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Concert at the Felsenreitschule | © Tourismus Salzburg GmbH
Where else would you get to see a grand opera performed in a former quarry, a quarry that was later used to drill cavalry troops? Nowhere. You’ll only find something quite like that here in Salzburg, at the Felsenreitschule during the Festival.
But one thing at a time: The Felsenreitschule was given its name for a very good reason more than 300 years ago. Archbishop Johann Ernst von Thun had it built for two purposes: as a riding school for his mounted soldiers, and as an arena for staged battles with wild animals. This expansion of the court stables, which were located right next door, was made possible because, in the preceding decades, stones had been quarried out of the wall of the Mönchsberg for construction of the new Salzburg Cathedral. Based on plans drawn up by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, Salzburg’s star architect of his day, 96 arcades on three tiers were built into the wall of the abandoned quarry. While the days of fighting wild beasts would soon pass, the cavalry of the archbishops and later of the imperial & royal army maintained their quarters in the Hofstallgasse until the end of World War I; in other words, until the end of the monarchy itself.
Open-Air Stage with Flair
Max Reinhardt discovered the Felsenreitschule as a potential open-air venue for the Salzburg Festival – and in summer 1926, one year after opening the first festival hall here in the former court stables, he presented Goldoni’s comedy “The Servant of Two Masters”. Back then, of course, there was still barely a hint of the elegance of today’s Festival: They performed on a simple, ramshackle stage of wooden boards, the floor was created from compacted earth, and audiences sat on wooden benches. Legendary to this day is the so-called “Faust City”, which was built by Clemens Holzmeister in the summer of 1933 for Max Reinhardt’s production of Goethe’s “Faust” at the Felsenreitschule. In 1948, Herbert von Karajan ventured the first operatic production on this impressive (though still open-air) stage in the erstwhile riding school: Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice”.
The facilities were finally remodeled into a “real” stage and concert house – with an orchestra pit, under-stage, a storage warehouse for sets, new audience galleries and a weatherproof removable roof – at the end of the 1960s. The three rows of arcade-style boxes which archbishop Johann Ernst Thun had had carved out of the rock for his Baroque guests, were thus transformed into a unique natural backdrop for magnificent productions. The path was now free for an annual summer Festival program at the Felsenreitschule. The unforgettable “Magic Flute” of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle was given here, as were Shakespeare’s “Roman Dramas” produced by Peter Stein. The year 2013 again saw modernizations. Specifically, a new retractable roof that can open or close in less than six minutes.
Legendary and Unique
With its 96 arcaded arches hewn into the rock wall, serving as a natural backdrop for the imposingly broad stage, the former riding school is a performance venue unlike any other in the world, one for which directors and set designers create compelling new worlds time and again. A space that poses challenges, but also one that inspires legendary theatrical invention, as history has shown. And the list of iconic highlights grows longer from year to year: During Festival season, on average the Felsenreitschule hosts either a concert, opera or play every other day.