Wiener Festwochen. Photo: Richard Schuster

Six Theater Festivals You Shouldn’t Miss This Summer 0

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May 1 – 17

The previous season's ten most notable theater productions performed in Germany, Austria and Switzerland get an encore showing every year in Berlin during the festival “Theatertreffen” (The Meeting of Theaters). Free of such conditions as showing the latest trends in theater or adhering to a certain theme, this festival offers a truly diverse program in terms of aesthetics and content. A panel of seven theater critics hulls their ten favorites from, as was this year, 379 theater productions shown in 54 German-speaking cities.

Sometimes the festival shows works by directors who are just starting out and, although they're still unknown by the greater public, show great promise. This year among the up-and-comers is the young Swiss director and musician Thom Luz – ask anyone in Switzerland about what's new and interesting, and they'll unanimously point to Luz. Theatertreffen will be presenting Luz's Hanover production of “Atlas der abgelegenen Insel”.

Oftentimes Theatertreffen shows the works of directors who have participated in the festival for several decades, as it is this year with classic master of deconstructionist theater, Frank Castorf – a creator and developer of original theater in the 80s and 90s. His productions are like balls of energy in which screaming, out-of-their-minds entities circulate, their ecstatic conversations sinking into the bottomless pit of societal destruction. And then there are times when the productions start becoming tiresome and seem to be stuck in yesteryear. Castorf's and the Munich Residenztheater's version of one of Bertolt Brecht's earlier works, “Baal”, has this time come to the German capital with a scandal in tow: Brecht's heirs sued the theater company for not staying true to Brecht's script, and they prevailed. The production has been allowed to be shown one more time, at Theatertreffen; after that it will be shown without Brecht's words. Those who have seen Castorf's five-hour-long version say that half an hour would have been quite sufficient.

Although the festival's program is made up of extremely diverse works, this year the organizers have indeed decided to focus on something in particular – the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Weary of work, life and drugs, Fassbinder died from an overdose more than thirty years ago. He was an artist who, unlike any other, had the ability to look deep inside both the tangled and unknown world of human beings and the soul-deforming strangle-hold of bourgeois society. Mercilessly, he went far beyond the line of accepted norms of how to depict people and society. An expansive exhibition featuring the works of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a large part of which were theatrical productions made in the early days of his career, will be held in the Martin Gropius Bau.

Warum läuft Herr R. Amok?. Kristen Elsen, Herbert Volz, Renate Lewin, Ingmar Thilo, Sibylle Sailer. © JU Ostkreuz

In addition, one of the theatrical productions featured in the festival, “Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?”, is based upon Fassbinder's film of the same name. It will be put on by Munich's Kammerspiele company, under the direction of the young director Susanne Kennedy. With its original way of distancing and recombining the actors' bodies and voices into a different level of perception, this will be the second time in a row that the company is performing at Theatertreffen.

Theatertreffen will also be the perfect opportunity to see the Maxim Gorki Theater company perform – last season they received the title of Best Theater of the Year, as chosen by a jury of 36 theater critics for the magazine Theater heute. Having been reformatted the previous season (as oft happens in the world of German theater), the Maxim Gorki Theater is now a forum for directors and actors of various nationalities. Its themes and communicative demeanor are unlike those of other German theaters, and it has succeeded in becoming something much more than just a social project. Thanks to the Maxim Gorki Theater, the medium of theater has regained its importance in Berlin by encouraging intensive discussions that make the public think – and not expect that the answers will be simply handed to them. Theatertreffen will feature Israeli director Yael Roman's production of “Common Ground”, which she developed together with actors whose parents are refugees from the Yugoslavian Wars. Although the children grew up in a different part of Europe that wasn't at war, their roots and familial histories have left deep and multi-layered issues that they must still deal with.


May 8 – 30

With a program made up of games and visual artworks, Brussels' KunstenFESTIVALdesArts is dedicated to new viewpoints on both art and the world. It is especially welcoming of experiments and new works, some of which are born right there at the festival.

KunstenFESTIVALdesArts positions itself as an open, cosmopolitan festival that, over its three-week run, literally takes over dozens of theaters and art spaces. Although the festival promotes the knocking down of language- and cultural barriers, it does have a very firm focus on stagings presented in the Flemish and French languages, as well as on Western European art. KunstenFESTIVALdesArts is for viewers who favor challenges – art forms that challenge the intellect, the viewing experience, and one's perception.

Romeo Castellucci - “Uso umano di esseri umani”. Trailer

This year's program includes several classics of avant-garde theater that have held their own for 20 and 30 years already. One that deserves special mention is the mystifying visionary cosmos of the Italian metaphysical theater adept, Romeo Casatellucci; he and his group, Societas Raffaello Sanzio, will be performing “Uso umano di esseri umani”, a derivation of the Biblical story about the resurrection of Lazarus.

Another production that promises to be interesting is by the New York avant-garde team The Wooster Group. They are taking the Trojan War games to Brussels – along with all of their technological tools – in their version of William Shakespeare's “Troilus and Cressida”. Take note that a lot of new and as-yet-unknown theater companies and directors will be participating in KunstenFESTIVALdesArts, so be prepared to make some new discoveries.


