Art, gardens and Mozart in Salzburg

I’m currently in Salzburg for the annual opera and theater festival (reviews here and here, with more to come). But opera and theater are generally evening activities, so I’ve had plenty of time to explore the city.

Salzburg is beautiful. There are old buildings and churches and statues and fountains all around.

Perhaps the prettiest spot is the Mirabell Gardens, full of geometrical flower beds and mythological statues. The gardens also have a great view of Hohensalzburg Castle. Continue reading Art, gardens and Mozart in Salzburg

A Clavigo full of hot air

I love Goethe. Goethe is the reason I learned German. That doesn’t mean his texts are sacred. (No texts are sacred.) But it does mean that I bought tickets to Clavigo at the Salzburg Festival because I was excited to see a very rarely performed Goethe play. I saw a press release that the main roles had been gender-swapped and got even more excited. I saw the dreaded byline ‘nach Goethe’ (‘nach’ implies ‘inspired by,’ in contrast to the more straight forward ‘von’ or ‘by’) but still held out hope. My hope was sadly misplaced.

© Salzburger Festspiele / Arno Declair
© Salzburger Festspiele / Arno Declair

Goethe’s play is a tale of competing ambition and love. Clavigo is an up-and-coming Spanish writer. In his younger and poorer days, he fell in love with and became engaged to the charming but sickly Marie. However, when his star started to rise, his friends convinced him that Marie would hold his career back. At best, she’d be a distraction; at worst, she’d prevent an advantageous marriage. So he broke the engagement. Marie’s brother Beaumarchais (yes, the French playwright—this is loosely based on real events) has come to Spain to confront Clavigo. He exorts a (potentially career-killing) written confession of wrongdoing from Clavigo but promises not to have it published until Clavigo can ask Marie for pardon and renew their engagement. Clavigo successfully does this, but his friends (and his own feelings) convince him that this was a mistake and begin criminal proceedings against Beaumarchais. Marie, upon hearing of this, dies. Clavigo (who has not heard the news) stumbles upon her funeral procession and is distraught. Beaumarchais fatally stabs Clavigo, and Clavigo accepts his death as atonement for his crime. Continue reading A Clavigo full of hot air

Two days, three very different operas

A dull Don Carlo in Munich, though one worth seeing for the singing (especially goddess Anja). Note to directors: black on black is a bad color scheme. Note to translators: please actually translate the libretto rather than leaving us to guess every other line. Note to artistic directors: Asher Fisch is a much better conductor for Strauss than for Verdi.

A silly Barber of Seville for Children to kick off my Salzburg Festival experience. The young singers were not only musically solid, but also fabulous actors (especially the Figaro). Even the conductor (Duncan Ward) was wonderfully dramatic. I prefer my Rossini in Italian and complete, but this abridged version in German was interactive and fun.

The Conquest of Mexico in a VIP-filled crowd at the Salzburg Festival (including the composer Wolfgang Rihm). It had nothing to do with Mexico. It was modern and bizarre and high-tech but also primitive and abstract. Artuad, Octavio Paz, Hegel—philosophy and literature and tones and grunting and screaming. Sound coming from all sides. Brilliantly staged so that it was somehow accessible despite the chaos. A totally unique operatic experience.

San Sebastian and Madrid

Ah, San Sebastian! The beaches are pristine, the water is clear, and the mountains are green. I spent a very relaxing few days here recovering from my operatic adventure. I cruised on the ocean. I sat on the beach. I read my book. I ate lots of pintxos. The only sightseeing I did (on a rainy day) was visit the Museo San Telmo. It has very cool architecture—a daring, modern add-on to an old convent. It was also hosting an exhibit about the Italian filmmaker Pasolini. Among (many) other accomplishments, he directed Maria Callas is her only non-singing film role!

Honestly, though, this was mostly about the eating. I already reviewed my splurge restaurant, but I mostly ate in pintxo bars. For the benefit of future travelers, I kept track of my pintxos. So here goes… Continue reading San Sebastian and Madrid

Being Baroque in Burgos

I went to Spain to sing in an opera (Cavalli’s rarely performed Gli amori d’Apollo e di Dafne) . We had four days to rehearse. What were we thinking!? I have no clue. But there was an opera just the same! While I wasn’t entirely pleased with my performance, I had a fabulous time meeting lots of other singers (of all ages and career stages), learning how to be more Baroque (it’s all about the elegantly asymmetrical gestures), and refreshing my Spanish (many cast members didn’t speak much English). It was also very special to sing in the beautiful Teatro Principal in Burgos.

The cast on the stage of the Teatro Principal
The cast on the stage of the Teatro Principal

The opera’s plot is complicated, with two frame stories. In one, the god of sleep sends his minions to create dreams, and a homeless woman dreams of a nymph being turned into a tree. She asks her wise friend to help her understand her dream. The other frame story sets the main plot up as Venus’s revenge for a slight offered her by Apollo (he revealed her to her husband while she and Mars were practicing “military exercises” naked, and she is angry). She complains to her father Zeus, and he suggests she send her son Cupid to get revenge. Cupid wounds Apollo while the nymph Dafne is passing by. Dafne is sworn to Diana (and therefore chastity) and refuses Apollo’s advances. When he pursues her in spite of her refusal, she asks her father to turn her into a tree. Apollo bitterly repents the transformation he has caused, but it is too late.

In an unconnected but interwoven (and very important, in my completely unbiased opinion!) plot, Cefalo has abandoned his nymph Procri because he has fallen in love with the goddess Aurora. Aurora is married to Titone, who was formerly young and handsome. She managed to get him eternal life, but she forgot to ask for eternal youth. So he is now old and decrepit, which is why she’s running off to earth to fool around with Cefalo. Continue reading Being Baroque in Burgos

Restaurant review: Bodegón Alejandro

After getting through a frantic week of opera rehearsals and performances in Burgos (blog post coming soon), I rewarded myself with a trip to San Sebastian. This resort city on the northern coast of Spain is famous not only for its beautiful beaches but also for its excellent food at all levels, from pintxos (Basque tapas) to Michelin-starred restaurants. I splurged last night by getting the tasting menu at Bodegón Alejandro, a place I’d seen recommended in both the Michelin guide and the New York Times when I was planning this trip. It was definitely worth it.

The restaurant lies underground, down an unobtrusive staircase on a busy street of San Sebastian’s Old Town. It doesn’t look like much, with bare wood tables, plain decor, and a rather kitschy city view mural on the wall. But any doubts about my restaurant choice disappeared with the amuse-bouche—a shot of cold asparagus soup with paper-thin slices of crispy bread. The salty creaminess of the soup went perfectly with the crunchy, fire-blackened toast.

The first course of the tasting was also a definite hit. For this odd take on lasagna, cold marinated anchovies formed the pasta and vegetable ratatouille served as the filling. I love anchovies, and these were the freshest and tastiest I’ve had. The wine for the course, an organic local Txakoli Bengoetxe, was a new variety to me. It was smooth with a little tang, reminiscent of my favorite white (Greco di Tufo) and a good match for the dish. Continue reading Restaurant review: Bodegón Alejandro