Sunday, 16 July 2017

Around Wagner in Budapest

Seven full days in Budapest, six of them given over to Wagner starting (with the exception of Das Rheingold) at 4pm: it's been a lot to digest and while I've posted about the full Ring + Rienzi + Parsifal experience on The Arts Desk and on the blog about a day up the Danube by train and back again by boat, I felt I ought to cover the peripherals around the musical experience to be followed by a final fling on the animals in the two city zoos.

Let this be a retrospective diary of sorts, then, starting with 15/6, arriving with only an hour or so to spare before the 6pm start of Das Rheingold in the evening - a beautiful, balmy one, as you can see in the picture taken from the balcony of the Müpa concert complex after Rheingold looking out on the ziggurat which seems to have sprung up at the same time as the halls, no-one seems to know quite why, and the Danube looking north towards the Buda hills. And let me introduce you to the American couple who put on a show of their own at all six performances.

Apparently they travel the world to see Wagner, being something of a Bayreuth fixture, and while many folk I spoke to tutted at their show-offiness, I thought their ritual walkabout before and during the intervals of each opera added a bit of extra theatre. You'll gradually note that each day brought forth a new colour in design, though since I wasn't going to behave like a paparazzo, what you mostly won't see is that he wears colours to match her dress, hat and parasol somewhere in his apparel.

We stayed for the duration of the Ring in an apartment kindly loaned by J's friend Marie-France, Belgian Ambassador living in a very done-up old building on the north-east side of Buda's Castle Hill. We got back late after Rheingold, having failed to find an appropriate eatery open near to the Residency, but we did sit on the terrace drinking champagne with Marie-France into the small hours. On getting off the No. 2 tram to cross the Chain Bridge, we'd had a splendid post-Valhalla encore from a man on the musical glasses: this is the reprise of his Khachaturian Sabre Dance.

On 16/6, Walküre day, late rising meant a leisurely breakfast at the excellent Coyote Cafe near  Batthyány Square, then a climb up the nearest steps past a fine neo-Gothic/Medieval mansion

and down again

via a park below the walls with one of several old Budapesters sleeping quite happily in the company of pigeons

to the northern end of the citadel. I noted the Museum of Musical Instruments with its Bartók Archive but never got back to visit either that or Bartok's house out at the Buda Hills (saved up for a future visit; there were too many options and not enough time).

A storm was about to break

so we took refuge under the awning of the nearby Hungarian Kitchen and had an average lunch in pleasant surroundings,  watching the downpour

as well as the lady opposite inspecting it from her first-floor window.

and afterwards looking at the decoration on neighbouring buildings in the street, modern like the one opposite and otherwise of varying antiquity.

It has to be remembered that the Buda Hill, naturally a strategic point, has been so overrun by various hordes and wiped out at various times that very little of the original fabric remains. And now Orbán in his vulgarity is making things worse around the Royal Palace. These bullet-holes are a reminder of the storming of Buda by the Russians before the end of World War Two.

Our setting off for Müpa on the three afternoons of the main Ring operas saw us weave our way through the local streets down to the riverside - this is a shot from the next, sunnier, hotter day -

cross the Chain Bridge and take the No. 2 tram to the halls - always a lively mix of locals and Ring-goers. I noticed on one return journey especially how lively and expressive the Budapesters are in public places, a bit like the Neapolitans (who in turn struck us as so vivacious alongside the sober Romans on our first visit to the great southern cornucopia-city).

Arrival in good time meant one of those delicious lemonades laden with chopped-up fruits in which the Hungarians excel - at Müpa I always had one with cherry syrup; since J won't permit a shot of the ritual since he's in it, I have to settle for a look at the diverse crowds gathering.

Something I either missed before Rheingold or which only happened in the three-acters, was the Bayreuth-style brass fanfares on themes from the Ring, played on escalators, the balcony where we often sat, and in the main foyer. Here's the Volsung call to action, first of more little films with which I'll plague you in this post.

Below is The Couple nicely framing love's young dream, typically attractive Budapesters who give you an idea of how pleasantly mixed the audiences were (see it as a homage to Weegee but with youth replacing poverty). Lots of Brits and Americans - so a bad idea to give supertitles in Hungarian and German only - but very many Hungarians. I'm told a good seat for the whole tetralogy is 250 euros, which I'd gladly have paid for the best Wagner imaginable - indeed, this Ring means I don't need to see another in its entirety for another 10 or 20 years.

And now, here's the second interval summons of the day, the annunciation of death .

Shortly before it, I noticed the wild skies, the mix of sun and rain,

and rushed to the other side of the hall where on the north-facing balcony I found what I was looking for.