Farewell, Paper. Photo: Viktor Dmitrev

Wiener Festwochen
May 14 – June 21

The Vienna Festival is one of the oldest, largest and finest international theater and music festivals in Europe. Ever since 1951, and during the most beautiful time of the year (in May and June, Vienna is abloom in roses), this festival reminds us that Vienna is the capital of first-rate art. Operas, concerts, exhibitions, theater productions and poetry readings – all featuring the world's leading talents – take place every evening in various venues around the city.

The Vienna Festival program offers an extremely diverse array of formats, from classic stage plays and huge opera productions to theatrically structured walks around the city and short, powerful pieces of performance art. Participants range from legendary directors and stage troupes, to just-recently discovered creative talents. This year's program contains 39 performances from 20 different countries.

After a lengthy absence from the international stage, Yevgeny Grishkovets – theatrical storyteller and author of subtle humanistic intonations of the kind rarely seen in today's theater – will be performing at the Vienna Festival. Grishkovets is heading to Vienna from Moscow with his latest production, “Farewell, Paper”. In our ultramodern digital age, Grishkovets returns to the writing desk and to text that has been written on paper, by hand – letters, postcards, long-hand notes. Grishkovets' humanistic journey goes back to a time when every other gesture and word directed at another person contained the individual and unique imprint of its deliverer.

An unusual artistic event that the festival's organizers themselves are calling “a quiet sensation” is the collaboration between conductor Kent Nagano and German stage director Andrea Breth on a 20th-century masterpiece – Bela Bartok's opera, “Bluebeard's Castle”. The event will be a double performance, as Robert Schumann's last piano composition, “Ghost Variations”, will also be heard, ensuring the public a poetically merciless journey into the bottomless depths of the human psyche.

Another event one shouldn't let pass by is the play “Go Down, Moses!”, a variation on Old Testament themes written by the metaphysical theater adept Romeo Castellucci. When asked about what was it about the ancient texts that drew his interest, Castellucci replied that it was the fragility of man – the weakness and feebleness of man as opposed to the enigma and power that is God. The Old Testament, says Castellucci, is a book that tells of horrible deeds, but it also tells of extreme humaneness. What is this assignment that has been given to Moses – to take his people to the Promised Land? And how is he supposed to do it? Moses' life journey – begun on the banks of the Nile, and including everything up to the miracle of the burning bush and the incident of the golden calf – is the substance from which this production has been created.

One of the Vienna Festival's frequent guests is the Croatian director Bobo Jelčić. Even though the festival's team of artistic directors has turned over three times already, their interest in Jelčić's works has not diminished. This summer Jelčić is participating with his stage production of Anton Chekov's “The Seagull”, with the play's setting and plot – a discussion about the fragile and quickly diminishing sources of creative ability, and the power of routine – having been transported to modern-day Zagreb.


Lulu. © Petrovsky and Ramone

Holland Festival
May 30 – June 23

The Holland Festival is one of the oldest international theater and opera festivals in Europe, and the power of its allure lies in its exemplary program offerings in the realms of music, theater, the visual arts and opera.

This year the festival will again be delighting the public with an unexpected artistic combination. South Africa's William Kentridge – painter, creator of animated films, frequent participant of both documenta and the Venice Biennale, and in the last few years, also a director of original opera productions – will be presenting his version of one of modern opera's cornerstones, Alban Berg's “Lulu”. Often called the mirror image of “Don Giovanni”, the opera is about the dangerous mystery behind a woman's power of erotic attraction.

We recommend theater fans go see “Krapp's Last Tape”, by the genius of the absurd, Samuel Beckett. Genius of the avant-garde, Robert Wilson, will be presenting and acting in his own staging of the play.

Another interesting event is sure to be “Ivanov”, as produced by the Swiss director and morphologist of the soul, Luc Bondy, and performed by Moscow's Theater of Nations, with Yevgeny Mironov in the lead role. It is a study of human helplessness during the so-called “best years” of one's life.

Fans of powerful visual theater should take in “M.U.R.S.”, by the La Fura dels Baus group from Barcelona.

The Holland Festival will also be celebrating the 90th birthday of French composer, conductor and music theoretician Pierre Boulez – through the simple act of playing his music to as wide an audience as possible. Numerous concerts featuring Boulez's music are planned, giving everyone the opportunity to experience the French avant-gardist's latest forays into new music close up and in-depth.

During the festival, the Stedeljik Museum will be showing the exhibition “This Variation”, by British-German artist Tino Sehgal.


Festival d'Avignon
July 4 – 25

In July, all roads will lead to Southern France; with its rich international program and wide-scope showing of France's theatrical arts, the Festival d'Avignon is one of Europe's densest festivals in terms of variety. Stage director Olivier Py, the festival's latest manager, did threaten to cancel last year's festival in protest of the right wing coming to power in the French government, but he didn't follow through with the threat. This year there is another dilemma – the festival must make do with a much smaller budget, and so viewers will be offered a much more compact program that has put emphasis on guaranteed crowd-pleasers.

