International Handel Festival
Russia: St. Petersburg
The Mariinsky Theater
Named for its royal benefactress, Empress Maria Alexandrovna, wife of Tsar Alexander II, and inaugurated in October 1860 with a performance of Mikhail Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, the Mariinsky Theater remains a crown jewel in the cultural life of St. Petersburg. During Russia's Communist days, the theater was re-christened in honor of Bolshevik revolutionary Sergey Kirov; today the theater -- and the city -- has made artistic peace with its tsarist past, the beautifully restored blue-and-gold auditorium welcoming Mozart, Verdi and Puccini favorites as well as once-forgotten operas by Russia's own Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Rimsky-Korsakov. Under the directorship of the leonine Valery Gergiev, the company's general and artistic director, the theater has become a training ground for many of today's most exciting international stars -- Anna Netrebko, Olga Borodina and Ildar Abdrazakov, to name a few. During the summer months, the White Nights Festial draws operatic and classical music royalty -- along with nearly one million Russians -- to St. Petersburg for the motherland's largest public event.
The Wexford Festival
This southeastern Irish town's opera festival, which runs through October and November, abounds with a distinctly Gaelic allure that since 1951 has inspired its fiercely loyal audiences' annual migrations to the quondam Theater Royal, and now -- in its stead -- the recently opened 771-seat Wexford Opera House. A sense of discovery that's just as potent as the municipality's omnipresent aroma of burning peat proves to be this festival's calling card: emerging young stars take part in little-known operas, presented with remarkable musical and dramatic merits under artistic director David Agler. What seemingly never ceases to delight the festival's devotees is the singular combination of challenging onstage rarities with the thoroughly Celtic brand of hospitality that abounds offstage. Away from the festival's presentations, one can find myriad opportunities to revel in Wexford's charms, from poetry recitations in Thomas Moore Tavern to incomparable suppers at Forde's Restaurant and -- should the muse strike you -- the Guinness International Singing & Swinging Pub competition.
United States: New York City
From the Metropolitan Opera, to Carnegie Hall, to a thrillingly modernized Alice Tully Hall -- and let's not forget about outer-borough venues like the unique Brooklyn Academy of Music -- there's a reason New York remains the cultural capital of the world, and proof enough exists outside of the overcrowded tourist-laden blocks that comprise Times Square. The Metropolitan Opera, now operating under the auspices of its innovative general manager Peter Gelb, has become an increasingly accessible institution. Case in point: can't afford orchestra seats to the company's new Contes d'Hoffmann? Why not catch a Live in HD offering -- for a relative pittance -- at one of the movie theaters just a few blocks away from the house.
Likewise, a revitalized New York Philharmonic, led by native-son Alan Gilbert, can tackle symphonic rep ranging from Bach to Schoenberg with aplomb, all within the span of a single evening. Splendid Manhattan-bound classical and operatic fare need not be experienced within confines of the Upper West Side, though: Le Poisson Rouge, a trendy Bleecker Street nightclub whose novel approach to programming enjoins it to present some of the best jazz, contemporary-classical and chamber music the city has to offer, allows its patrons to quaff hearty hefeweizens or smoky pinot noirs in an atmosphere so easygoing as to make Brahms and Ellington seem like kissing cousins.
Teatro alla Scala
Milan's operatic history -- which dates back to the seventeenth century -- is no less dazzling than the world-famous fashion houses that make this city one of the modern world's top destinations for cutting-edge design. Teatro alla Scala has been the city's operatic pride and joy since the eighteenth century: the official opening of the La Scala season is almost always on December 7, the feast day of St. Ambrose, Milan's patron.
La Scala remains hallowed ground on which divas-in-the-making must prove their mettle prior to donning the mantle of prima donna: the house heard the world premieres of Puccini's Madama Butterfly, Verdi's Otello, Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, Rossini's Turco in Italia and Bellini's Norma -- and scores of other classics. Since its earliest days, the company's always-vocal loggione -- the fervently opinionated opera fanatics that still occupy the theater's top two galleries during each performance -- have kept egos in check and made sure that opera remains a topical subject in the Italian press. Even with its venerable history, the company to this day retains an admirable degree of operatic innovation: tourists visiting the cosmopolitan city in 2011 can offset their travel-heavy carbon footprints by catching La Scala's energy-efficient premiere of Giorgio Battistelli's operatic adaptation of Al Gore's panegyric to environmental awareness, An Inconvenient Truth.
