A Night at the Opera

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AAC, CPA; TheCulturedTraveler and Unnamed Guest

So, our Paris adventure continued last night (Christmas) when we attended an opera at the Palais Garnier – Iphigénie en Tauride, by Christoph Willibald Gluck – preceded by dinner at L’Opera, the restaurant adjacent to the historic opera house. So adjacent, in fact, that you can enter the opera house from inside the restaurant – more about that later.

It had always been intended that there would be a restaurant adjacent to the Palais Garnier. But it took almost 140 years for L’Opera to be opened in 2009. The restaurant is where the original carriage entrance was located and patrons were dropped off to attend performances. While architecturally trendy and modern, L’Opera pays respect to its renowned neighbor. Additionally, due to the fact that the Palais Garnier is a national monument, the restaurant’s structure was forbidden from touching any of the existing wall, pillars or ceiling. The cuisine under the direction of Chef Chihiro Yamazaki is modern, yet classic, with an Asian influence. The menu also features many seasonal ingredients.

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AAC, CPA arrives for pre-opera dinner

We were immediately shown to a lovely table and looked over the menu, as we snacked on a delicious amuse bouche, a truffled mushroom mousse. Here’s what we had for dinner:

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Smoked salmon, black radish, red currant, pomegranate and lemony cream for me

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Duck fois gras, apple and arugula jelly, gingerbread for AAC, CPA

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Miso-marinated black cod, kohlrabi with saffron, daikon turnip for me

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Beef tataki, small grenaille potatoes with lemon and thyme for AAC, CPA

Every bite was a taste sensation, generously portioned, very fresh ingredients, beautifully prepared, as you can see.

We opted to skip dessert, as we didn’t need a sugar rush before the opera, if you know what I mean. The cost of the above, with a large bottle of Evian, was just 100 EUR which, we felt, was a bit of a bargain.

CUISINE TIP: L’Opera Restaurant

From there, we went through a black door, down a corridor and, somehow, we were inside the opera house. What’s most interesting – although I probably shouldn’t share it with you – is that we somehow ended up beyond the point at which our tickets should have been scanned for admittance. I hope that no one will take advantage of this information – you know who you are!

Although we had been inside the Palais Garnier many times – in the old days, one could wander around unattended on non-performance days – we hadn’t been inside the building in about 12 years. As we had some time before the performance, we wanted to revisit this amazing building.

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The world famous, Palais Garnier, home of the Opéra National de Paris

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AAC, CPA somehow gets in without having to show his ticket

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AAC, CPA in the grand foyer by the Christmas tree

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The grand foyer and Christmas tree at the far end

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The grand stairway leading to the main floor of the auditorium

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AAC, CPA overlooking the grand staircase.

We had wonderful seats on the main floor, 8th row center.

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AAC, CPA seated and waiting for the show to begin

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The mylar show curtain, which reflected the auditorium.

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The auditorium behind where we were sitting

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More of the auditorium

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The sensational Chagall chandelier

The Krzysztof Warlikowski production of Iphigénie en Tauride was a revival originally presented in 2006. It was a pretty wild affair, presented as a memory play as the now elderly Iphigénie recalls the events of the opera, which was a bit confusing if you weren’t familiar with the story, but never mind. It was very theatrical and entertaining in its unusual way. The performance was sensitively conducted by Bertrand de Billy, who we’ve previously seen at the Met in New York.

While the performance – the last of its current run – was warmly received, there were a very few unhappy attendees who felt it necessary to boo. I rarely approve of booing, but can sometimes understand it if the director and the production are so misconceived that showing displeasure should be encouraged but, in this case, it was unacceptable. I mean you don’t boo the chorus under any circumstances – they’re simply doing their job. There was no ambiguity regarding the principals, all of whom received deserved ovations.

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Curtain call

CULTURE TIP: National Opéra de Paris

And, so, our magical evening at the Paris Opera came to an end. We retrieved our overcoats from L’Opera and called for our Uber. Upon entering our car, we glanced over our shoulders for one last look at the Palais Garnier as we headed back home to the Peninsula.

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Christmas in Paris

Bon jour, mes amis! I hope that Santa was good to each and every one of you. I, myself, felt very blessed today. I woke up next to AAC, CPA and am in the beautiful city of Paris. As Ira once lyricized, who can ask for anything more?

When last I left you, we were about to prepare for our Christmas Eve festivities, starting with a cocktail downstairs at Le Bar Kléber, which was doing a brisk business when we arrived at about 7:00 PM. The barman was very talented and delivered our cocktails with great flourish and enthusiasm.

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The view from our barstools

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Christmas Eve Negronis, mais sur.

IMBIBING TIP: Le Bar Kléber

From Le Bar Kléber, we Uber’ed over to Bistro de L’Oulette, a charming restaurant on the Rue des Tournelles near the Place des Vosges. We’d eaten there a few years ago and have always wanted to return. It’s a tiny little place, probably no more than 12 tables, and has a very friendly and welcoming staff.

