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The Salzburg Whitsun Festival starts tonight and runs until May 28. Artistic director Riccardo Muti, born in Naples in 1941, has conducted most of the world's top orchestras.


La Scuola Napoletana sings again

Conductor Riccardo Muti describes rummaging about in Naples' music archive, where he discovered hundreds of slumbering operatic masterworks

So much dust! I had completely forgotten about that, although I once studied in Naples at the Conservatorio San Pietro a Maiella, and spent time in the archive. It's in an old cloister, where a great deal of material has been assembled down the centuries. When thinking of the sleeping beauties among the opera manuscripts stored there, I always knew that at some point, I would kiss a few of them and bring them back to life.

"Il ritorno di Don Calandrino" by Domenico Cimarosa. All performance photos © Silvia Lelli, courtesy the Salzburg Whitsun Festival

I realized immediately that that moment had arrived when Jürgen Flimm arrived in Ravenna with just such an idea, and offered me the reformed Salzburg Whitsun Festival. The manuscripts of Domenico Cimarosa, who composed 90 operas, for example, are covered in dust. In some rooms, they are stacked right up to the ceilings, and illuminated by half-blind alabaster windows. But they are marvellously well-preserved, and are written in the clearest possible handwriting. They've never even been published, and have been ignored for centuries now. When I returned to the library, I was immediately reminded of the legendary library in "The Name of the Rose." But things are very informal at the Biblioteca Girolamini, the rarest and most precious manuscript are delivered right into your hands without security measures. Here, trust is everything.

Suddenly, you come into contact with the people who closed these volumes for the last time 200 years ago. History surrounds you here directly – and not just as particles of dust. Other nations, to be sure, handle their cultural heritage with greater care. But reigning here is the casual attitude toward history typical of southern Italy.

In the wake of the Vivaldi renaissance, and after my long-time preoccupation with Luigi Cherubini, an important Early Classical composer, it's now time for Cimarosa & co., for the Scuola Napoletana. Here, you become an archaeologist, revelling in the joys of discovery, hardly knowing which of these delectable creations to make audible first, which to breathe life into again. Particularly since the notes have been copied with such perfection that all we need to do is to copy them and start rehearsing.

For this reason, "Naples: A City in Retrospect" will be my Whitsun Festival motto for at least the coming three years, though there's enough material here for a hundred seasons. But we shouldn't exaggerate.

What interests me is recalling the musical golden age of Naples. And by that I mean not Rossini or Donizetti, who, of course, also composed many works for the celebrated Teatro San Carlo, one of the oldest theatres in Europe. I mean the Baroque and Early Classicism. Back then, Naples was one of Europe's principal musical centres, and works composed and premiered there were immediately imported to courts and large cities throughout the continent. Including and in particular, Vienna. The two metropolises were closely linked, and not solely because of the family ties between the Hapsburgs and Bourbons – later, there were even Habsburg viceroys in Naples. Musically, the two were "twin cities."

For young nobleman who wanted to see Mount Vesuvius, the Gulf of Naples, and the early excavations at Pompeii, Naples was an obligatory stop on the Grand Tour. Naples was also a bridge to the Orient. Naturally, visitors wanted to hear music by the trend-setting composers of the day: Porpora, Jomelli, Leo, Piccinni, Traetta, Scarlatti, and Pergolesi. These composers taught at the four colleges which were later brought together to form the Conservatorio San Pietro a Maiella. The Neapolitan school was a kind of source, a school of hearing for the rest of Europe.

At long-time leader of the group was Giovanni Paisiello, who was even active as court composer in St. Petersburg under Catherine the Great. Unfortunately for him, his highly successful "Barber of Seville" was later pushed to the side by Rossini's daring version. Above all, Paisiello composed superb buffa operas, a genre which had evolved in Naples from the comical interludes, the intermezzi, that were performed between the acts of an opera seria. The most celebrated of these was "La serva Padrona" by Pergolesi, who died very young. Buffa operas draw on the common people and their dialects, and most contain characters who speak coarse Neapolitan. They are set in Naples and environs, for example in the osteria of Marechiaro, in grottos and palaces.

At San Carlo, the genre has been enjoying a revival for some time now. I want to attempt the same thing now in Salzburg, the most Italian city in Austria. I have chosen Cimarosa's "Il Ritorno di Don Calandrino", the farcical love story of two women and a charming swindler, tinged with tristezza and featuring precisely characterized recitatives that are carefully crafted yet often quite freely composed. The libretto is by Giuseppe Petrosinelli, who also provided the text of Mozart's "La Finta Giardiniera." It was one of around 30 proposals selected for me by the wonderful librarian at San Pietro a Maiella.

The Cimarosa opera dates from 1778. And Alessandro Scarlatti's untitled oratorio "a quattro voci" of 1717, a meditation on the life of Mary that also features John, Nicodemus and the high priest Onia, will be performed at the Kollegienkirche. This juxtaposition indicates the stylistic spectrum of my work with the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra, whose members are recruited from the best Italian academies. At the Ravenna Festival, I'll be performing mainly the music of Early Classicism with this orchestra. I want to reanimate the specific traits of the Italian musical tradition, for examples the especially well-developed virtuosity of the left hand formerly typical of our violin school.

Conductor and Salzburg Whitsun Festival artistic director Ricardo Muti. Courtesy Teatro alla Scala

In this way we're recreating the Naples stage in Salzburg. Really we're doing nothing different than our forefathers did 200 years ago, and our tenacious politicians are doing today: bringing Europe closer together through art. Next year we'll feature Paisiello's "Matrimonio inaspettato" and an oratorio by Johann Adolf Hasse. Theatres in Paris and Moscow are showing interest in taking on this project. And even in Italy, things are stirring, at long last, albeit slowly.

The Salzburg Whitsun Festival runs from May 25 to 28.


The article originally appeared in Die Welt on May 24, 2007, and was recorded by Manuel Brug.

Riccardo Muti, one of the best-known conductors of our time, is artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival.

Translation: Ian Pepper - let's talk european