Vito Žuraj’s opera opens at Frankfurt to critical acclaim

Slovenian composer Vito Žuraj.
Slovenian composer Vito Žuraj sees a successful opening night for his latest opera. Photo: STA

An opera commissioned from Slovenian composer Vito Žuraj by the Frankfurt Opera opened on 22 January to critical acclaim. His largest work yet, Blühen (Blossoming) also features Slovenian soprano Nika Gorič in the cast.

Written by Austrian author Händl Klaus based on Thomas Mann’s story Die Betrogene, the opera in seven scenes tells the story of Aurelia, a mature woman who falls in love with her teenage son’s young English teacher, but just as she rejoices in her newly blossoming passion, she learns that she has a terminal cancer.

Commenting on the world premiere of Blossoming at the Bockenheimer Depot in Frankfurt am Main, the German radio Südwestrundfunk said that Žuraj created a perfect counterpoint tailored to the Ensemble Modern, which performed the piece under the baton of conductor Michael Wendeberg.

The music grows, going into the dark depths as it implants the breath of death into the sonic flourishes and finally transforms into a requiem that melts into ethereal heights, the radio commented. Another one, hr2-kultur described the opera as violent and touching.

The opera was directed by the mezzo-soprano Brigite Fassbaender, who told the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that Žuraj had written a great score, “concentrated, tamed power” with “tremendous parts” for five soloists, including Nika Gorič, and the vocal ensemble.

Speaking to the Slovenian newspaper Večer ahead of the premiere, Žuraj said he detected an “exceptional dramatic potential” in the text, a love story that is “unusual for the opera stage”. Blühen is his second opera after Orlando. Das Schloss, which premiered in Germany’s Bielefeld ten years ago.

Born in Maribor in 1979, Žuraj tailors his compositions to his performers, often incorporating scenic elements and using acoustic space as a musical parameter.

His works have rapidly gained recognition at major concert halls and festivals. They have been performed by renowned ensembles such as the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the RIAS Chamber Choir and the Ensemble Modern, which will make a guest appearance in Slovenia in the autumn.

“Ingenious conundrums, his works combine the aesthetic and technology of electronics with classical orchestration – in an individual musical language that is always sensory,” the Frankfurt Opera describes his work on its website.

Žuraj graduated in composition at the Ljubljana Music Academy before heading to Germany to study composition and electronic music at the Carl Maria von Weber College of Music in Dresden. He has also studied in Karlsruhe and Frankfurt and lectured at the University of Music in Karlsruhe.

His accolades include the Berlin Philharmonic’s Claudio Abbado Composition Prize, which he won in 2016. He has been working as a professor of composition and music theory at the Ljubljana Music Academy since 2015.