hear real Baroque specialists, who understand every nuance of their instruments and are continually exploring new ways of making this music sound authentic. Perhaps you simply love the environment of the Baroque with its ornate gilt work and dramatic paintings and sculpture.

Chapel at St John's Co-Cathedral © David Karlin
Chapel at St John's Co-Cathedral
© David Karlin
Whichever of these hits your sweet spot, you’ll find plenty to tempt you in Malta in January, where the 2017 edition of the Valletta International Baroque Festival runs from January 12th to 28th. There’s plenty of familiar Bach during the festival, or you can go for Handel’s Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks on the last day, preceded by Purcell opera arias. There are explorations of composers like Zelenka, Boccherini or Jacques Duphly. There are top ensembles like The Sixteen or Ensemble Correspondances. And if you love the baroque but haven’t yet experienced some of Valletta’s churches, you’ve been missing out.

But you may also want to head for a festival to experience something completely different, and that’s certainly what you’ll get on 14 and 15 January at the Teatru Manoel, in the shape of Lully’s Atys performed by the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles. Except that this isn’t Lully as you know it: this is an opera parody, performed with marionettes. Back in the 18th century, once an opera was performed, it duly gave rise to parodied versions, often with commedia dell’arte characters in place of the heroes and heroines and popular tunes dropped in, to the delight of audiences. Parodies were staged in official theatres, but also in the local fairgrounds, to the point that the Comédie-Française succeeded in banning actors from the fairground theatres on copyright grounds. The producers duly substituted marionettes – and that’s what the Versailles people are bringing to Valletta (with real singers and musicians, of course).

Workshop for <i>Atys en Folie</i> at the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles © CMBV
Workshop for Atys en Folie at the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles

The Teatru Manoel is a lovely theatre, the archetype of golden Baroque, and with eight of the festival’s 25 events, it's the most important venue. You’ll also want to visit St John’s Co-Cathedral, where you can take in the opulence of the gilt decorations – whether you find them delightful or excessively gaudy, it’s an experience not to be missed. On 13 January, you can hear Ensemble Correspondances performing Charpentier’s Te Deum and Henry du Mont motets. Seeing them in 2014, Bachtrack’s Julie Jozwiak suggested that the angels must have been quivering with pleasure at hearing such fine interpretations of Charpentier. Seeing their du Mont motets a year later, Julie praised them as having “irreproachable technique in the service of the purest musicality.” On 23 January in the co-cathedral’s Oratory, Chicago-based early opera specialists Haymarket Opera perform Alessandro Stradella’s oratorio San Giovanni Battista – be warned, it’s a small space and capacity is limited.

Teatru Manoel © David Karlin
Teatru Manoel
© David Karlin
There are performances at four other churches, the festival opener being at the Ta’ Ġieżu Church with a trumpet-based programme by Italian 18th-century specialists Concerto de’ Cavalieri, who have performed in some of the world’s most prestigious venues: in last year’s festival, Katy Wright described them as “vivacious yet stylish, with a direct yet colourful sound” and noted their infectious enthusiasm. The largest scale concert – and your chance for a change from 100% pure baroque – is on 26 January, with the Malta Philharmonic performing a series of modern baroque-inspired works, ranging from Mahler and Respighi to a newly composed guitar concertino. Another larger ensemble is the European Union Baroque Orchestra, which performs Bach Cantatas on the 25th. At the other end of the scale, London-based period piano specialist John Irving performs Bach’s French Suites in a lunchtime concert entitled "Bach and the Spirit of the Dance" on 15 January at the National library of Malta, a stunning neoclassical building a stone’s throw from St John’s. There are also solo violin, viola da Gamba and lute concerts.

There’s more rare opera in the shape of Pergolesi’s La serva padrona, a short opera buffa concerning a domineering maidservant who tricks her master into marrying her and those succeeds in becoming the lady of the house by right as well as de facto. It’s staged by Rome-based Associazione Musicale Giacomo Carissimi.

The climate, by the way, should help to sway you: Malta has the warmest winters in Europe with 10 hours of daylight per day in January, daytime temperatures averaging 15°C and the likelihood that you’ll get sunshine. With your choice of instrumental, ensemble, choral and operatic concerts, Valletta in January is the perfect place to hear great music in lovely surroundings and beat the winter blues.

Valletta seen from Fort St Elmo © David Karlin
Valletta seen from Fort St Elmo
© David Karlin

This article was sponsored by the Malta Tourism Authority. Notes on opera parody are taken from Françoise Rubellin's article.