In the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, a little Baroque magic happens every January. For five editions now, the island of Malta has played host to the Valletta International Baroque Festival, bringing together the Baroque beauty of venues in the capital city with the best music from the period. Next year, the celebration is even greater as Valletta becomes the European Capital of Culture for 2018.

Teatru Manoel © Luiz Rodriguez
Teatru Manoel
© Luiz Rodriguez
The city of Valletta was completely rebuilt after the Great Siege of 1565 during the rule of the Order of St John also known as Knights Hospitaller. Therefore, many of the buildings are Baroque in character, including the charming Teatru Manoel, a 623-seater theatre with three tiers of wooden boxes and a trompe-l’oeil ceiling, built in 1731 and named after its commissioner, the Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller, Fra António Manoel de Vilhena. The theatre is one of the festival’s key venues along with St John's Co-Cathedral, dedicated to John the Baptist, and a range of churches around Valletta.

It’s no surprise to see Baroque giants Handel, Bach and Vivaldi featuring in the festival’s sixth edition in January 2018, but you’ll also find lesser-performed composers tucked away, people like Giovanni Bononcini, Niccolò Jommelli, Maltese composer Benigno Zerafa, or Francesca Caccini. The latter is represented by her opera La Liberazione di Ruggiero, believed to be the earliest opera written by a woman and the only opera of Caccini’s to survive. She was part of a musical family which regularly performed at the Medici court in Florence – her father, Giulio, wrote his own version of Euridice in 1602. La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’Isola d’Alcina (The Liberation of Ruggiero from the island of Alcina) was premiered in Florence in 1625 and is based on an episode from Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso, a plot which later inspired Handel (three times – Orlando, Ariodante and Alcina) and Vivaldi (Orlando furioso) a century later. Francesca wrote her opera in the stile moderno, a term coined by her father to indicate recitatives and canzonettas in the style of Monteverdi. Listening to La Liberazione, it’s certainly not a million miles from Monteverdi in its musical flavour. Caccini’s opera was revived in recent years, notably a Brighton Early Music Festival performance we reviewed which concluded that “the work surely deserves a place in the history of early Baroque opera regardless of the gender of the composer”. The Huelgas Ensemble performed the opera in January 2016 and revisit it in Valletta to round off the festival in style.

Jean Rondeau © Edouard Bressy
Jean Rondeau
© Edouard Bressy
Benigno Zerafa studied at St Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina and later in Naples. Most of his surviving compositions are sacred works, such as the Messa a due cori in D major which French ensemble Collegium Orpheus performs under its artistic director Jean-Marc Labylle in the very cathedral where Zerafa studied.

The big Baroque beasts are well represented though. Indeed, the festival opens with possibly the most famous work of them all. Vivaldi’s Op.8 collection of concertos entitled Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (The Trial Between Harmony and Invention) doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but the first four violin concertos are usually performed under that well known collective title The Four Seasons. It’s odd to imagine a time when The Four Seasons wasn’t ubiquitous, but the scores were forgotten until the manuscripts turned up in Turin in the first half of the 20th century. Now, they’re a candidate for the most recognised, most performed pieces of classical music in the world. Shunské Sato and the excellent Concerto Köln open the festival with these programmatic Baroque gems.

Any Baroque festival would be naked without Bach. Dutch ensemble Het Collectief performs The Musical Offering, while Teodoro Anzellotti offers an unusual take on the Goldberg Variations, performing them on an accordion in Floriana’s Ta'Sarria Church. Handel is represented by his terrific Dixit Dominus in G minor, performed by the Ghislieri Choir and Consort from Italy. Les Ambassadeurs under director Alexis Kossenko offer a selection of highlights from Rameau’s operas, with soprano Claire Debono.

Other highlights include a pair of irrepressible harpsichordists. Mahan Esfahani joins La Folia Barockorchester for a programme of chamber music inspired by Dresden’s Zwinger Palace, while Jean Rondeau (what a perfect surname for a Baroque performer!) joins Thomas Dunford in music by Marin Marais, François Couperin,Forqueray, Jacques De Gallot and more.

The 2018 festival demonstrates that Valletta is firmly at the centre of the Baroque map of Europe.

Click here for a full list of events in the festival.


Article sponsored by the Malta Tourism Authority