Photo Recap: Aleko/Jolanthe, with Netrebko, and More from Baden-Baden

Classic Arts Features   Photo Recap: Aleko/Jolanthe, with Netrebko, and More from Baden-Baden
The Festspielhaus has had major headlines recently. The latest was a rare opera double bill with no less than Anna Netrebko, who was in town with the Mariinsky. Also in town was Frank Cadenhead, who reports on several performances and the unique features of the renowned house.


"Festspielhaus" in German means Festival House and the Summer Festival is much like the earlier seasonal "Festivals" which are year-round in this house. This one returns Netrebko to her roots in St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater with her mentor, conductor Valery Gergiev, who heads the house.

Double bills of operas are infrequent and only one played with regularity is Cavalleria rusticana (Mascagni) and Pagliacci. Gergiev makes a powerful argument that two Russian operas, the 20-year-old Rachmaninov's Aleko and Tchaikovsky's last opera, Jolanthe, make an ideal pair.

Aleko is in love with a young free-spirit who has found a new love (a plot that parallels Pagliacci). Consumed with jealousy, bass-baritone John Relyea, in the title role, makes fine work of his "Cavatina" - a concert favorite of Feodor Chaliapin - and acts convincingly as he murders both his lover and her new amour at the end. Timed at a little less than one hour, the music is accessible and has power and raw emotion. Veronika Djioeva, the young girl, and Sergey Skorokhodov, the young Gypsy lover, were both strong contributors to the high-voltage opera. One might quibble with the heavy chain-link fence as a backdrop and the gaudily dressed "Gypsy" women but the impact of the music and drama was never lost.

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Anna Netrebko
photo by Andrea Kremper

It was after the intermission mega-star soprano Anna Netrebko brought to life the blind waif Jolanthe. It was an eloquent performance memorable for its flawless singing and deft theatrics. The story of a young girl raised by her royal father without knowing about her blindness, an arranged marriage to a French noble finds the groom uninterested but his friend stricken with love. Count Tristan Vaudemont here is the exciting young Polish tenor Piotr Beczla. Sparks fly and tears are shed, in the audience as well as on stage, during their entrancing duet, which, not surprisingly, stopped the show.

Tchaikovsky's opera, seldom seen on stage, is filled with masterful music. With a supporting cast of Russian singers like the grand bass Sergey Aleksashkin as King Ren_, the father. With Valery Gergiev in the pit it would be a superior night at the opera in any major capitol.

The following night, another concert in his cycle of the symphonies of Shostakovich, the magisterial "Babi Yar" Symphony, No. 15, was given a passionate reading by Gergiev, an undisputed master in this repertory. Along with him was the excellent Sergey Aleksashkin, our King the night before, who sang the text with an unique interpretative grasp and sense of drama. The concert began with the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto played masterfully by young Alexei Volodin.


What has happened to produce such world-class excitement in such a relatively small town? The old train station was converted into a concert and opera hall. It seats 2500, making it the largest venue in Europe with the exception of the Bastille Opera in Paris. Without a resident opera, they are constantly welcoming the best in touring orchestras, ballet and opera. They have a special relationship with Gergiev and the Mariinsky, who have returned regularly since the opening in 1996.

A newer relationship is with the conductor Christian Thielemann, who assembled a starry cast with the Munich Philharmonic for a concert performance of Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. The Festspielhaus borrowed a Salzburg/Paris staging by the late master Herbert Wernicke and had the same cast in February for four nights.

I was fortunate to see a concert performance immediately after in a stop in Paris. With a cast of legend - Ren_e Fleming as the Marschallin with Diana Damrau, Sophie Koch, Franz Hawlata and Jonas Kaufmann as The Tenor - it was fortunately captured on DVD during the Festspielhaus run. Also in Baden-Baden a few months ago: a televised production of Weber's' Der Freisch‹tz directed by Robert Wilson in one of his more whimsical and even colorful stagings.

The Festspielhaus is not funded by the government - unique in Germany - and earns revenue by a now faithful audience, who come from nearby towns in addition to the locals. Major brands also rush to contribute to have their watches and cars in the program pages of this new phenomena. Deft work by intendant Andreas M‹lich-Zebhauser has the new season with Thielemann conducting a staged Elektra and Gergiev and the Mariinsky returning along with Cecilia Bartoli, Ren_e Fleming, Anne Sofie von Otter, Joyce DiDonato, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic and lots of other stars.

The new season is available to view at

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All photos by Andrea Kremper.

John Relyea in Aleko

Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala in Iolantha

Anna Netrebko in Iolantha

Anna Netrebko in Iolantha

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