From a clifftop amphitheatre to a realisation of Hadidian design genius, if you love your librettos then you’ll definitely want to put each of these spectacular opera destinations on your bucket list
Italy might have been the birthplace of opera some 400 years ago, but the Lilliputian village of Glynde, wedged into the foot of the stunning South Downs, is widely renowned for hosting one of the most prestigious opera festivals in the world – Glyndebourne. Founded by the thoroughly eccentric John Christie in 1934, the quintessentially English amalgam of formal opera and bucolic setting attracts some of the best performers in the world. It’s not all about the arias though: one can picnic in the stunning grounds and soak up the atmosphere before experiencing the magic of opera, which this summer features Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Donizetti’s L’elisir D’amore, and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress among others. The dress code has relaxed in recent years, but that hasn’t stopped the vast majority of Glyndebourne fanatics decamping to the South Downs in formal eveningwear, so dust off your tuxedo or buy yourself a new gown, and make the journey for an unforgettable experience.
Ask anyone to name the most visually arresting opera house in the world and most people will say Sydney, but only because they aren’t privy to the Zaha Hadid-designed Guangzhou Opera House in China. Hadid’s stroke of deconstructivist genius was to imagine the opera house as two pebbles washed up on the shore of the Pearl River, upon the banks of which the impressive structure stands. Audacious on the outside and magnificent on the inside, the 1,687-seat auditorium houses an exposed granite and glass frame which took the best part of half a decade to build.
La Scala it is not. Nor could one say it bears any resemblance to the Palais Garnier in Paris. But what The Minack Theatre in Cornwall lacks in prestige and glamour, it more than makes up for in sheer breathtaking location. Sheer being the operative word, because this tiny open-air amphitheatre is situated on the craggy cliffs of Porthcurno Bay. If you like your opera vertiginous, then The Minack is a charm, with performances running from March through to September. Be sure to bring plenty of layers with you because “balmy summer nights” are a rare thing on the Cornish coast.
Built in 30AD in the Piazza Bra in Verona, watching opera in the 22,000-capacity Arena di Verona is an experience like no other. The incredibly well-preserved ancient Roman amphitheatre where once gladiators would have battled to the blood-thirsty cheers of thousands of people is now home to the Verona Opera Festival, which puts on some of the biggest and best names in international opera every year between 16 June and 9 September. With some of the best open-air acoustics in the world, the arena is illuminated by candlelight to create one of the most magical opera destinations. It’s believed that some of the first operas in the arena took place during the Renaissance period, but the festival itself began in 1913, kicking off the tradition with Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, as it does every year. Get there early for the sundown passeggiata and obligatory people watching.
Italy isn’t the only country with ancient Roman amphitheatres. French opera lovers believe they have one of the best in Orange, just a short drive north of Avignon in the south. Well-heeled Parisians and culture vultures from the Côte d’Azur make the annual pilgrimage to Avignon for the world-renowned Chorégies d’Orange, a summer opera festival held each year in the magnificent semi-circular Théâtre Antique d’Orange. Seating approximately 9,000 opera heads, the festival has been operating in one form or another since 1860, primarily as a celebration of the glory of Rome, but latterly the venue for some of the most revered operatic voices the world over (don’t miss Anna Netrebko on the 24 July this year).
The Finns are a pretty stoic bunch. They play their emotional cards close to their chest, unless you happen to find yourself in a sauna with a six-pack of Lapin Kulta, but that’s a different article altogether. The point is they’ve been keeping one of the world’s best opera festivals largely a secret to the rest of us. Savonlinna, nestled deep into the vast lakeland region north of capital Helsinki, is home to an exquisite summer opera festival staged in the courtyard of the grand medieval Olavinlinna castle. Surrounded by water, the castle has seen many battles since it was built in 1475, mostly fighting off the Russians, but thankfully the only army you’ll see now is a 2,200-strong battalion of opera lovers taking in various world-class librettos throughout July.
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