Aachen is a border city just six kilometers away from the Three Countries’ Corner, which is a place up in the woods where the borders of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium all come together. As in most border towns, the people tend to be monolingual and not very interested in the languages and cultures of their neighbors just up the road. (It would be great if somebody from Aachen could write me a comment contradicting this statement, in case it’s not true.)
But Aachen wasn’t always as peripheral as it is today. A mere twelve centuries ago Aachen was the center of a mighty empire during the reign of Charles the Great (742-814), better known as Charlemagne.
While I don’t know much about Charlemagne or his empire, I am quite familiar with the opera Fierrabras, by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), which features Charlemagne as one of the main characters. This is an opera which is seldom performed — up to now there have been only four productions of it altogether, two of which I have seen, namely the ones in Frankfurt and Zürich. (More about them some other time.)
The opera I saw in Aachen was not about Charlemagne but about a very different ruler, a dictator named Lucius Cornelius Sulla who reigned in Rome around 82 or 81 BC. In the opera he goes by his Italian name of Lucio Silla.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was only sixteen when he composed Lucio Silla in 1772, but it was already his ninth opera. This was the third of three operas that he composed in Milan, Italy, for the Regio Ducal Teatro, which was Milan’s opera house at the time (since La Scala had not yet been built or even thought of).
The Aachen production was the second staging of Lucio Silla that I have seen so far. We had a beautiful production of it in Frankfurt am Main from 1993 to 1995, and I was also quite satisfied with the Aachen production, which was part of a series of four Mozart operas all involving rulers who at first seem to be vicious tyrants but turn out to be lenient and kind-hearted in the end. This was a common ending for opera plots in the 17th and 18th centuries, since the local rulers were often the ones who paid for the operas — but today it’s difficult for the stage director to make the ruler’s sudden change of heart appear plausible on stage!
The other three operas in the series Mozarts Herrscherdramen (roughly “Mozart’s Ruler Dramas”) were:
- La Clemenza di Tito, Mozart’s 21st opera, composed in 1791 for Prague shortly before the composer’s death at age thirty-five.
- Idomeneo, Mozart’s thirteenth opera, composed for the court theater in Munich when he was twenty-five, in 1781.
- Mitridate, re di Ponto, his fifth opera, composed for Milan in 1770 when he was only fourteen.
The Aachen City Theater, officially known as “Theater Aachen”, is located in the middle of a busy street, which in fact divides to go around the theater building.
This makes the building a bit cramped, since there is no room to expand to either side. Nonetheless, the theater puts on an extensive program of drama, dance, operetta and opera productions.
My photos in this post are from 2009 and 2015. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: Opera Houses in Germany.