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Once we were seated, the maitre ‘d approached with a plate of amuse bouche and offered us an aperitif, and we each opted for a glass of champagne. All were delicious.

As it was a holiday, the restaurant was featuring a 3-course pri-fixe for a very reasonable 52 EUR. The restaurant also has a delightful wine list at excellent prices and a wonderful variety of choices.

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Our table was decorated for the holiday.

Four our mains, AAC CPA had medallions of monkfish with a shrimp risotto, and I had medallions of lamp with a parsley crust, accompanied by crisp sauteed potatoes and mushrooms. Both were mouth-wateringly delicious.

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AAC CPA’s monkfish

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My lamb

Oh, and did i mention that we split a split of Joseph Drouhin Aloxe-Corton 2013 which perfectly complimented our entrees. Every bite was a taste sensation.

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A beautiful pairing for our entrees, AAC CPA hides behind the wine.

CUISINE TIP: Bistro de L’Oulette

Following dinner, it was back into the Uber and a quick return to the hotel. By that point, we were pretty tired. We struggled to stay up for awhile and finally gave up the ghost around midnight.

And then we blissfully slept for over 9 hours. It was heaven.

This morning, we went down to Le Lobby, for breakfast. It’s a beautiful room, with a beautiful staff, providing beautiful service.

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The entrance to Le Lobby

AAC CPA went for the 45 EUR continental breakfast which could, in fact, feed us both. I opted for eggs and then I poached some of his goodies.

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A very happy AAC CPA checking out his continental breakfast

While we were eating, we noticed that a guitarist and vocalist were setting up shop right next to our table. We were at first concerned, because we noticed the amplification that accompanied them. However, once they started to perform, it was totally delightful. Their repertoire was a combination of holiday music and American Songbook. It was a really nice touch to provide live entertainment for us.

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Live music 6 feet away from us!

CUISINE TIP: Le Lobby

After breakfast, we decided to take a little constitutional, as the weather is mild today. We decided to check out the competition’s holiday decorations at the nearby Four Seasons Hotel George V. We’ve stayed there on occasion and have always been wowed by the floral arrangements in their lobby. Here’s what we saw today:

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Meanwhile, out in their courtyard:

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Ice blue penguins!!!

LODGING TIP: Four Seasons Hotel George V

‘Tis the season to be jolly, indeed!

And now, it’s time to great ready, once again, to prepare for our 2nd evening out in this enchanted city. The bill of fare: dinner at L’Opera, the restaurant adjacent to the historic Palais Garnier, home of the Paris Opera, where we have tickets to see Iphigénie en Tauride.

More to follow!

 

 

 

Let’s Spend the Holidays in Paris!

“New York has neon, Berlin has bars,
But ah! Paree!”

Follies, 1971

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Fifi D’Orsay extols the virtues of Paris in Follies

Greetings from a frigid (27° but feels like 18°) but brilliantly sunny afternoon in New York City, where the weather of late has been totally schizoid. We had weather in the teens a few days ago and, yesterday, it was pushing 60°. It makes a person lose faith in weather prognosticators!

But, we don’t despair – we pack. On Friday, we’ll be winging our way to the City of Light, a/k/a/ Paris, for a week of holiday cheer. You may recall, from a former post, that we were originally planning to be in Hong Kong for the holidays. But then there was that hip replacement and cancellation of a trip to Amsterdam. Because we didn’t want to forfeit the Amsterdam airfare (on British Airways), we had to come up with an alternative plan. Et donc – Paris!

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The Champs Elysee all gussied up for the holidays – December, 2014

BA has a subsidiary airline – Open Skies – and that’s how we’ll make our way to and from Paris. We’ve flown them on a couple of other occasions and, if you plan ahead, you can obtain a competitive fare (not now, of course, at the last minute). They have a good business class cabin (referred to, by them, as “Biz Bed”), which gives you a seat that fully reclines so you can get some shuteye on the flight over. Open Skies has a fleet of mostly 757s, and the cabin interiors are acceptable, but could use a redo. However, it’s a way to snag a good fare and fly nonstop to Orly.

Another thing to note is that, since these are evening flights, meal service onboard is minimal, as passengers mostly want to get some sleep. For those passengers in Biz Bed, there is a full meal service on the ground at JFK called “Sleeper Service”, which is available in the Terraces Lounge.

 

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Our Open Skies chariot awaits

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The “Biz Bed” Cabin

And as an added treat, Open Skies currently has a promotion that entitles us to a complimentary Uber to and from JFK, so we’ll start our trip off on the right foot.

TRAVEL TIP: Open Skies

So what, you ask, will we be up to in Paris? For starters, we somehow scored the deal of the century at the Peninsula Paris. It’s a new property, under 2 years old, and it’s sensational. Located on Avenue Kleber within 5 minutes of the Arch de Triomphe and the Champs Elysees, it a very convenient base of operations. When we booked last August, the hotel had a promotion wherein you paid for 2 nights and the 3rd night was complimentary; as we’re staying 6 nights, we ended up with 2 free nights. The rates were so low, in fact, that I booked directly rather than reserve through the AmEx FHR program (which features all kinds of giveaways and benefits), as it was still less expensive to book through the hotel.

