One of the mysteries of operatic history is why the composer Gioacchino Rossini (1792 – 1868) abruptly stopped composing in 1829 at the age of 37, when he was at the height of his powers and had just had a huge success with his opera Wilhelm Tell. Since he was a prolific composer who churned out two or more operas a year with little apparent effort, nobody expected him to just stop. But that’s exactly what he did.
His own explanation was that after nearly forty operas in less than twenty years he had done more than his share of composing, and since his operas had made him filthy rich there was no reason he shouldn’t buy a large house near Paris and devote the rest of his life (he was to live for thirty-nine more years) to his two favorite hobbies, gourmet cooking and gourmet dining.
By all accounts he enjoyed his new lifestyle immensely, but after a quarter century it started to take its toll on his health. Today a sensible doctor would probably advise this sort of patient to cut down on his calorie intake and get some exercise, but in the 19th century the treatment of choice was to send these patients (those who could afford it) to one of the fashionable new German spas that were opening up at the sites of mineral springs in scenically attractive areas.
And so it happened that the ex-opera-composer Rossini spent several weeks in 1856 taking the waters at a place called Wildbad in the Black Forest.
As a paid-up member of the German Rossini Society I had been meaning for several years to go to the annual Belcanto Opera Festival “Rossini in Wildbad”, and in the summer of 2006 I finally did it. In two days I saw three rarely-staged operas, only one of which was by Rossini, and a recital of rarely-sung vocal works, most of which were in fact composed by the master himself.
In 1991 the name of the town was officially changed to Bad Wildbad, and since that word now appears twice in its name you might suspect that this town is twice as bad as any of the other spas.
Which it isn’t, really, even though it does have that typical spa-like feeling of creepiness about it. Their advertising features a statuesque young woman swimming in a medicinal pool and then getting a full-body rubdown with mud, for medicinal reasons presumably. But when you arrive in Bad Wildbad you soon realize that statuesque young women are not their main clientele.
From 1967 to 1999 this small but historic theater stood unused and fell into a drastic state of disrepair until it was bought by a citizens’ group who raised the money to have it repaired and restored.
In 2006 restoration was by no means complete, but they were far enough along that the theater could already be used for some of the smaller (afternoon) performances of the Belcanto Opera Festival. The theater seats only about 150 people, which is why they only use it for the afternoon performances.
On the first afternoon I was there I saw the rarely-performed comic opera I Gelosi (The Jealous People) by Giuseppe Balducci (1796 – 1845). This opera was commissioned in 1834 by the Marchesa Capece Minutolo, to be performed in her salon by her three daughters and three of their girl friends, and for this reason all six roles were written for young female voices, even though two of the characters are men.
In Wildbad this entertaining little opera was sung in the original Italian, with German surtitles. One of the six singers was Chinese, and in addition to the Italian text she got to improvise a spoken diatribe against her supposedly faithless lover in her native language, at which point the surtitle read “Sorry, but I don’t understand Chinese. (Greetings from the surtitler.)”
Later one of the other young ladies did a striptease while standing on a piano and singing an aria about how jealous she was, and at this point the surtitle read: “This you should be able to understand without reading the text. (Don’t read so much, just look.)”
On the second afternoon I attended a recital of little-known arias, songs and ensembles, mainly by Rossini but also a few by his life-long friend Michele Carafa (1787 – 1872).
Operas in the Kurhaus
The evening performances are held in the more prosaic, but larger, venue of the Kurhaus.
The first opera I saw there was a farce called La cambiale di matrimonio, which Rossini wrote when he was eighteen. This was not the first opera he ever wrote, but it was the first one that was ever performed. Towards the end I realized I had seen it once before, in a small production by the Kammeroper (Chamber Opera) in Frankfurt.
When I later told Frankfurt opera-goers that I had seen Simon Bailey as Cherubino they thought I was putting them on, since Simon is a bass-baritone and Cherubino is a soprano role in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. The solution is that Simon sang this role in a different opera, The Two Figaros by Rossini’s friend Michele Carafa (1787 – 1872). This opera takes place several years later, after Cherubino has grown up from a squeaky-voiced boy to a deep-voiced man.
This production was the first time in over 150 years that one of Carafa’s operas was staged, and the performance I saw was broadcast live all over Germany on the radio network Deutschlandfunk. It’s a fine opera, by the way, but it is still not performed very often.
Then as now, the Hotel Bären (Bear Hotel) is an elegant and fashionable establishment directly on the Kurplatz in the center of Wildbad. Here is where Rossini stayed for several weeks in 1856.
Rossini was very satisfied with his stay in Wildbad, by the way, and while he was here he even started composing again — not operas, but various smaller works that he liked to describe as “the sins of my old age”.
My photos in this post are from 2006. I revised the text in 2019.
See more posts on the composer Gioacchino Rossini.