The second of those images is even more pertinent than anyone who hasn't seen the always imaginative visuals for Fischer's concert staging can imagine: up in Valhalla in the gods' scenes of Rheingold, we see just such a crane, against a clear blue sky actually, and after a glimpse of the building itself - which must have been new when the film was made 10 years ago - there's a rainbow too, of course.

Not sure why I don't have a film of the fanfare to the third act, just one more shot of the dramatic massing of clouds at sunset.

17/6, Siegfried day: sunny but windy and chilly in the shade. As it was the weekend Marie-France was at liberty. So, too, was her adorable Alsatian Király ('king' in Hungarian), a rescue dog who was in a terrible state when he first came to the German Embassy but is now a sleek soppy who leaps all over you. His favourite toy is a battered plastic watering can.

We had only to walk five minutes up some of the steps and along to breakfast with our adored and brilliant friend Ildikó, who's made a life back in Hungary after her days as cultural diplomat in London, a city she loves and a post which suited her - but it wouldn't under the new regime. She now works for an animation company, independent of the government. Her breakfast could hardly have been more sumptuous,

and the views from her balcony rather wonderful - you can just see the Parliament Building in the distance here.

Our stroll back to the Embassy took us down more steps further along, with street scene duly adjusted,

back past a splendid Baroque fountain with two sides to the statue

and up along Donáti Utca, where the neighbouring mansion is even more splendid.

This Saturday was fatigue day - it's tough on the spectator not having two days' grace between the three big Ring operas - so we napped until it was time to make our usual way to Müpa. And there, as we sipped our lemonades, was The Couple, in blue this time.

I'll give you the three fanfares in close succession this time.

One more sunset shot between Acts 2 and 3, looking towards the Buda Hills.

18/6, Götterdämmerung day. I'd noticed a Bach-linked service at the Evangelical Church on Castle Hill, so appropriately in Luther anniversary year, I found myself singing along to one of his chorales - in Hungarian, thanks to the hymn-book.

The pastor set up the organ and choral numbers to come, presumably telling us that the organ had been restored and that these were old and new pipes.

The congregation sang very lustily, backed up by the choir in the organ gallery (general shot - obviously they're not singing at this point).

What a balance to the decadence of Wagner's endgame to come. As I had time before meeting Ildikó, Marie-France and J for lunch over the river, I did the touristic thing of sitting with a lemonade opposite the much-restored cathedral, which I remember disappointed me in its Victorianness on my first visit in 1983, so I didn't go in. At least the restoration gives the best possible tower to the skyline.

Then down past a very overwrought Art Nouveau building

to Ildikó's favourite cafe-restaurant, Gerlóczy , facing a quiet triangle with a statue in the heart of Pest. Not sure why she's looking so startled here, but I loved the white outfit with the red adornment.

Then along the streets with the big buildings to Ildikó's car

with only just enough time to catch The Couple - she's going up in flames ready for the Immolation -

before the first fanfare, for the Dawn Duet, which turned out to be identical to the third so you're only going to get it once (or rather twice, from the balcony - three times was for indoors).

During the first interval, Marcell Németh of Müpa kindly arranged for me to meet Peter Eötvös, whose hand I wanted to shake after the huge impact of his Halleluja - Oratorium Balbulum last November. I also wanted to say how much it had meant to discover the novels of his good, and sadly late, friend Péter Esterházy, who wrote the wonderful Halleluja libretto. 'I will tell him,' he responded with what turned out to be characteristic wit. 

He was here for the cycle - first time since Chéreau's in Bayreuth - and he thought he was grasping for the first time the full richness of the score, as well as understanding the text better thanks to the Hungarian supertitles (his German, incidentally, is good). We spoke about the incredible acoustics; he thinks the orchestra sounds marginally better in the pit which was part of the original design rather than on the platform. Had I not spoken to him, I might not have known that he's going to be conducting his Senza Sangue in a double bill with Bluebeard's Castle in, of all places, the Hackney Empire (which recently played host to a Hungarian Magic Flute). Such a nice man, though the music might teach you to be a bit afraid. Anyway, here's the bridal fanfare just caught at the end of the first interval.

I'm not a fan of backstage glad-handing unless the event has been overwhelmingly good. This certainly was, and it seemed churlish not to congratulate Iréne Theorin not just on her birthday but also for singing her first Brünnhildes on consecutive nights. As I wrote on The Arts Desk, she seemed as fresh as a daisy after a tireless final stint - and the most ferocious Act Two I think I'll ever witness in a Ring. In the absence of decent publicity pics - Müpa has not been great on that front, even for production images of the whole - here's a rather dark shot of the diva with her flowers.