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Side entrance to the Peninsula

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The spectacular lobby at the Peninsula

TRAVEL TIP: Peninsula Paris

By now, you’re perfectly aware that I’m intrepid when it comes to planning, so I know you’ll believe me when I say that we have all of our evening meals planned. Whenever we go to Paris, we typically have one blowout, super, over-the-top Michelin meal. This year, we’ll return to one of our favorite restaurants anywhere, Le Grand Vefour, a jewel box of a restaurant, originally opened in 1794 and located in the arcades of the Palais-Royal. We usually don’t return to restaurants in Paris, except on rare occasions where we might go back for a 2nd visit. However, our dinner at Le Grand Vefour next week will mark the 4th time we’ve dined there. It’s that special. One of the charming details of the dining room is that the banquettes are named for notable Frenchmen and women: among them, Victor Hugo, Jean Cocteau, George Sand, Emile Zola, Joséphine de Beauharnais and, at the adjacent banquette, General Bonaparte. The banquette we always request is named for the noted French author, Colette (né Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette).

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Le Grand Vefour in the arcades at the Palais Royale

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The jewel-box dining room at Le Grand Vefour

CUISINE TIP: Le Grand Vefour 

Other highlights of our week in Paris:

We’ll be going to the famed Palais Garnier on Christmas night to see a performance of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, preceded by dinner at L’Opera, the restaurant adjacent to the opera house. If you’ve never been to the Palais Garnier, it’s a must – think Phantom of the Opera on steroids.

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The spectacular Palais Garnier

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Inside the auditorium with the famed Chagall chandelier

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The grand stairway to the stalls

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The ultra-Rococo grand foyer

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A scene from Iphigénie en Tauride

CULTURE TIP: Palais Garnier

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L’Opera, which is adjacent to Palais Garnier

CUISINE TIP: L’Opera

And, while we’re on the topic of shows, the famed Théâtre du Châtelet has, over the past 10 years, presented over 25 Broadway musicals on its stage. Several years ago, we saw an excellent production of Sweeney Todd and, two years ago, we saw the out-of-town tryout of An American in Paris on Christmas Eve, which opened on Broadway a few months later. This year, the Châtelet is presenting a new production of that old chestnut, 42nd Street – not our favorite show, but a fun way to spend an evening. After all, the show contains these immortal words: “Musical comedy – the most glorious words in the English language!” And the Châtelet always delivers: full (sometimes oversized) orchestra, large casts and it never stints on the glitz and glamour.

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Théâtre du Châtelet

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The gorgeous auditorium at the Théâtre du Châtelet 

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42nd Street at the Théâtre du Châtelet 

CULTURE TIP: Théâtre du Châtelet

Although it’s going to be our 13th or 14th visit to Paris (can’t get enough), we still do a bit of sightseeing on occasion and maybe revisit some favorite places. Because we are Philistines when it comes to art (sad, but true), we decided to avail ourselves of this outfit called Paris Muse, which specializes in private tours in and around Paris. So we’ve booked two excursions: the first will be a 2½ hour Introduction to the Treasures of the Louvre and the second will be a 90 minute tour of Notre Dame Cathedral. We’ve been to both places in the past, but not as an immersive experience. I’ll report back to you and let you know how it goes.

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No caption necessary

CULTURE TIP: The Louvre

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Notre Dame Cathedral

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The Cathedral

CULTURE TIP: Notre Dame Cathedral

We also discovered that one of our favorite museums – the Jeu de Paume, located at Place Concorde and on the edge of the Tuilleries – is currently featuring an exhibit entitled Unrest, which is described as “a transdisciplinary exhibition on the theme of collective emotions, political events insofar as they imply crowd movements in conflict: there is talk of social disorders, political agitation, insurrections, revolts, revolutions, vacancies, riots, upheavals of all kinds”.

Seems like an appropriate time for this exhibit, right?

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Musée Jeu de Paume

CULTURE TIP: Jeu de Paume

Otherwise, weather permitting, we hope to walk the streets of Paris until we drop. It’s a city made for strolling and we intend to show off AAC CPA’s new and improved hip as we make our way through the Marais or the Champs Elysee or the Place Madeleine, especially as we’ll be having a lovely lunch at Caviar Kaspia one afternoon.

So that, in a nutshell, will be our Parisian holiday adventure. I’ll fill in more details as they happen.

Restez à l’écoute et de joyeuses fêtes à tous!

 

 

A Return Visit to Bayreuth!

Gentle Readers:

Over the past 10 months, TheCulturedTraveler has presented fresh content for every blog entry. However – and for the 1st time ever – I’m reblogging and updating a post from last November in honor of the start of the Bayreuth Festival in the little town of Bayreuth, Germany. In less than 2 hours from the publication of this post, the 2016 season will be underway.

