Friday, December 18, 2009

Spectacles 2

Opera was an Italian invention but very soon in the 17th Century an Italian, Jean-Baptiste Lully, was composing for the French monarch Louis XIV full theatrical spectacles, “tragedies en musique”.

No wonder that Paris has not one, but two great Opera houses, three if you count the Opera Comique near the Boulevard des Italiens. The most famous one is the big building at the end of the Hausmannian Avénue de l‘Opéra, also called Palais Garnier, after its architect. It was conceived during Napoléon III’s reign, but not completed until after he had lost power in 1875.

Looking up towards the Chagall ceiling.

Rumor has it that when Garnier was asked by Empress Eugènie whether he was designing in Classical Roman or Greek style, he replied that it was in Napoleonian style. A very appropriate reply as this building reflects and exemplifies the worst of that excessive style. No staircase is spared a sweep, no column is unfluted and uncrowned, no moulding is uncurved, no window lacks in foliage, no opening is un-curtained, no cornice or finial un-gilded, no surface is bereft of a bas-relief, no wall lacks a sconce or a niche, nor will the niche stay empty, no urn is not overflowing, no wall-panel will remain un-treated, no nymph lacked a placement, no cherubim was denied a presence, no greek god or European composer will be without an abode. Garnier must have believed that an inch of undecorated space showed a weakness of purpose, and he was trying to exhibit the exuberance and satiety of a society that was enjoined to get rich as fast as possible and spared no vulgarity to flaunt it. The quietest part of the decor is Mark Chagall’s 1965 cupola design in the main hall, a magical, dreamy confection of blues, reds and yellows, stuck thirty years ago over the old, original painting and reportedly sagging because the old adhesives cannot hold up both.

The interior spectator space of the Opéra Garnier is really overpowering in plush velvet and gold. We attended a matinee, and I found it surprising that all those slobs in jeans and T-shirts, in denim jackets and leather were not feeling inadequate and out of place. The surroundings demanded more “sprezzatura” from the audience.

What we saw that afternoon was in stark contrast with the framework. Three short ballets, Amoveo choreographed by Benjamin Millepied, with music by Philip Glass, Répliques by Nicolas Paul, to music by György Ligeti, and Genus by Wayne McGregor, to music by Joby Talbot and Deru.

Amoveo was danced against luminous chromatic computer-generated intersecting lines and rectangles over the top four fifths of the background slowly evolving to Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach music supporting the exquisitely difficult sequence of pas-de-deux, trios and ensemble dances that developed against the black lower fifth.

In contrast, Répliques is a ballet closely matched with and derived from Ligeti’s music, on a black stage, with architectural sets of tulles, both in front and in back of the action, separating scenic spaces and simultaneously linking them by dancers moving in close synchronicity, like time-delayed mirror images. It is a spare and moving reflection on identity and its perceptions.

The highlight of the evening was McGregor’s ballet Genus, reflecting upon Darwin’s theories of evolution. McGregor is fascinated by how changes in the mind and one’s sense of self inform physical movement. The dancers begin as swarms of protoplasm in a sea of primal life and evolve into sea creatures through evocative choreography, to finally come on land and triumphantly become humans. Toward the end of the piece, a screen reveals a kaleidoscope of images, glimpses of humanity’s greatest intellectual discoveries.

The other Opéra is on the vast Place de la Bastille that can accommodate the towering bulk in greys and blacks. It most closely resembles a stack of silver hat-boxes, curving out towards the Colonne de Juin over a massive staircase leading up to a third floor colonnade. The facade is broken up in squares, like the tiles on the space-shuttle, the windows are contained in the tesselated pattern and the building extends backwards several blocks down the rue de Lyon, that leads to the railway station of the same name, and the Avenue Daumesnil. There are no curlicues on this edifice, no gilded finials; only a sense of powerful repose, a presence of contained energy, a mountainous rootedness.

It was built between 1984 and 1989, designed by a then unknown Uruguayan architect, Carlos Ott, and opened on July 13th 1989, to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the taking of the Bastille prison. President Mitterrand intended the new Opéra to be more welcoming to the masses, more sociable than the Palais Garnier. Its 2700 seats, 500 more than Garnier, have all unobstructed views of the stage. The common areas have all the charm of an airport lounge, with polished marble floors and large glass windows offering sweeping views of the traffic swirling around the Bastille column. A succession of long straight staircases transport the audiences to the upper realms of the edifice.