She made a robust speech, Fischer a touching one, and we further chatted outside her dressing room, which the adoring management had strewn with rose petals; it smelled heavenly.

Among the singers we got to chat with the terrifying Hagen, Rúni Brattaberg from the Faroe Islands, a pal of our good friend and fellow-bass Peter Rose and a very genial chap (what a battle of Nordic giants this Götterdämmerung was). Here he is with Ildikó.

That seemed like a good place to leave friends and prepare for the next stint. J was leaving the next afternoon, so we spent a blissful morning on 19/7, Rienzi day, taking it easy on Margit (Margaret) Island, a wonderful oasis for the Budapesters. I'll return there for my zoo pics entry, as there was a delightful little one with nesting storks in the middle of the park. For now, let's leave it at the Parliament seen through one of the lime trees which line the embankment, the blossom smelling heavenly in June,

and from the Margit Bridge.

In the absence of fanfares for the Rienzi performance - with another Hungarian orchestra, neatly cut down to three hours, though I'd have liked to hear the music for the 'pantomime' about Lucretia - I only have one token shot from the day, of our Couple who were still here for the last two operas.

20/7 was Frei-tag, which I've already chronicled, so on to 21/7, Parsifal day. I finally managed to meet up with young Eszter, whom of course I also saw in November at a lovely tea-house she recommended and who'd stayed with us when applying to music colleges here; she got a place at the Guildhall but not a grant. Now she's at the Liszt Academy, being worked to the bone and having got a small stipend for coming top in all her subjects, but she wants to try again for London. We had lemonades and I a bite to eat - it was too hot for Eszter - opposite the Academy

where I'm pleased to see the European Union flag flying alongside the Hungarian one by the statue of Liszt

and I'm sure Sir Georg Solti, whose statue stands alongside the Academy, would approve of that.

I love the little down-a-few-steps stations and the  two-carriage metro trains which ply the first line to be built in Budapest, taking you up to the Liszt Academy and beyond to the big park with the museums and the zoo (Thursday morning's excursion).

Then it was a last tram-journey back to Müpa. The Couple dressed quite restrainedly for this one. I do have a pic of them in the crowd, but best that you catch them to the right as the brass play the 'Dresden Amen' before Act 1 of Parsifal. Followed, inevitably, by the other two, suiting the format to perfection.

I passed on the post-show hubbub backstage this time, but took the liberty of snapping the curtain call when the orchestral musicians appeared on stage - a nice touch that I've also seen Pappano initiate. 

Here's Ádám with his single rose, musicians to his right and Vienna Boys to his left. 

And the great Violeta Urmana with Klingsor, male chorus, more instrumentalists and Flower Maidens.

So that completes the Wagner stint (though I had a wonderful, if rushed, morning after prior to departure). Let's end as we began, with a sunset shot, this time a week later.


Susan Scheid said...

Well, this is splendid, top-to-bottom. That couple is quite the thing, and I love your photo of the younger couple in virtually opposite dress between them. Great catch on your part, that. The idea of rose petals strewn on the dressing room floor as a tribute to the singer is lovely. And now, here's a coincidence of sorts: just yesterday, J and I took a little Ring cycle-related sojourn to Massachusetts and saw a hilarious 15-minute mini-opera, Drumf and the Rhinegold. We laughed all the way through and then some. I consider this what you would term a must, and fortunately, an earlier, indoor, performance is online.

David said...

I'll check that out, Sue. Certainly if Drum(p)f is anyone in the Ring, it's Alberich.

La Theorin certainly has her passionate admirers among the staff at the concert hall...

Rather proud of the little fanfare films, myself. Might be useful when illustrating leitmotifs, though obviously they only play the brassy ones.

Susan Scheid said...

David, I can only say how glad I am you pointed out the fanfare films, as they didn't show up on my iPad. On reading your comment, I popped over onto my laptop, and have now listened to them all (plus the Sabre Dance on water glasses). What an inspired idea to do those fanfares! What a magnificent experience you have had!

David said...

Yes, iPads tend to show a blank space when there's a film or something from YouTube. Glad you saw them - very classy, no? And yes, I feel conscious of the privilege - otherwise I wouldn't have gone on so long here...

John Graham said...

this American couple make Hitchcock appearances in a number of DVD documentaries on Wagner and opera houses generally. Do they have any great expertise or knowledge of the subject, or is it all a rather sad publicity stunt? Their outfits are distinctly petit bourgouis

David said...

Do they? I had no idea. I was told about their ubiquity in the Wagner world, though. I neither know nor care about expertise v publicity stunt; I do know that it adds a piquancy to the intervals (or did for me). Opinion is of ourse very much divided. And Wagner's outward existence was of course very petit bourgeois.