Of course, what would a Bayreuth Festival be without some gossip and lots of controversy and, of course, this season is no exception. Each year, the Festival presents one new production. This year, it’s the Meister’s ultimate work, Parsifal, which is replacing a landmark production by Stefan Herbeim, retired in 2012. This year’s production was to have been conducted by Andris Nelsons but, less than 4 weeks before the premiere performance, which starts this afternoon at 4:00 PM Bayreuth time, he abruptly walked out of the production and out of Bayreuth.

Read about it here:

New York Times
And something a little more dishy here:
Slipped Disc
 
So I hope you enjoy our little trip down Bayreuth’s memory lane. Here goes:
There is a opera house in Bayreuth (pronounced bye-roit) Germany, which was built between 1872 – 75 for the express purpose of presenting Richard Wagner’s magnum opus, Der Ring des Nibelungen. For those of you unfamiliar with the Ring, Wagner spent over 20 years composing these 4 operas or, more specifically, a Prologue (Das Rheingold) with 3 operas to follow (Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung). If nothing else, the audacity of an artist creating an entirely new style of music and operatic presentation spread over 4 evenings (and 15+ hours) has to be respected. This grand work would be presented as a Festival and, indeed his theatre is called the Festspielhaus (Festival House). The demands (and, hopefully, the rewards) of presenting the Ring placed upon the singers, orchestra, designers and, not least, the audience, would be unprecedented.

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Richard Wagner – The Meister

Why Bayreuth? Wagner wanted a location that was far away from virtually anything that would interfere with the audience’s complete concentration on and attention to his Ring. Additionally, he needed a huge stage on which to present the operas. There is another opera house in Bayreuth that Wagner thought might work, as the stage was unusually deep. However, when Wagner saw the opera house, he thought it was too rococo for him and the Ring. He wanted something much simpler that, again, would not distract his audience from what he had called his Gesamtkunstwerk, defined by Webster as “an art work produced by a synthesis of various art forms (such as music and drama)”.

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The other opera house – too rococo??

And another challenge that continues to this day: Bayreuth is not easy to get to (unless you live somewhere in Europe and like to drive). The first time I attended the Festival, I was able to fly from New York to Frankfurt and then fly on a “puddle-hopper” to Bayreuth. Nowadays, you’d need a private plane to fly into Bayreuth, which, in the alternative, leaves you with a 4+ hour train ride from Frankfurt (with a change of train in Nuremberg). Or you could fly from Frankfurt to Nuremberg and then train it to Bayreuth. Any way you slice it, it’s a LONG trip!

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Getting to Bayreuth

In order to get his theatre built, Wagner finagled the funds from mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, who was entirely under Wagner’s spell ever since he had seen a performance of Lohengrin as a child. (Wagner had that effect on many people. He was, by most accounts, a specious person but, also, he was extremely seductive when he wanted something from you, and Wagner was, arguably, the most important and influential artist of the 19th century.)

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King Ludwig of Bavaria

The theatre was unique when it was built and still is. Inspired by the Greek amphitheaters, the main floor is fan-shaped and has 30 rows. Behind and above are several sections (loge and balcony) and, of course, a royal box for the Swan King (Ludwig). There are 1,900 seats altogether and no boxes for the “important people”. Seating was intended to be entirely democratic.


The Festspielehaus

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Inside the Festspielhaus

The most unusual feature of the theatre is that the orchestra pit is famously and entirely concealed from view of the audience. Wagner intentionally designed it this way so that there would be no distractions when watching his grand works. Additionally, Wagner’s theatre was the first ever to present the operas with the house lights entirely turned off, an innovation at the time. In this way, the audience, sitting entirely in the dark, couldn’t “yoo-hoo” at friends and frenemies during the performance and had to pay attention. The beginning ofDas Rheingold with its ominous E-flat bass notes which morph into the music of the Rhine river is played in complete darkness, so dark that you can barely see your hand in front of your face. Imagine what that must have been like for audiences accustomed to a totally different experience when attending the opera. It was nothing less than revolutionary.

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The invisible orchestra pit

Wagner originally had the crazy idea that he would build this theatre, the Ringwould be presented and, afterwards, the theatre would be torn down. Well, that didn’t happen, did it? Wiser heads (including his own) prevailed and after the world premiere of the completed Ring in 1876, plans were immediately made for another Festival at which all of the mistakes of the first year (and there were many, many mistakes) would be corrected.

But it was another 6 years before the next Festival and, as it happened, the Ringwas not presented. Instead, it was the world premiere of Parsifal that the audience heard and which Wagner had composed with the Festspielhaus’ unique acoustic in mind. This time, Wagner had a complete triumph: the perfect opera, with the perfect cast and a perfect production (perfect, at least, for 1882). Buoyed by this success, plans were made to get the Ring back into the theatre pronto. And then, 6 months later, Wagner died in Venice.

It took several years, but the Festival was eventually resurrected by Wagner’s widow, Cosima (who, incidentally, was the daughter of Franz Liszt).

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Family Portrait: Cosima, Siegfried, Richard

Over time, certain traditions were created that continue to the present day. It was decided that, in addition to the Ring and Parsifal, only the Master’s matureworks (Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde) would be presented. Without fail, the Festival would open each year on July 25th and close on August 28th. The Festival would be a workshop, at which each production would be presented for several years and, in each successive season, return to the rehearsal studio to refine, improve and rethink each opus.

