Wayne Gooding Finds an Operatic Birthday Present in a City That Already Had It All

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With about 1.4 million inhabitants, Munich is not much more than half the size of Toronto in terms of population. But while Toronto is home to more opera companies and enjoys more performances than anywhere else in Canada--and ranks around fifth or sixth in North America--it's operatically dwarfed by the Bavarian capital. Indeed, Munich punches massively above its demographic weight compared to almost every opera centre anywhere in the world, its current prominence molded by a performing tradition that dates back to 1653.

In 2008, the city whooped it up for its 850th birthday with a string of events that ran from raucous street parties to celebrations of a rich and varied cultural life that thrived even through the darkest periods of its political history, including the Third Reich years that ended in massive physical destruction. As a bow to popular culture, Munich renovated and revamped a museum in the city's medieval Isar Gate dedicated to Karl Valentin, the beloved Munich-born, Chaplin-like comedian and cabaret artist, who collaborated with Berthold Brecht and was much admired further afield by the likes of Samuel Beckett. For opera-lovers, there was a similar nod to the city's creative past in the reopening of the handsomely refurbished Cuvillies Theater, named for Francois Cuvillies the Elder, who built it in the early 1750s at the behest of his employer, the Elector Maximilian Joseph III. It's a Rococo gem, tucked in behind the Nationaltheater in the Residenz complex that served as the sumptuous, sprawling city digs of Munich's ruling elite.

As with so many historic buildings in Germany, the theatre is a mix of painstakingly restored old and state-of-the-art new. The original Cuvillies building was destroyed in a March 1944 bombing raid, though the painted woodcarvings on the boxes and other interior fittings had all been removed and stored for safety the year before. In 1956, these treasures were given to the Bavarian Administration of State Palaces, Gardens and Lakes, which restored and reassembled them in time to reopen the theatre in a new building in the Residenz for the city's 800th anniversary in 1958. A half-century on, a $40-million renovation involved everything from rewiring through installation of advanced technical equipment to regilding the ornamental boxes. The gala reopening was on June 14, with the first performance of a new, definitely-not-Rococo Dieter Dorn production of Mozart's Idomeneo (recently released on DVD), an opera that, thanks to the enlightened munificence of another Bavarian Elector, Karl Theodor, had its premiere at the Cuvillies during Karnival celebrations on Jan. 29, 1781.

Appropriately, the house where Mozart completed the opera in the three months leading to its premiere stood at the corner of Burg and Altenhof streets, not far from the Rcsidenz and just across the road from where Cuvillies had died in 1768. Plaques mark the spots today, since neither of the original buildings survived.

With the reopening of the Cuvillies, the Bayerische Staatsoper has again the choice of three prime houses for the 300 or so performances it gives through the season and the annual month-long summer opera festival. Since the first recorded performance in 1653 in the Herkulessaal of the Ducal residence, Munich has seen a number of theatres come and then go, mostly as a result of fire and war. The three that exist today (I'm talking here only of the Staatsoper, but there are also non-Staatsoper productions at the Gartnerplatz Theater) reflect Munich's opera-house network at the beginning of the 20th century, although two of them--the Nationaltheater and the Cuvillies--are post-World War II reconstructions. …


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