Viking River Cruise - - Day Four, Mon 10/12/15
I didn't sleep so great, I didn't get to sleep until after midnight, which is unusual for me. But I got enough sleep. Mom slept very well. We got up around 7:30 and had breakfast alone, the two couples had been invaded by some other yahoos. Mom had oatmeal with yogurt on it, and I had a classic English breakfast: scrambled eggs, bacon, baked beans, and sautéed mushrooms. It would have been made complete with some stewed or broiled tomatoes, a scone, and a cup of Prince of Wales tea. It was pretty damn delicious as it was.
We had many choices for our excursion today, and we chose to do the Belvedere Museum. This is the museum featured in the movie *Woman in Gold*, which Mom and I have both seen and loved. See it if you haven't, it's a dramatized version of the true story of a Viennese emigre (played by Helen Mirren) who takes the Austrian government to court to regain possession of Klimt's painting "Woman in gold", a portrait of her aunt which was taken by the Nazis.
Our guide was a funny, smoky-voiced woman named Silvia. We drove through Vienna, I was amazed at how big and grand the buildings are. Incredibly beautiful city. We arrived at the Belvedere Museum, which is housed in a former palace that was built in the early 18th century. Here are some pictures of the gate, the gardens, and the facade:
We were not allowed to take photos of the paintings, but it was open season on the architecture and decorative elements. The ballroom had some spectacular trompe l'oeil painting:
The museum is best known for their collection of Gustav Klimt and other Art Nouveau painters. Silvia did a great job of telling us the stories behind the paintings, their hidden messages, and the racy background to some of the portraits. We did a quick walk through the rest of the museum, saw some classical and neoclassical paintings, and we were back on the bus. It was a small museum, and we really felt like we had seen it.
Lunch back on the ship: I had the Cuban sandwich (ham, sliced pork, swiss cheese, sliced pickles, mayo and mustard in a pressed sandwich), Mom had the garlic veloute' (pronounce that veh-loo-tay, a creamy soup). Sat with the two couples. I asked for ketchup to have with my fries, and Jacky, our adorable server, gave me an equally adorable little jar of ketchup.
Mom took a nap, I wrote in my blog, asked our concierge, Janna, about how to get from ship to subway and from opera to subway to ship. Got what I thought were very detailed directions from her.
Mom and I changed into our dressy clothes - - we were headed to the Vienna State Opera that night. We left the ship with my directions and map in hand. Janna told me to leave the ship, walk to the left, cross the street, look for the BIPA store, the yellow building, the flower shop, and the subway station would be right there She did not mention that we had to walk for ten minutes before we found a spot where we could cross the divided highway. We crossed, and there was no sign of any of the landmarks she mentioned. We checked the map, moved inland another couple of blocks, and finally did find the stores and the subway stop.
Next task: getting Euros. We found an ATM, I put in my Chase card, and my transaction was declined. Burn my shorts. Mom had the bright idea to go down to the subway station and see if they have an ATM down there. They did not, but I was able to buy two subway tickets with my credit card. I'm sure I payed more in service fees than I did for the tickets themselves, but hey, we were on the train.
We made a date a few days before with a friend of a friend, a young woman named Gretl. More about her in a minute. She had suggested we meet at a landmark Vienna coffeehouse, Demel, which is right down the street from the opera house. Janna told me what subway to take to that neighborhood and gave me pretty good directions to Demel. But first things first: we had to find an ATM. We found one outside a Bank Austria branch - - Gretl told us later that you have much better luck at an ATM at a bank, so that was a lucky break. The transaction went through without any trouble.
Demel was indeed right down the street, and even with the sturm und drang of leaving the ship, taking the subway, and using the ATM, we were exactly on time for our 4 PM date. Gretl is a friend of my friend Jim Kryshak, Jim hooked the two of us up via email when I told him I was going to Vienna. Gretl and Jim knew each other in Vienna when they did their year abroad in college.
Meeting her, I'm sure, will turn out to be one of the highlights of the trip. She's smart and funny and interesting and instantly likable. We felt completely at ease with her from the moment we introduced ourselves. It helps that she's a fellow Midwesterner - - she's from Illinois, like my mom.
Gretl told us about her job - - she told us she works as a dramaturg, and though I had a vague idea, I asked her to explain what that is. A dramaturg is an adviser to the director while preparing a production. The dramaturg studies up on the historical context, puts in his/her two bits during rehearsals, and is an extra set of eyes to advise the director before the show opens. I can think of MANY idiotic moments I've seen on stage where clearly a director didn't have a dramaturg, didn't listen to the dramaturg, or maybe the dramaturg had drunk the same Kool-Aid as the director. Never a good idea, the dramaturg should always drink his/her own, self-made Kool-Aid.