After Cosima’s death, the Festival was handed over to her son, Siegfried (who, by the way, was GAY, but people didn’t talk about such things back then). Upon his premature death in 1930, the Festival was taken over (stolen??) by his widow (wait – he was MARRIED????), Winifred, who presided over the Festival for the next 14 tumultuous years.

You see, during the 1920s, she had become friends with this up and coming politician of whom she was much enamored. In fact, she was so bewitched by this charismatic young man that, or so the story goes, she provided him with the paper on which he wrote his most famous book: Mein Kampf. And that’s how Adolf Hitler – who was Richard Wagner’s #1 fan – came to be a fixture at Bayreuth through the 1930s and, finally, the 1944 Festival, after which the theatre shut down (almost for good).

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Winifred, Adolf and Wagner Progeny

But wait: Siegfried and Winifred had 2 sons – Wieland and Wolfgang who, after the war (and after being denazified), were allowed to reopen the Festival in 1951. Because there was no money, and because there could be no compromises on the presentation of the music, Wieland caused another revolution by what he put on the stage which was, basically, nothing except the singers, some very simple set pieces (such as a circular platform for the presentation of the Ring) and the most effective lighting that had to that time been seen in a theatre. It caused a sensation: although the old guard was outraged at what they were (or more correctly, weren’t) seeing, there were others who were enchanted and, in fact, relieved not to be seeing all that Teutonic stuff strewn all over the stage.

I think it was a masterstroke of luck that the Festival was practically bankrupt after the war, which enabled Wieland and, to a much lesser extent, Wolfgang (who didn’t possess anywhere near the talent of his brother) to create a new style of presenting their grandfather’s work, which completely severed it from any connection to Hitler and the Nazis. In fact, Wieland was solely responsible for ushering in “Der Neue Bayreuther” or New Bayreuth.

Compare and contrast:

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The original Rhinemaidens, 1876

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Patrice Chereau’s Rhinemaidens, 1976

Since 1951 and the reopening of the postwar Festival, there have been more revolutions: the Centenary Ring in 1976, staged by the late, great Patrice Chereau and conducted by Pierre Boulez. It was Chereau’s concept to present the operas in Wagner’s own time (and during the Industrial Revolution) and to focus on the evils of capitalism and anti-Semitism. Chereau, who had directed only one opera before taking on the Ring, was a masterful director who had no preconceived notions about these operas and worked from the text. The singers in this production who most benefitted from working with Chereau – Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde, Donald McIntyre as Wotan, Peter Hofmann as Siegmund and Heinz Zednik as both Loge and Mime – gave the performances of their careers and presented acting that was so natural and believable that it created a very special experience for the audience.

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Patrice Chereau, ca. 1976

Bayreuth Chereau Rheingold

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Bayreuth Chereau Walkure

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Images from the Chereau Centenary Ring, 1976

Some interesting anecdotes about these premiere performances:

The initial performance of each opera was broadcast around the world and the audience got more and more testy as each production unfolded. Now it wasn’t necessarily unusual to hear booing at the Festspielhaus at the end of a performance, but how about at the beginning of Act III of GötterdämmerungDURING THE MUSIC?? You can actually hear the opening of the act, imagine the curtain rising and, then, there it is – LOTS of boos, along with some segments of the audience “shushing” the dissenters, or were THEY the dissenters?? The production was so controversial that it’s hard to tell.

My favorite report from that premiere Ring season – perhaps apocryphal – is the story of the two grande dames – middle or late age, impeccably dressed, of some importance – who got into a bit of an altercation at the conclusion of one of the performances. What began with some pushing and shoving and lots of verbal abuse, quickly escalated when one of them decided to pull off the other’s earring, not realizing that the other dame had pierced ears. Yes, you got it: she removed not only the other dame’s earring but the earlobe as well. Yes, Wagnerites are so passionate about the Master’s works that blood will be spilled.

Fast forward to the Festival of 1980 and the retirement of Chereau’s Ring. I happened to hear the very last performance of  Götterdämmerung on a radio broadcast and what a difference 4 years makes. At the conclusion ofGötterdämmerung, the curtain calls (and cheering, no boos this time) lasted for something like NINETY minutes! Whatever it was that repelled and outraged the audience in 1976, they were now completely under the spell of a masterful and game changing production.

So, after all that, you wanna go to Bayreuth? Any opera lover worth her salt should make that pilgrimage at least once. Hold on. It’s not that easy.

Remember when I said that the theatre had 1,900 seats? Generally speaking, there are 30 performances presented each year for a total of 57,000 available seats. However, attendees to Bayreuth are not going to travel all that way to see one show – they’ll probably want to see everything presented that season (usually the Ring and 3 other operas).