The scenic space is reputed to be the largest in Europe, and allows for the sets to be erected completely off-stage and wheeled in whenever there is a change of scenery. The acoustics have been described as less than perfect.

Garnier nowadays specialises in ballet performances, and Bastille offers a solid program of classical and modern operas, 20 productions per season.

We watched “The Barber of Séville”, Rossini’s much beloved and much performed opera buffa, in a good production that ended, to the audience’s delight, in a patriotic display of soccer enthusiasm to support and celebrate the French national team, the cast suddenly producing small French flags and the tenor donning a blue T-shirt.

The famous melodies -from other performances- Largo al factotum (), La Calunnia () and other favorites are fresh and attractive for all kinds of audiences and we had a very good time .

Unfortunately we could not get tickets for any of the shows of the Opéra Comique. But we were able, with the help of friends, to see a fascinating show of varietés, at the theater of that name on the boulevard Montmartre. Four musicians, Pierre Ganem , Laurent Vercambre , Jean-Yves Lacombe , Jean-Claude Camors, once thwarted in their lofty artistic ambitions, pooled their abundant talents to create a show of musical comedy, a kind of Marx brothers with violins and other string instruments. For thirty years now they have presented a yearly renewed season of musical slapstick, a jubilant potpourri of jazz, classical, pop-tunes, film scores and inventions set to surrealist juxtapositions and evolutions. One hundred minutes of boundless talent exhibited to an adoring and enthralled audience.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Christmas markets in Cologne

When you arrive in the very busy Cologne Main Station (Hauptbahnhof), on the banks of the Rhine and next to the huge cathedral (Dom), as you come down the stairs and walk to the main concourse, because it is Christmas time, you will see a diorama , depicting a nativity scene (or crèche in French and Krippe in German). In all loving detail it represents a scene during Christmas 1944, a scene of rubble, burnt-out houses, small people pushing carts filed with broken bricks and masonry. The wall sign describes that the artist went into East Germany to find historically correct debris to strew around his work. He researched archives to find the proportions, dimensions and characteristics of the narrow houses along Cologne’s still medieval streets, to show them on that desolate Christmas before the end of World War II.

The main railway bridge out of the Bahnhof and over the Rhine into Deutz on the right bank is shown collapsed into the river, as are two other bridges further upstream, and, in streets leading from the station, the figure of the cardinal archbishop of Cologne helping with the moral uplift and redressing of the ancient city.

The artist’s intention is to remind the passer-by that Cologne was bombed two hundred and forty two times from the 30th of May 1942 onwards, and its downtown incinerated during frequent attacks by British and US air strikes on the German rail network. And, miraculously some will say, the enormous Gothic cathedral survived intact, or almost so, until the end of the conflict.

The Hohenzollern rail bridge over the Rhine, now rebuilt, is the busiest in Europe, carrying a train every two minutes, both local and regional passenger traffic, merchandise, and long-distance trains linking, for instance, Paris to Moscow. As the passenger emerges from the bustling station, s/he is immediately overwhelmed by the massive bulk, dark and spiky, of the Dom, the center and heart of Cologne.

The Cathedral was started in the 13th Century, and stood unfinished for many centuries. Germany’s unification and rise to power in the mid-1800s sufficiently inflamed the will of the people, coming together in a Society for cathedral building (Dombau Verein) to raise close to one billion of today’s dollars to complete the main façade and the two spires. In 1880 the cathedral was reconsecrated.

Its towers were during the following four years the tallest structure in the world surpassed in 1884 by the Washington Monument. Cologne cathedral is the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, and follows the design of Amiens cathedral. It was conceived as the inspiration for Christianity and the fulcrum of German Catholicism. As such it is a pilgrimage site, as well as tourist attraction, and is a Unesco World Heritage site described as “a masterpiece of exceptional intrinsic value" and "a powerful testimony to the strength and persistence of Christian belief in medieval and modern Europe”.

From the square in front of the station the cathedral is more than all that. It stands, huge, massive and forbidding, darkened by wind, weather and smoke, thrusting spikes, towers, flying buttresses skyward, like a stone porcupine. It is inspiring and dreadful, a bridge from humanity to heaven, or maybe a desolate prayer to stop this ceaseless rain of death and destruction.

