Fifteen Essential European Opera Festivals

Email a Friend

In my decades of operagoing, I have tried to make a point of ranging far and wide because Planet Opera has so much more to offer than the famous houses in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, London, Paris, Berlin,  Milan and Vienna. Whether it is going to the 40 or so other stages in New York or seeing important works at small, regional theaters, I try to go off the beaten path in search of something special or the next big thing.

When the big theaters go dark during summer months, a lot of the action switches to festivals. There are the famous, evergreen events including Bayreuth, Edinburgh, Glyndebourne, Salzburg, and Verona. All are great and deserve to be attended at least once. But there is so much more, in big cities and small towns.

The Essential Fifteen

European opera lovers often find their way to Munich in July, when the Bavarian State Opera ends its season in a blaze of glory. This season, seventeen operas will be staged between June 25 and July 31. Among many highlights are Der Rosenkavalier (Kate Aldrich, with Anja Harteros sure to be a sublime Marschallin); Tristan und Isolde (Nina Stemme, Ben Heppner, René Pape); Mitridate, Re di Ponto (Barry Banks); Fabio Luisi conducting Anja Kampe and hometown boy Jonas Kaufmann in Fidelio. Edita Gruberova, the Prima Donna Assoluta of Munich, will sing Lucrezia Borgia and you can expect foot-pounding ovations the likes of which you hear in few other places.

Also in Germany is the Göttingen International Handel Festival, which has many concerts, two oratorios (Athalia and Jephtha) and one opera (Teseo) between June 3 and 14.

London, for most people, is about the Royal Opera at Covent Garden and the English National Opera. But there are smaller troupes, none more delightful and unexpected than Opera Holland Park, a venue in West London that has picnic tables for pre-performance feasting and chairs at its outdoor theater. There will be seven opera productions between June 7 and August 13. None other than Richard Bonynge, husband of the late Joan Sutherland, will conduct Don Pasquale for the first opera of the season. The other works are Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz; Tobias Picker’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox; Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro; Puccini’s La Rondine; Verdi’s Rigoletto; and Catalani’s La Wally.

Italy has three festivals devoted to its most popular opera composers in the cities they are most associated with. Torre del Lago presents Puccini standards (July 22-August 27). Parma fetes Verdi each October 1-28 with operas and concerts. The most exciting, to me, is the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, where you can swim in the Adriatic by day, have a great seafood dinner, and then hear Daniela Barcellona (as Adelaide di Borgogna) and other eminent Rossinians in Mosè in Egitto, La Scala di Seta, Il Viaggio a Reims and Il barbiere di Siviglia.

Aix-en-Provence in France is a big stop on the traditional festival circuit, but merits attention this year for its rich program: Shostakovich’s The Nose (in the famous William Kentridge production at the Met); Natalie Dessay in La TraviataLa Clemenza di Tito conducted by Sir Colin Davis; Handel’s Acis and Galatea; and two premieres: Oscar Bianchi’s Thanks to My Eyes and Jéròme Combier’s Austerlitz.

In Switzerland, I will be attending the Zurich Festival, which has a rich operatic offering (Falstaff, From the House of the Dead, Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci, Parsifal, Carmen, Il Re Pastore) and concerts with voice between June 17 and July 10. I will report from there. I have a soft spot for the Verbier Festival, with its pristine alpine setting, educational activities and a shop called La Chaumiere with some of the most sublime cheeses, yogurts and fruit jams you will ever taste. Running July 15-31, the festival attracts A-list stars in chamber and symphonic concerts, master classes (this year is Alfred Brendel, whom I often consider my favorite pianist, though I reserve the right to love many others) and real pleasures for lovers of the voice. There will be recitals by Matthias Goerne, René Pape, Thomas Quasthoff, Kiri Te Kanawa and Bryn Terfel. New York’s Collegiate Chorale will perform in Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with fine singers. 

And yet what most catches my attention in Verbier is, yes, Tosca, despite having seen at least a hundred performances of Puccini’s opera. On July 24, the dynamic conductor Gianandrea Noseda (artistic director of the Teatro Regio in Torino, with productions of Verdi’s Macbeth at the Met and Luisa Miller at La Scala coming next season) will lead a cast including the Italianissima Barbara Frittoli in the title role, the compelling Aleksandr Antonenko as Mario and the incomparable Terfel as Scarpia. The staging will be by the wonderful Swiss actress and director Marthe Keller. This performance should be hot enough to melt the snow off the Alps. I pray it will be recorded!

Austria has superb music festivals throughout the country. Salzburg has great events all year long. The Bregenz Festival builds a production on a raft on Lake Constance that audience members watch from dry land. Recent works have included Aïda, Porgy and Bess, and Tosca, and this season is Andrea Chénier from July 20 to August 21. At Bad Ischl, a spa town near Salzburg, there is the annual Lehàr Festival with operettas by Lehàr and other composers. The Grafenegg Festival is in the Wachau wine country from August 19 to September 7. It has top-flight orchestras and conductors and several important vocalists get there each year. Vienna has its Festwochen, from May 13 to June 19 full of operas and concerts in addition to the offerings at the Vienna State Opera. I love the annual Schubertiade. This year more than 25 master singers will perform music of Schubert between June 18 and September 9.

Northern Europe: Saunas, Castles and Mozart

You know from an earlier post of mine of my passion for the far north. The little theater at Drottningholm, a 45-minute ferry ride from Stockholm, has permanent scenery that is nearly 250 years old which must be operated by hand. This was the Queen’s palace and theater and, as you sip a drink or coffee on the balcony, you feel that little has changed in centuries. The Swedes are second to none when it comes to charm and you will feel that in performances of Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni.

Savonlinna, in central Finland, is in a zone with many lakes and castles. For many years its opera festival has been the perfect blend of summertime fun, fresh food, and important new singers, most of them Finnish. Performances are given in the in the courtyard of the town castle where opera has been staged since 1907. This season includes Don Carlo, Don Giovanni, Lohengrin, Bluebeard's Castle, and Il Matrimonio Segreto (by Cimarosa), performed most every day. This town is a popular destination for those who want to take the waters, exercise, have spa treatment and healthful eating. It was here that something called the voice massage was created that specifically provides therapies that free the voice. You will need it to sing the praises of the local strawberries, the best I have ever tasted.

What is your favorite festival, and why? What goes into making a great opera festival, apart from superb singers?

Photo: St. Olaf's Castle, the venue for the Savonlinna Opera Festival (Wikipedia Commons)