One of these will be the icon of French theater and film, Isabelle Huppert, who will be reading fragments of works by the Marquis de Sade. Unified under the title of “Juliet et Justine, le vice et la vertu”, the event will take place in the festival's most honorable venue – the courtyard of the Papal Palace.

In French theater, the script is held to extremely high standards (oftentimes overriding the importance of set direction), which is why it is the deciding factor on whether or not a work is accepted into the Festival d'Avignon. With this in mind, we suggest that one have a very good understanding of the French language before going to see “Le Vivier des noms”. Written by Valere Novarina, France's most important dramaturgist of the current day, the production's power and allure are, in large part, due to the script.

The great French actress Fanny Ardant will also be very focused on her script as she performs the spoken-word opera “Kassandra”. Set to music by the French composer Michael Jarrell, it is based on the book of the same name by German author Krista Wolf.

Do not fear, however, if you are not a speaker of French, for there is much to see and hear at this festival that does not require good knowledge of the local language.

Before Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov is forced by Russian government officials to perform only productions that stick to the original script, he and Moscow's Gogol Center will be presenting “The Idiots”. It is a vibrant theatrical version loosely based on the film by Lars von Trier.

The theater company from Berlin's Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz has developed their staging of William Shakespeare's tragedy, “Richard III”, through physical and other methods instead of ones based on psychological mind-games. Interestingly enough, even though the director of the production, Thomas Ostermeier, is universally loathed by theater critics in his home country, he has become somewhat of a cult figure in France. Together with the actor Lars Eidinger, he has placed human disfigurement at the center of attention, thereby returning to the way that theater was performed back in Shakespeare's day – when a character's inner world was emphasized through his outer, physical form. Eidinger's rendition of King Richard III – a man whose achievements in social climbing were due to his ability to step over corpses and masterfully stir up intrigue – is quite controversial in that it oversteps boundaries that we now deem as taboo. Namely, the massive physical disabilities and deformations of the character are equated with his degraded and depraved mental state.

Motive Il trovatore, © Salzburger Festspiele / Luigi Caputo

Salzburger Festspiele
July 18 – August 30

The Salzburg Festival is also one of the oldest in Europe, and rich with tradition. It was founded by a trio of artistic greats: director Max Reinhardt, composer Richard Strauss, and the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. As the First World War was coming to an end, the three men decided that the people were in need of a festival for the soul. So that is what they did – on August 22, 1920, Hofmannsthal's mystery, “Jedermann”, opened the Salzburg Festival; and so the festival continues up to the present day. Remarkably, a presentation of “Jedermann” in Cathedral Square (albeit usually freshly interpreted) is still a part of the festival's program. In fact, a ticket to see “Jedermann” is one of the most sought-after in the festival's extremely broad program of operas, concerts and theatrical plays.

The Salzburg Festival is especially proud of its opera program, which always features the world's greatest musicians and singers, not to mention the Vienna Philharmonic.

However, we must quickly add that events in which the musical and theatrical aspects promise to be of equal intrigue are rather small in number. One of these few is the new staging of Ludwig Van Beethoven's political opera, “Fidelio”. It is directed by Claus Guth, one of Germany's finest and most cerebral opera directors; the score is to be conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, and the lead tenor will be Jonas Kaufmann.

The second new production we believe is worth seeing is “Die Eroberung von Mexico / The Conquest of Mexico”, by German composer Wolfgang Rihm. Ingo Metzmacher will be conducting, and the opera's musical and staging direction has been interpreted and developed by the controversial German director, Peter Konwitschny. At the center of Rihm's opera is the act of coming into contact with “the foreign”, and then the mechanisms used to destroy “the foreign”. Rihm was inspired to write the opera after reading the poetically surreal text, “The Conquest of Mexico”, which was written in the 1930s by the most radical visionary of French theater of all time, Antonin Artaud. According to Artaud, theater is an anarchic, multi-sensual territory, free of any convictions relating to its artistic presentation. Artaud especially believed that theater was not responsible in holding any trust in language or a written script; the viewer is tied to the performance through the archaic power that has been unleashed through ritual.

Festival-goers will again have the opportunity to see Giuseppe Verdi's “Troubadour”, as produced by the Latvian director Alvis Hermanis. This “dream in a museum” will be performed by the opera superstars Anna Netrebko and Placido Domingo in the lead roles, and the score will be conducted by Gianandrea Noseda.

A unique musical event, albeit with conventional staging, will be Vincenzo Bellini's opera “Norma”, with the vibrant Italian mezzo-soprano, Cecilia Bartoli, in the title role.

The Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča will be performing at the Salzburg Festival again this year. Together with pianist Malcolm Martineau, she will be singing pieces by Johannes Brahms, Henri Duparc and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The tightening of the budget for the Salzburg Festival can be most clearly seen in its theater program. One of the program's most interesting parts, the Young Directors Project, has been liquidated completely, and its anorexic replacement doesn't contain anything brightly promising. It is quite evident that the Salzburg Festival is slowly transforming into a music festival.