So, there are 57,000 available seats. But each year, the Festival gets something like 250,000 requests for seats. And each of those people wants to see everything, too. In the past, ticketing was managed by the “Wagner computer” and, if you applied every year without fail (you’d be punished if you missed even one year), the typical waiting period to actually get seats was about 10 years!!! Nowadays, some tickets for each season are available on the internet at the Festival’s website and, if you’re fast and lucky enough, you might even secure seats. These intrepid souls may actually hop to the front of the line and get in, and good luck to you!

2016 UPDATE: I just happened to go onto the Festival’s website this past weekend and – lo and behold!! – it was possible to snag a pair of excellent seats for the 2nd Ring, which starts in about 2 weeks. Over the past few years – due, in part to the German government’s intervention – tickets to the festival are becoming somewhat easier to obtain. If you are an intrepid (and somewhat obsessed) Wagnerite, you can now get to Bayreuth without waiting 10 years for the Wagner computer to admit you. Ho-jo-to-ho!!!

And even if you should be one of the chosen few, Wagner never factored comfort into the design of the theatre. What do I mean? Well, for instance, the seats are pretty uncomfortable (not much padding and no arm rests) and the theatre is not air conditioned. This may not seem like much, but I’ve been to Bayreuth during incredible heat waves and the temperature inside the auditorium rises to over 100 degrees. In the old days – I don’t know about now – formal attired was REQUIRED, so there you were in your tuxedo with the sweat running down your back.

And did I mention that Wagner’s operas are LONG?? Das Rheingold, the “prologue” to the Ring, runs anywhere from two hours, fifteen minutes to two hours, forty-five minutes (depending on the conductor) and is played in ONE ACT!!!!! No intermission!!!!!!! No bathroom breaks – no one would DARE to attempt to leave the theatre during a performance, and you couldn’t even if you wanted to!!! And in a theatre in which, during a heat wave, you could bake a cake!!!!!

But guess what? It’s totally worth it. On the right night, with the right singers and conductor, and with a director who knows what s/he’s doing, you will have the most magical, inspiring and moving experience you’re likely to have in an opera house.

CULTURE TIP: Bayreuth Festival Website

Los Angeles – 1st Full Day in Town

Greetings, gentle readers, from the City of Angels. We arrived yesterday afternoon and, so far, are having a wonderful time.

Our trip in from the airport yesterday afternoon was uneventful, except that one can no longer travel on the freeway, as they have all turned into parking lots. But we know how to get around and where all the shortcuts are. Of course, so did our taxi driver, so all was well.

We’ve stayed at L’Ermitage annually, probably going back at least 10 – 12 years. It’s always a pleasure to return here, almost like our southern California home: perfect location, comfortable surroundings, great staff.

The hotel had a major renovation last year so, after we settled in, we went snooping around. Almost every element of the hotel has been rethought. The guest rooms have been totally redone from scratch and are both practical and gorgeous.

Here are a few pix of our room:

L'Ermitage Room
Our bedroom and sitting area

L'Ermitage Dressing Room
The dressing room and closet area
L'Ermitage Bathroom
The bathroom

Yes, we’re very comfortable here.

Downstairs, there’s a new restaurant, Avec Nous, where we take our breakfasts which, thanks to the AmEx FHR program, are included (or, at least, we get a $60 per day credit). Thanks, AmEx! Thanks, Veronica!!

Avec Nous
Avec Nous, L’Ermitage’s new restaurant

Avec Nous Bar
The fancy bar at Avec Nous

We’re also very fond of the rooftop pool and cabanas at the hotel. It’s usually pretty quiet and they’ve installed a bar adjacent to the pool so, should you become thirsty, you’ll find instant gratification. Also, there’s a food menu, should you feel peckish. 

L'Ermitage Rooftop Pool
L’Ermitage’s rooftop pool and cabanas at sunset – nice, right?

Anyhoo, after we finished our tour of the new and improved L’Ermitage, it was time to settle down for awhile, a/k/a passing out for an hour or so. It had been a long day and we were looking forward to our first dinner in LA.

Following a refreshing nap, we were ready to clean up and head out. Thanks to the amazing concierge team at the hotel, we were taken in the hotel town car to Sotto, over on West Pico. This place does some serious southern Italian food. It’s located in a so-so area and it’s underneath something else, so it’s not unlike eating in someone’s ground level apartment, only much better.

Sotto - AAC
AAC CPA arrives at Sotto

We were cordially welcomed and escorted to our table. Our waiter, Angela, took incredibly good care of us. Because I’d checked it out beforehand, we knew that we wanted to start with the Chickpea Panella, sort of mashed-up chickpeas and then deep-fried and topped with shavings of pecorino cheese. It was the perfect compliment to the icy cold Negronis we had requested.

Following, we had a 1st course of charred broccolini and spicy pork meatballs which was served over a salad of mixed greens and salata ricotta.

Charred Broccolini
Charred broccolini
Sotto - Pork Meatballs
Spicy pork meatballs

We then decided to share a primi, in this case a delicious paccheri (a tube pasta) in a sweet and spicy pork ragu with rapini and – get this – fennel pollen. The pasta was perfectly al dente, and the flavors were intense.