Once inside the scale of the building becomes apparent. The main nave extends backwards and upwards and the silvery organ hangs from the third floor on the side of the main vault. The temple is devoted to worship, and red-frocked church servants guard the entrance to the main body of benches in the center. A low wooden barrier separates the flock from the gawkers, and the mass proceeds for a double audience: the engaged believers and the outside churning crowd of onlookers. The High Mass as grandiose spectacle.

On Sunday the immense pealing of bells calls the faithful to prayer from the tall spires, answered and seconded by the bells from other churches in the city. On this First Sunday of Advent the crowds undoubtedly are arriving to fill the Christmas markets set up around the Dom, on the old market squares and the riverbanks. The merchants offer from wooden sheds all the wares associated with the Christmas celebration, from fir trees, silver and golden wraiths, stars, crystal balls, candles to children’s toys, presents for the grown ups and an unending variety of victuals, sweet and savoury, sausages, roast meats, christmas cakes, spice breads, cookies, marzipan, glog and beer to satisfy anybody’s palate, however jaded.

Nothing remotely medieval or ancient is left in Cologne outside the Römisch Germanisches Museum, right next to the cathedral. The city was destroyed during the second world war and was rebuilt, following the old street map, in the 1960s and 1970s. The architecture is solid, unpretentious and functional. Only lately some architects have begun to design landmark buildings. Some towers are rising, all at a respectful distance from the cathedral’s spires.

The old Cologne was founded by the Roman Empire as a garrison town in the mid first century. By AD 80 the city had a permanent aqueduct to supply it with water from the neighboring Eifel region. The Rhine was the natural barrier that the legions were unable to breach in any permanent way, although many attempts to bring this frontier to the river Elbe had been undertaken. German nationalism in the 19th century played-up the defeat of three Roman Legions under Publius Quintilius Varus by Arminius, chieftain of the Cherusker, himself educated in Rome and an officer of the auxiliary troops supporting the Roman advance. The Hermann monument, erected in 1870, commemorates (at the wrong site) the battle as the core of the German identity.

At the Römisch Germanisches Museum the Roman lifestyle of the city is documented by the excavations of sites uncovered around the cathedral as a result of Allied bombardment. Two wonderful mosaics from wealthy residences are the museum’s core holding, with domestic fixtures from Roman kitchens, bathrooms and sitting rooms. Today, while the subway lines are being built through the city, and whenever demolitions uncover medieval foundations, careful preservation is put in place to ensure full accessibility and visibility.

As we arrived in Cologne on Saturday evening, from a stop in Aachen, Charlemagne’s capital, the streets were teeming with shoppers, all stores open and lit-up. We wandered around for a while, and ended up in our hotel, a bit outside the downtown, quiet, functional and solid. Remember that German double beds sport individual cloudy comforters, for personal nesting. Once we had dropped our light luggage we left again to find a place for dinner. We ended at the Hotel Ernst am Dom, where we managed to persuade the concierge to get us a table in their Hanse Stube.

The meal can only be described as memorable. Both the concierge and our waiter were polished women, smoothly and smilingly polite without being distant. None of the jocular familiarity, frequent in US restaurants, that Stanley Fish portrays and deplored recently in the the New York Times. The word that most often is used in response to the customer’s requests is : “Gerne!”. that can be translated as:” I will do it with pleasure”. Compare that to the detestable “No problem” used in the US. Good service is about the client’s wishes, not her/his problems.!

Linda ordered and was served glazed crayfish in a light foam with miniature gnocchi, and I opted for sauteed veal sweetbreads on a bed of broth-braised brunoise of carrots and celery. As an amuse-gueule we were given small cups of superb consommé, covered in puff-pastry crust, as well as tiny canapés of salmon tartare, and foie-gras, green and black olive tapenade. With it I chose Auf der Mauer, a dry Riesling from the Rhein-Pfalz by Dr. Bassermann-Jordan.

On Sunday morning we had breakfast at the Café Riechert, next to the cathedral, to the pealing of ceremonious Christmas bells. Fresh, crisp croissants with preserves and a small pot of the superb full-bodied coffee that we found to be the rule in Germany. The rest of the day we spent poking around the Christmas markets and we ended up at the cafeteria of the Chocolate Museum, overlooking the Rhine, while the day slowly darkened. Then to the Thalys train, and three and a half hours later, back in Paris and home.