Tag Archives: Goethe

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


Wallfahrt to Wahlheim

Part one of my Goethe pilgrimage took me to Leipzig and Weimar. But my love of Goethe began with Werther, and for that I needed to visit Wetzlar and Wahlheim (Garbenheim). Wetzlar is where Goethe interned at the court and fell in love with Charlotte Buff, the model for Lotte in the novel. In spite of Goethe’s admiration, she stuck to her engagement and married her fiance Johann Kestner. (Goethe actually bought their wedding rings in Frankfurt.) Goethe’s friend Karl Jerusalem also inspired the character of Werther with his suicidal love for a married woman. He lived and died in Wetzlar.

Charlotte Buff-Kestner

“I walked across the court to a well-built house, and, ascending the flight of steps in front, opened the door, and saw before me the most charming spectacle I had ever witnessed. Six children, from eleven to two years old, were running about the hall, and surrounding a lady of middle height, with a lovely figure, dressed in a robe of simple white, trimmed with pink ribbons. She was holding a rye loaf in her hand, and was cutting slices for the little ones all around, in proportion to their age and appetite.” (June 16)

“I felt myself more than mortal, holding this loveliest of creatures in my arms, flying, with her as rapidly as the wind, till I lost sight of every other object; and O Wilhelm, I vowed at that moment, that a maiden whom I loved, or for whom I felt the slightest attachment, never, never should waltz with any one else but with me, if I went to perdition for it!” (June 16)

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Lani in Weimar

Leipzig and Weimar mark part one of my Goethe pilgimage. (Wetzlar is soon to follow.) My friend Sarah (an American in Cambridge last year like me, and an American in Berlin at the moment) met me in Leipzig and was kind enough to indulge my author-themed itinerary. We spent a relaxed couple of days visiting Goethe-themed sights, with the occasional other author or composer thrown in.

Goethe in Leipzig

Leipzig has a positive mania for claiming famous figures as its own. And because Leipzig is a university town, it has a long list of Germans its can lay at least partial claim to: Leibniz, Lessing, Nietzsche, Angela Merkel, Schumann, Wagner, Mendelssohn, Bach, and, of course, Goethe. Despite the fact that Goethe only spent three years at university there and actually failed his exams, he’s well-commemorated. There’s a large, very shiny statue of him in a central square. But the best Goethe-related site in town is Auerbachs Keller. It’s the second-oldest restaurant in the city, dating back to the early 1400s. It was Goethe’s favorite wine bar during his student days, when it was already decorated with paintings from the story of Faust. He set a scene in his Faust I in the bar. Mephisto brings Faust here, impresses students with some magic involving an endless supply of wine, and rides off (with Faust) on a wine cask. Auerbachs Keller embraces its celebrity, with statues outside depicting scenes from Goethe’s play, Faust-themed paintings on all the walls, and a horribly cheesy wine cask with Mephisto and Faust dummies riding it.

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The (fun) little Faust

Mephisto warned us right at the beginning of tonight’s performance that we wouldn’t leave weeping over Marguerite’s fate. I sincerely hope that wasn’t news to the people crazy enought to book tickets to a German translation of a French operetta parody of a French opera of a German play. I was one of those people. And while I knew to expect silliness, I wasn’t sure exactly what Hervé’s Le petit Faust (or, as the Gärtnerplatztheater is calling it, Dr. Faust jun.) would be. As it turns out, it’s a wonderfully topsy-turvy version of the original, in which Maguerite is not so innocent, Faust is not so thoughtful, and no one should be taken seriously. Spinning wheels and pseudo-woeful monologues and showpiece arias all have their place… and so do yodeling, zombies, and can-can dancing.

Marguerite, the can-can dancer. All photos © Christian POGO Zach
Marguerite, the can-can dancer. All photos © Christian POGO Zach