Has any place inspired more operas than Paris, perhaps the most romantic city on earth? A visit to the French capital allows you to dine at Maxim's in the manner of Lehár's Merry Widow or walk in the steps of La Bohème's Bohemians and Massenet's Manon, although that young lady's stomping grounds of St. Sulpice -- the church where she seduces the feckless Des Grieux away from the priesthood -- is probably better known today as a locale in The Da Vinci Code and as a venue for concerts of church and classical music, an attraction in dozens of the city's churches -- including the iconic Cathedral of Notre Dame, and the twelfth-century Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Paris's newest home for opera is the spacious but somewhat chilly Opéra de la Bastille, which boasts an unrestricted view of the stage from each of its 2,700 seats, but the city's most famous operatic landmark remains the opulent nineteenth-century Palais Garnier, familiar to lovers of Broadway's Phantom of the Opera: its lavishly decorated Grand Foyer, with vast staircases positively bulging with Italian marble and Algerian onyx, has to be seen to be believed. Don't miss a chance to visit Théâtre des Champs-élysées, an Art Deco masterpiece that is one of Europe's prettiest theaters, or the devastatingly elegant Théatre du Châtelet, which sits on the banks of the Seine, just ten minutes' walk away from the cathedral of Notre Dame. Also worth a trip is the Salle Favart, its frothy good looks an apt metaphor for the light-hearted attractions of its home company, the Opéra-Comique.
United States: Chicago
United States: Chicago
Chicago's Civic Opera House is one of the most beautiful buildings in a city that prides itself on its architecture: it is prominently featured on several of the excellent architectural tours of the Chicago riverside. Viewed from the river, the building looks like a giant armchair, with the opera house proper as its seat and the building's office towers suggestive of a chair's arms and back. Built in 1929, this ageless amalgam of Renaissance revival and Art Deco has superb acoustics, excellent sightlines and sumptuous public spaces, including a handsomely proportioned foyer.
The theater was home to several Chicago opera companies before its most distinguished tenant, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, arrived in 1954. The Lyric established the City of Big Shoulders as an international opera capital and has held sway here ever since, offering the opera world's brightest stars in top-notch productions. After the Lyric season ends in late winter, Chicago's opera lovers hold on until spring, when the adventurous Chicago Opera Theater presents its three-opera season -- usually staged with a bit of an edge -- at the slick new Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park. A word of warning: if you are planning on sampling one of Chicago's terrific restaurants, plan a pre-performance excursion. Chicagoans like to go to bed early, and after-theater dining options are not as plentiful as in New York or Europe.
The Drottningholm Court Theatre
Drottningholm was recalled to life in the 1920s, when a Swedish theater historian discovered intact decors for more than thirty productions inside the theater building -- and realized that the theater's elaborate eighteenth-century system of stage machinery needed only new ropes to restore it to full working order. Drottningholm now presents a brief summer season each year, with the repertory usually drawn from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Spring and summer tours of the theater and the palace grounds -- all part of a UNESCO world cultural heritage site -- are relatively infrequent, in order to spare its eighteenth-century charms from the wear-and-tear of twenty-first-century life. Early booking is advisable.
United States: Santa Fe
United States: Santa Fe
In 1957, New York conductor John Crosby started an opera company in a highly unlikely locale: the breathtaking mountains of northern New Mexico. Crosby's impossible dream has endured: every July and August since then, Santa Fe Opera has presented an imaginative, exciting mix of familiar classics, rarely-performed treasures and brand-new works, their casts generally populated by the best young singers in America. Opera lovers from all over the world have been thrilled by Santa Fe's singular natural beauty, an element in the company's appeal celebrated by its dramatically proportioned adobe theater, which has unequalled views of the high desert landscape -- and the heart-stopping beauty of its sunsets. Performances sometimes gain a frisson of excitement when real lightning flashes in the distant mountains, which are clearly visible from the auditorium. Daytime hours in Santa Fe can be spent sampling the myriad charms of the city itself and of its thriving local community of world-class artists and artisans.
England: Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Sussex
England: Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Sussex
The thoroughly English character of Glyndebourne Festival Opera reflects the personality of its eccentric founder, John Christie, who developed the ambitious scheme to offer festival-quality opera performances on his East Sussex estate. He presented his first season in 1934. Christie's original theater, frequently remodeled to meet the needs of its expanding audience, was eventually replaced by a completely new facility in 1994, but the abiding presence of the Christie home -- which dates back to the early sixteenth century -- and the continued involvement of Christie's descendants in festival life have allowed Glyndebourne to retain much of its original atmosphere.
For almost seventy-five years, visitors to Glyndebourne have applauded this summer festival's high musical and dramatic standards while reveling in its atmosphere of a country houseparty. In the festival's early days, most audience members traveled from London by train wearing full evening dress; things are somewhat less formal these days, but fine crystal and monogrammed linen still make an occasional appearance in the al fresco suppers consumed by opera goers on the Glyndebourne grounds. (There are also plenty of facilities available for those who prefer to sip their champagne indoors.) The operas of Mozart have been at the core of Glyndebourne's repertory for all of its existence, but more esoteric fare -- including some world premieres -- is also among the company specialties.
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