About this time, we started in on a glass of the most ruby red Montalpulciano, which was a perfect compliment to the pasta and the next course: the guanciale pizza, made with house-cured pork cheek and ricotta and cooked to perfection in Sotto’s wood-burning oven.

Sotto - Pizza
Guanciale Pizza

We had hoped to save room for some made-at-the-last-minute cannoli, but we just couldn’t – you know what I mean. So, our wonderful waiter, Angela, brought us a little box, which was filled with complimentary cannoli, for a late-night snack. How great is that?

Remember how I said that we opted not to rent a car for the first time ever in LA? Yes, friends, we decided to go all 21st century and just Uber our way around town. And it worked pretty darn well, although we almost got into the wrong Uber at the restaurant, which was waiting for someone else. It all worked out in the end however, and we returned to L’Ermitage and literally fell into bed. It had been one long day.

This morning, we were up at a reasonable hour, made ourselves presentable, went down to breakfast and, once again, hopped into the hotel town car, this time bound for LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) to see a special exhibition: Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium. For those of you too young to remember (and you know who you are), Mapplethorpe was an extremely talented and even more extremely controversial artist in the 1970’s and 80’s. Even after he died of AIDS in the late 1980’s, controversy raged around him. If you don’t believe me, just google Jesse Helms and Robert Mapplethorpe and see what pops up. It’s utterly fascinating.

LACMA
Banners proclaiming the Mapplethorpe exhibit at LACMA
LACMA - AAC
AAC CPA goes to LACMA and checks out the street lamp exhibit

The Mapplethorpe exhibition is at LACMA through July 31st, and we’d highly recommend it. PS. It’s not for the young ones.

CULTURE TIP: Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium

By coincidence, HBO has been broadcasting a documentary about Mapplethorpe, entitled “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures”, which I encourage you to check out. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s extremely rewarding.

CULTURE TIP: Maplethorpe: Look at the Pictures

After all that culture, we were ready for some lowdown activities, so we got ourselves over to The Grove, most particularly so that we could drop into See’s Candies, which is an obsession of ours’. If you’re never sampled See’s, you’re really missing out. It’s like an old-fashioned candy shoppe, and the first thing that happens when you walk in is that they give you a free sample which, as they say, gets the juices flowing. We walked out with over 2 pounds of the stuff.

Although See’s is based throughout California, it’s also available online. If you’re a chocoholic, please check it out, but don’t say I didn’t warn you: this stuff is ADDICTIVE!

FUN TIP: See’s Candies

Then it was time to Uber back to the hotel, change into casual attire, and hit the roof deck pool and cabana. There was an available cabana in the shade, so we snuggled in, ordered a turkey panini, and now we’re just lazing about as I write this blog entry to you.

AAC - Cabana
AAC CPA devours the New York Times from his rooftop cabana

Tonight we’re having a very special culinary experience at Maude. I’ll close for now, but report back to you very soon all about it – it’s going to be the cherries, I’m sure.

 

 

 

California, Here I Come!

Yes, fellow travelers, it’s time to hit the road again. After a 2½ hour delay on the ground, AAC CPA and I are midway between the right and left coasts, winging our way via American Airlines to sunny Los Angeles.

There was no real explanation about why we were so delayed at JFK this morning. There was, apparently, a huge buildup of planes that were unable to take off. Yes, it was raining, just a bit, but is that any excuse? Geez, Louise.

AAC
AAC CPA settles into AA #1 bound for Los Angeles

So, we finally took off, libations were served (Bloody Mary’s, Tito’s on the side, please) which, for some inexplicable reason, were accompanied by biscotti. Where are my warm nuts??

Then there was a bruschetta omelet, accompanied by sausage, fresh melon and a biscuit. I was hungry, and it was tasty (enough).

Now I want to tell you about our itinerary for the next 11 days. We’ll be in Los Angeles – a much maligned town, if you ask me – for the next 4 days. Then we’re flying up to San Francisco and motoring to the wine country – Yountville (in the Napa valley), to be precise. After a few days in that paradise, we’re spending a long weekend in San Francisco. We’ve made this trip many times – it’s our annual west coast swing – and we couldn’t enjoy it more.

So what will we do for fun? There will certainly be a lot of eating; in fact, our dance card is filled every night with some very interesting dining establishments. I’ll tell you about them as we go along, but I’ll give you a little preview of our dinner tomorrow night:

We’re going to a place called Maude (“and then there’s Maude!”), which is this very hot restaurant in Beverly Hills. Helmed by chef Curtis Stone (“Top Chef” and “Around the World in 80 Plates”), the restaurant features a set multi-course menu that changes monthly. Each menu features one “star” ingredient: for June, it’s cherries. From what I’ve heard, we’re going to have a pretty fine experience.

Curtis Stone
Curtis Stone

DINING TIP: Maude

There will also be some culture on this trip. For instance, tomorrow morning, we’re going to LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) to see one of two Mapplethorpe exhibitions which are currently on view in the Los Angeles area. (The other is at the Getty.) As Mapplethorpe’s art was somewhat divided into two camps – as I imagine the exhibitions will likewise be – it’ll be interesting to find out which one we’re going to get. Stay tuned.