The story: Dr. Faust is a professor at a boarding school. Valentine entrusts his troublesome sister Marguerite to Faust’s care, and Faust is immediately drawn to her. So he’s an easy target when Mephisto comes offering youth, beauty, and riches. The price? His understanding. (Not his soul—“Everyone sells that these days, without even signing a contract.”) He has imagined Marguerite as the pinnacle of innocence and purity, and with his newfound advantages, he sets out to seek her. Meanwhile, she has gone to England to teach the English can-can dancing. Faust finally finds her in a seedy nightclub, and he is horrified that an “innocent” girl could have stumbled into such a place. He flags down a carriage to take her away, and who should be inside but Valentine? Because Faust is trying to run off with his sister, Valentine fights Faust and is killed. (But don’t worry—Valentine’s death doesn’t prevent him from dancing jigs.) As Marguerite and Faust prepare for their marriage, Valentine’s ghost appears to warn Marguerite that Faust’s fortune comes from the devil. She doesn’t care—until Faust reveals that, in order to make himself worthy of her, he has given away the fortune. Suddenly, she cares a great deal and is denouncing him as the murderer of her brother. Faust is finally disillusioned, but Mephisto nevertheless forces Faust and Marguerite together “eternally,” in obedience to the wish Faust had expressed. Continue reading The (fun) little Faust

Torquato Tasso, paranoid poetess

At the moment, I happen to be revising a paper about Torquato Tasso. In it, I compare his play Aminta with Isabella Andreini’s La Mirtilla. I examine how Andreini drew on her experience as a commedia dell’arte actor and a woman in Renaissance Italy when she wrote her play. It never really dawned on me that Tasso could also be a woman and an actor (because it’s a matter of historical fact that he wasn’t). But in Philipp Preuss’s version of Goethe’s Torquato Tasso, he (she?) is.

Let’s start with the “actor” bit. It would actually be more accurate to say that the line between writer and actor has been blurred, as has the line between the play Tasso is living and the poem he is writing. Tasso begins by offering us his work, admitting that it is unfinished but saying that he must present it as-is. This work is supposed to be Jerusalem Delivered, but here it seems like it’s Torquato Tasso proper. (The play, though nominally finished, ends oddly and suddenly, so that line certainly fits.) He speaks other characters’ lines as they lip-synch for a while, until they slowly take over. But he is insecure. A few lines in, he starts over from his opening monologue. And then a few lines into that run, he starts over again. He tries to start over a third time, but the other characters overrule him because they have a party to throw.

Norman Hacker (Antonio Montecatino), Sibylle Canonica (Leonore von Este), Nora Buzalka (Leonore Sanvitale), Valery Tscheplanowa (Torquato Tasso). Photo: Matthias Horn
Norman Hacker (Antonio Montecatino), Sibylle Canonica (Leonore von Este), Nora Buzalka (Leonore Sanvitale), Valery Tscheplanowa (Torquato Tasso). Photo: Matthias Horn

You see, they’re in a theater—our theater, the Residenztheater—with a balcony and fire exit signs above the doors and red velvet and all the other trappings. It’s almost as though someone put a mirror on the stage (doubly so when project a live feed of the audience). The two Leonores—a Princess and a Countess—are hosting an awards ceremony for Tasso, where they shower him with confetti and crown him with a laurel wreath and smile awkwardly at the TV cameras. (One of these three things is in the Goethe text.) Continue reading Torquato Tasso, paranoid poetess

Kusej’s traumatizing Faust

It would be hard to imagine two productions of Goethe’s Faust more different than the one I saw at the Volkstheater last month and the one I saw at the Residenztheater on Sunday. The former was a bit of a farce. The more recent Faust, staged by Martin Kusej (the (in)famous “I’m-not-a-Regietheater-director” Regietheater director whose Idomeneo is currently causing heated debates among London opera-goers), includes a warning for loud noises and strobe lights. Apparently, the mass murder, sex, nudity, and pools of blood don’t require warnings.

Faust (Werner Wölbern) and Gretchen (Andrea Wenzl), before everything goes to hell. Photo: Matthias Horn
Faust (Werner Wölbern) and Gretchen (Andrea Wenzl), before everything goes to hell. The production looks almost normal, right? But it’s a lie. Photo: Matthias Horn

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Werther: what I wore

(The alliteration in the title only works if you pronounce “Werther” wrong. Go ahead and do so; I give you full permission.)

Regular readers of this blog might recall that Werther was one of my favorite shows I’ve seen in Munich. I decided to return and see it again. It didn’t have quite the same magic—perhaps because this time I saw an 11am matinee with an audience of unappreciative schoolchildren—but it was still wonderful. But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about what I wore to the show.


If you’re a devotee of Werther, you’re laughing right now. If not, you have no clue why this outfit is worthy of a blog post. So perhaps I should explain.

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