Cultural Tourist: Savour Italy's first and finest festival

Italy has no shortage of cultural destinations and activities, but there is nothing like the Spoleto Festival in Umbria. It was founded in 1958 by the composer Gian Carlo Menotti. The Festival of Two Worlds, as it is also known - the two worlds being Europe and America - was an event unique in its conception and spirit, embracing all aspects of the performing arts; opera, theatre, dance, film, orchestral concerts and jazz. It was the first festival of its kind in Italy and remained the only one for many years.

In its first year, Menotti gathered together some of the best directors, choreographers, conductors, set directors, costume designers and musicians, as well as many new talents. Spoleto, an hour's drive north of Rome, is a very beautiful hill town, but Menotti chose it for the variety of dramatic venues at his disposal: the 17th-century theatre Caio Melisso (at that time it was a cinema and its perfect acoustics were restored at the composer's expense), the town's big 19th-century theatre, its open-air Roman theatre, and spaces such as the Cathedral Square, where the jazz and orchestral concerts of the festival have always been performed. After the performance in 1958 of Verdi's Macbeth, conducted by Thomas Schippers and produced by Luchino Visconti, Spoleto was hailed as the new Italian Salzburg.

"The festival has no artistic aim," confesses the Maestro, "I just invite the people I admire to come - everything just comes together. I like improvisation."

The festival has always had the policy of inviting young musicians, dancers and actors to be given a professional platform to perform. Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn danced here; there were debut performances by Jacqueline du Pré, Jessye Norman, and Yo Yo Ma; early works by Pina Bausch, Tennessee Williams and Harold Pinter were performed; there was an Andy Warhol exhibition; Henry Moore designed opera sets; Ezra Pound and Allen Ginsberg read their poetry; Placido Domingo sang. Menotti - who will be 93 this July - handed over the artistic directorship to his son Francis in 1999, but is still very much involved.

This year's festival runs from 2 to 18 July. Among the highlights are two operas: the Handel rarity Orestes (3, 4, 7, 14 and 17 July) and Viktor Ullmann's extraordinary The Emperor of Atlantis (8, 9, 11, 13, 15 and 16 July). The Emperor of Atlantis is one of the 20 works written by the composer while in Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia before his death at Auschwitz in 1944. It's a modern singspiel opera, with elements of commedia dell'arte and cabaret, but also spiritual cantata or oratorio. The Juilliard Jazz Septet directed by Wynton Marsalis will play every night from 5 to 12 July in the Piazza del Duomo from 10pm. There are dance companies from Brazil and Spain performing, and the cinema is hosting seasons of films in homage to Ingrid Bergman and Jeanne Moreau. The final concert on 18 July in the Piazza del Duomo will be a performance of Carmina Burana by the Juilliard Orchestra under James Conlon.

For further information visit www.spoletofestival.it. Tickets can be ordered online or from the box office 0039 0743 220320 fax 0039 0743 220321

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