In the first decade of the twentieth century numerous small and middle-sized European cities built impressive municipal theaters, and Bern was no exception.
To finance this one, a group of prominent local citizens got together and formed a joint-stock company to raise money for the new theater, which they later sold to the city. The neo-classical theater building at Kornhausplatz, at the south end of the Kornhaus Bridge, was designed by an architect named René von Wurstemberger, who also designed several other public buildings in Bern.
On September 25, 1903, the new theater was inaugurated with, typically enough, a performance of the opera Tannhäuser, by Richard Wagner.
After over a century of operation the City Theater in Bern still has its own resident companies for opera, spoken drama and ballet — which is actually quite remarkable when you consider that the city of Bern only had 127,188 inhabitants at last count. On the other hand, there are some 300,000 people living in the region including the suburbs, and the theater is subsidized by the Canton of Bern as well as the city.
Currently the City Theater has 307 full- and part-time employees, in addition to numerous guest artists from over twenty-five countries.
On a visit to Bern in June 2008 I saw a lively and clever production of the opera Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) by Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868).
The curtain in this photo was the one used for The Barber of Seville, showing where the various characters supposedly live in a modern suburban housing development. The actual stage set contained a house that revolved and could be unfolded in various ways for the various scenes of the opera.
Dr. Bartolo was a dentist in this production (which was a new one on me). The star of the evening was the Swiss mezzo-soprano Claude Eichenberger, who studied in Bern and is now a member of the Bern opera ensemble. She played Rosina as a raucous and self-assured young woman, and she sang her first solo while waxing her legs, ripping off the waxed cloth at the high point of each verse.
This was the last performance of the season, on a warm summer evening with lots of other things going on all over town, but Bern’s theatergoing public of all generations nonetheless turned out in force to cheer their local orchestra and singers.
In December 2012 we went to a performance at the Bern City Theater of Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. The staging was a bit of a muddle, I’m afraid, but the singing was very good. The singers were given an enthusiastic standing ovation with rhythmic clapping at the end.
Unlike the five other productions of Fidelio that I have seen so far (two in Frankfurt am Main, one in Edinburgh, one in Bad Orb and one at the Komische Oper in Berlin), which were based on Beethoven’s final version from the year 1814, the Bern production consisted mainly of his original version from the year 1805.
Although I don’t know Fidelio well enough to make a detailed comparison, I came away with the feeling that the final version is decidedly superior. The original version does have its supporters, however, particularly the principal conductor of the Bern Symphony Orchestra, Mario Venzago, who wrote an article in the program booklet explaining his choice.
The story of Fidelio is that Florestan, a journalist, has been locked away without charge in the dungeon of a large Spanish prison. His wife Leonora disguises herself as a young man, gets a job in the prison and after several months is finally allowed to go down into the dungeon, just in time to save her husband from being murdered by the evil prison governor Don Pizarro.
Marzelline, sung in Bern by Camille Butcher, is the daughter of a prison employee. She wants to marry Fidelio, unaware that the handsome young man is really a woman, Leonore, who is there to save her husband.
My photos in this post are from 2008 and 2012. I revised the text in 2017.