Mapplethorpe-01
Mapplethorpe by Mapplethorpe

CULTURE TIP: Mapplethorpe at LACMA

We’ll be staying at our favorite local hotel, L’Ermitage, located on Burton Way in Beverly Hills – just a few short blocks from Rodeo Drive, in fact. When we were last there – almost exactly a year ago – the place was in the midst of a major renovation, which was completed some months ago. At that time, we were shown a model of the new guest rooms, and the hotel has stepped up its game in providing a luxe experience for its lodgers.

L'Ermitage

TRAVEL TIP: L’Ermitage

We’ve also made a pretty dramatic decision regarding our LA sojourn: for the 1st time ever, we’re not renting a car but, rather “Ubering” our way around town. We’ve had friends who say it’s the only way to go. Between car rental fees, valet parking and hotel parking charges, this has got to be a good deal, right?

So that’s our little trip in a nutshell. Now it’s time to watch a flick, so I’ll stop here. I’ll be back soon with reports on our travels. Keep an eye on this space and have a lovely day.

A Week in the (Cultural) Life – Part Two: Not Your Parent’s Figaro

In 1784, La Folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (The Crazy Day, or The Marriage of Figaro), Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’s sequel to his hugely success The Barber of Seville had its delayed premiere at the Comédie-Francąise – delayed as the author had written the play from 1775-78, but the Parisian censors wouldn’t allow the play to be produced until then.

Remember that these were the years leading up to the French Revolution, and a play in which the main themes are social inequality and outright contempt for the nobility and, not least, portraying the servant class as more humane than and able to outwit the aristocracy, made for a very dangerous evening at the theatre.

Figaro - 01
Print from early production of the Beaumarchais play

A scant two years later, Lorenzo Da Ponte reworked the play into arguably Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s operatic masterpiece, Le Nozze di Figaro. As is always the case when translating a play into an opera, Da Ponte brilliantly condensed Beaumarchais’s provocative play into tight narrative and, in doing so, deleted most of the politics and revolutionary ideas. What remained was a work of art from which future generations of operagoers could enjoy a “light” entertainment about how the servant outwits his master and all is forgiven at the end of the evening.

Figaro - MET - 01
From the Met’s current production of the opera, as seen in the 2014-15 season

(It should be pointed out that Da Ponte’s libretto was totally at the liberty of the Viennese censors, who demanded that he delete or play down the more controversial aspects of the play so that Mozart’s sponsor and patron, the Emperor Joseph II, could not possibly be offended.)

What’s interesting is that, when it came time to present the opera in Paris (in 1792), the French Revolution was at its height. As a result, it was decided to reinstate the more controversial aspects of the original source material. As Mozart was now dead, revising the opera was out of the question. Instead, Beaumarchais was brought in to decide which parts of his play were to be included. In order for the opera to have a manageable length, Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s recitatives were excised and, in their place, Beaumarchais inserted dialogue from the play.

Mozart’s charming opera would now become a highly-charged political amalgam of the play and the opera. Let them eat cake, indeed.

It cannot be denied that Beaumarchais’s play was a pungent satire with a striking political edge, and that Mozart’s opera downplayed the more controversial elements while retaining its punch for those who were able to see past the charm elements. However and, perhaps, most significantly, both the play and the opera conclude with the Countess generously forgiving the Count his transgressions and the evening ends on a hopeful note of reconciliation.

It’s probably difficult – if not downright impossible – for 21st century audiences to appreciate what it might have been like to attend the earliest productions of the play and opera. The aristocracy was probably outraged and not a little bit nervous over what they were seeing, while the general population may have felt validated to see people like them standing up for themselves and daring to talk back to their masters.

Interestingly, modern audiences now have the opportunity to encounter an updated version of the story: ¡Figaro! (90210), Vin Guerrerio’s uproarious “revisal” of the Beaumarchais/Mozart/Da Ponte source material. Originally presented under the auspices of LA Opera Off Grand, you have until Saturday, April 3rd to see this witty and extremely relevant iteration at The Duke on 42nd Street in New York City.

Figaro 90210 - 01

Set in modern day Beverly Hills, Figaro and his intended, Susannah, are now undocumented illegals; the Count and his Countess are now Paul Conti, a somewhat shady real estate developer and his Botox-ed actress wife, Roxanne. The Count’s page, Cherubino, is now the aspiring hip-hop artist, Li’l B-Man. You get the idea.

Figaro 90210 - 03

Mr. Guerrerio’s brilliant and cleverly reimagined libretto is performed in English and “Spanglish”. Most importantly, it once again makes the story relevant, but in a highly entertaining way. Indeed, this is not your parent’s Figaro.

So, within the space of 3 days, we saw a hugely entertaining production of Puccini’s Tosca at a former bus terminal in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn and, now, a “ripped from the headlines” and highly relevant production of ¡Figaro! (90210).

Opera is very much alive and thriving in New York.

CULTURE TIP: ¡Figaro! (90210)