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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 14, No. 2

Arts Travel : Kent Nagano and the Munich Opera Festival

by Joseph So / October 13, 2008

Every summer, the Munich Festival is pure opera heaven to us opera-starved Canadians. Recently I spent a fabulous week at the Richard Strauss Festwochen that closed the Munich Festival. Over six days, I saw Arabella, Ariadne auf Naxos, Elektra, Salome, and Werther, with a Jonas Kaufmann Liederabend thrown in for good measure. Other festivals such as Salzburg, Bregenz or Glyndebourne might be equally starry or cutting-edge, but none can match Munich’s programming consistency or their staggering variety. This year’s festival was particularly festive because the city was celebrating its 850th anniversary.

In retrospect, I wished I had arrived earlier to catch the ultra-Romantic Jurgen Rose production of Der Rosenkavalier and my beloved Soile Isokoski in Four Last Songs, or stayed long enough to witness the closing Die Meistersinger. But the performances I managed to see were all extremely high caliber, with Ariadne and Salome tied for top honours. It was no coincidence that both operas were conducted by Kent Nagano, arguably one of the half dozen top conductors today. Some impress with galvanizing power, others with clinical precision and attention to textual nuance, still others are masters of the grand statement. Nagano has it all, as Montreal Symphony audiences have already discovered. The final scene from Salome positively spine-tingling; while “transcendent” was an apt description of the refulgent sounds at the end of the opening night Ariadne. His tenure at the MSO has contributed a rich program of concert operas and vocal music.

This year’s Munich Festival was the second under Nagano’s direction, and attendance at the 65 events reached 98.2% capacity, selling tickets to some 80,000 people. For the first time in many years, three new productions were mounted during the Festival. Nagano himself was on the podium for 15 of those evenings. So the rumor that Munich might not be able to keep Nagano beyond his current contract came as a surprise. The subject came up at the press lunch I attended with Dr. Ulrike Hessler, who is in charge of development and programming at the Bavarian State Opera. Dr. Hessler was friendly and remarkably candid with the press, making it known that the Company hopes to retain their star maestro. Initial discussions to extend Nagano’s contract have already begun. Munich will also have a new General Director, Nikolaus Bachler, who recently announced exciting plans for the 2008-9 season, including new productions of Wozzeck and Lohengrin, the latter with the “dream cast” of Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros. Stay tuned!

(c) La Scena Musicale