A photo of the three of us, taken by an obliging Japanese tourist:
Dinner, Gretl's recommendation: a sausage vendor by the opera house. Mom had bratwurst, I had sausage with cheese stuffed into it, both with a big glob of brown mustard and a slice of brown bread. I also got a small pickle, and was surprised that it was a sweet pickle, not a dill pickle. Another highlight of the day.
A few photos of the Statsoper before I tell you about the opera:
The chandelier in the auditorium made me think of a fruity ice ring that would be put in a classy bowl of punch, circa 1978.
Mom and I sat in adjacent boxes. This is her reading the titles (don't worry, this picture was taken before the curtain went up).
And this is my reflection in the mirror of the little vestibule outside the box. With my program under my arm.
We went to see Thomas Ades's *The Tempest*, an opera that premiered at Covent Garden in 2004.
I should say up front that Richard and I saw it at the Met in 2012 and we walked out at intermission. I did not like the music. But I wanted to see an opera while we were in Vienna, and that's the one they were doing that night. I thought it was a good choice for my mother because it's in English and it's a spectacular production (Vienna and Montreal are co-sponsors of the Met production). The other choices for that night were a drippy sort of musical at the Folksoper or *The Coronation of Poppea* at the Theater an der Wien. That would be right up my alley, but a four-hour Monteverdi opera in Italian, probably with German subtitles, that would not be fun for my mom.
Bad news first? Our seats were in a loge on the side and we could only see half the stage. There was no mention on the website that the seats had an obstructed view (and they did say that for other locations) and for the money we spent on the tickets we should have had a clear view of the entire stage. I might be writing a strongly-worded note to the Vienna State Opera.
The music was not consistently good. I've never heard such a clear case of knowing exactly when a composer was inspired and when he was not. There would be moments of brilliance, the music expressing the text and the drama with such assurance and subtlety and beauty - - then 10 or 15 minutes would go by with nothing interesting happening at all, what Richard Strauss's wife called "Notenspinnung" - - note-spinning.
Ades was 34 when it premiered, and it sounds to me like he had a little trouble finding his own unique voice. The high points of the score are either orchestral interludes that sound like Berg, or vocal moments that sound like Dowland or Britten. There's a dance sequence in the second act that sounds like it was lifted right out of Britten's *Death in Venice*. But then maybe he's better off imitating other composers, because his own music isn't always so great: there's a trio halfway through the first act, for Prospero, his daughter, and the young man she ends up with. It was written in an overly complicated way, it didn't work for the dramatic situation and didn't work from a purely musical standpoint. It just sounded messy. I listened to it with my brow knit, and tried to think of how I would describe it in my review. I'm sure at some point in your life you've watched the laundry go around in a front-loaded washer. Prospero was a blue sweater, Miranda was a light blue washable silk blouse, and Ferdinand was a medium brown linen shirt. The orchestra was everything in the laundry, the towels, handkerchiefs, underwear, etc. This is not an image I hope will come to mind in future trips to the opera.
Mom didn't like the production, she didn't think it made the story any easier to follow. I thought it was OK, I thought Robert Lepage made a valiant effort putting interesting pictures on the stage in a rather wonky opera.
Good news: the singers were generally very good. Christopher Maltman was Prospero, he was marvelous, I much preferred him to Simon Keenlyside, who sang the role at the Met (and created the role in London). He sang with greater smoothness than Keenlyside, who was a little too manicured in his singing. Audrey Luna sang Ariel, she was the only singer who overlapped with the Met production. The role is written horrifically high (I think I read somewhere that there are 17 high Es in her first aria), and she sang it with great ease and flair. I'm convinced she's really a freak of nature, I can't imagine there are too many women who would be able to sing this role.
The only other singer I knew was David Daniels, a star countertenor of the 90s. He was in a smaller role, and though the old expression goes "there are no small roles, only small actors", this really was a small role, and it seems like a turning point in his career. Truth be known, he does not sing as well as he used to. The other stand-out in the cast was Antonio, the brother of Prospero. The role was sung by Jason Bridges, and his role was, in some ways, the high point of the score, for me. I don't know if it was because of Bridges, or because of conductor Graeme Jenkins, or because I was hearing the score for the second time, but the music written for this character had a depth and complexity unlike anything written for the other characters. His music perfectly paints the deviousness of the character, in a way that shows great sophistication on the part of the composer.
We found our way back to the ship with no trouble at all. Mom congratulated me on my successful way-finding that day.
MOM: I was worried.
ME: I know you were.
MOM: I didn't say anything.
ME: But your thoughts were very loud.