Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Bearing east for Bavaria and beer

Frauenkirche and Neues Rathaus, Munich
Commeth the hour, commeth the beer. But first came the chaos. Our long-awaited trip to Bavaria was thrown into chaos at the 11th hour when our flight to Munich was cancelled by virtue of a strike by Lufthansa pilots.

With only a little over 24 hours to go before we were scheduled to fly, The Other Half fortunately managed to get us new tickets on board EasyJet, from Gatwick.

One point to remember here: we were booking late, obviously, but those EasyJet tickets cost more for a one-way journey than the original Lufthansa return flights had cost.

So much for all the guff about ‘budget’ airlines. And unless you are travelling with only enough luggage for a couple of days, and can therefore cram it all into a cabin bag, you can expect to pay around £30 per case for the privilege of taking more.

Mind, judging by the sight of fellow passengers struggling to cram a bag into the overhead lockers, some people stretch the definition of cabin baggage to its limit and probably beyond.

That said, I’ll give EasyJet credit for being considerably less unpleasant than RyanAir.

At Gatwick, we discovered that the plane was a little late arriving. But, with the wind now in the ‘right’ direction, we made up time on the journey to Germany.

Our initial plans would have meant that we arrived at Munich airport at around 11pm German time, so with that in mind, we’d booked a room for that night at the Hilton hotel that sits squarely between the two terminals.

In the event, we had slightly longer at the hotel, since the EasyJet flight was two hours earlier. But having checked in, neither us of felt much like sitting down to a meal – travel days do disrupt eating patterns – and opted instead to sit outside (yes, outside) in the clear evening air (albeit under a small heater) to enjoy a couple of glasses of beer.

In this case, it was Erdinger: a clean weißbier with a good taste. And jolly welcome it was too. After the previous day’s panic, merely being in Munich felt like a victory.

The next morning, with sun in the sky, we grabbed a coffee (€25 for breakfast was not on the menu) and caught a train into central Munich.

Bavaria may, in many ways, be a conservative part of the world, but that it not a neo-liberal conservatism that believes in taking every opportunity to rip people off.

At the main railway station, which we were due to depart from in the afternoon, there were whole rooms of lockers where we could leave our bags for the day at a mere €3.

Weißwurst, pretzel and mustard
That’s right: no airport-style ‘security’ to allow some jobsworthy tosspot to spend 10 minutes running a finger around your laptop as though it’s the most mysterious container he’s ever encountered (all the while, giving you an unpleasantly challenging stare), and then charging you a rip-off £6 to hold your bag for three hours, with the company claiming that’s a “competitive” price.

Take note Britain and, in particular, the Excess Baggage Company at Manchester Piccadilly. 

Free to wander, we headed straight toward the Marienplatz and, claiming that coffee as our ‘first breakfast’, sat down on Neuhauser Straße outside an eatery called Schnitzelwirt to engage in a great Bavarian tradition.

Second breakfast traditionally occurs at around 11am, but always before noon. The reason for that is that it includes weißwurst, a local delicacy that, in the past, would have gone off if left any later.

It’s served in in the water in which it has been gently simmered and comes with a pretzel, sweet, grainy mustard and beer. The beer in this case was a Franziskaner – a gorgeous weißbier brewed in Munich, which I have experienced from bottles in the UK.

Altes Rathaus, Munich
It’s the sort of drink that makes you stop anything else, sit up and pay attention to the taste.

The most traditional way to eat the weißwurst is to cut off one end and suck the light veal and bacon mix out of its skin. Or you can slice it from end to end and then roll the meat out with a fork. I opted for the latter approach.

But all in all, this Bavarian ritual was observed properly and very much enjoyed.

We ambled on, seeing the extraordinary Rathaus-Glockenspiel strike noon. Made in 1908, its 32 life-size figures re-enact scenes from the city’s history, accompanied by 43 bells.

This is the new town hall – a vast piece of Gothic Revival (it has 400 rooms) built between 1867 and 1908 by Georg von Hauberrisser.

Its predecessor, the Altes Rathaus, stands at the east side of the Marienplatz, and was first documented in 1310.

The site of a 1938 speech by Goebbels that was the prelude to Kristallnacht, it now, rather more pleasingly, serves as a toy and teddy bear museum.

Heilig-Geist-Kirche, Munich
Here too, we could see the iconic twin onion domes of the Frauenkirche, the city’s cathedral. A Romanesque church was first built on the site in the 12th century. What stands there today crosses architectural styles, with the main building – completed in 1494 – being Gothic, while the Renaissance-style domes were added in 1524.

I bought a hat – of which more another time – and between exploring churches (a first taste of Bavarian baroque), markets and shops, we took coffee in thetypically large German cups that are almost bowls.

The original plan for our time in Munich had involved visiting one of the three major art galleries, but we soon realised that, to do so, we’d be rushing ridiculously. Thus we’d settled on a rather less frenzied approach.

But heading back to the railway station, we found ourselves facing another less-than-relaxing snafu: The Other Half’s locker wouldn’t open.

Welcoming coffee
Thankfully, we’d allowed ourselves plenty of time, and I raced off to deploy my pidgin German in finding someone to sort it out.

That was not entirely straightforward, but for the first time in my life, I actually understood directions in another language and did, after what seemed like an age but probably wasn’t, find a young man who understood, picked up a fistful of keys and followed me back.

Checking first that we could describe what was in the locker, he then opened it and liberated the case, leaving us to head to the train that would take us to Füssen.

The journey south east into the Alps takes two hours: fairly fast for the first half, it slows as you start the real climb into the mountains.

Not that we could see anything more than Alpine pasture that was close by, with heavy cloud draping its gloom over anything higher. My frustration was almost tangible.

We emerged at Füssen into a dark early evening, a fine drizzle in the air.

A fine plate of zander
Our hotel, fortunately, was only a very short walk away and, as a large tour party was decanted from a coach into the lobby, hauling industrial amounts of suitcases up in the lift for a single night, we were handed flutes of sparkling wine by the lady at reception.

Settling in a short while later, we found that we could look out and see the summer palace of the bishops of Augsburg close by.

After a dinner in Chili, one of the hotel’s two restaurants – a very enjoyable first taste for me of zander, a fresh water fish – we decided that it had been a long couple of days and an early night was in order.

But, with one or two hitches, we’d made it. Now Füssen awaited.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

A rare piece of early Brecht and Weill

Trinity Moses, Widow Begbick & Fatty (Peter Hoare)
Like the proverbial London bus, it seems that you wait ages to visit the Royal Opera House and then, once you’ve done it for the first time, another visit speeds into view in a matter of weeks.

If I was the prime mover behind the desire to see some Wagner in mid-February, then The Other Half was probably ahead of me in wanting to ensure we didn’t miss a new production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by Brecht and Weill.
Given that Brecht declared of Mahagonny that it was an written in an attempt to “pay conscious tribute to the senselessness of the operatic form,” there’s a certain piquancy to rare chances to see it being more likely to be in opera houses than in theatres, but whatever ones opinion. it has become an accepted part of the opera canon.
However, as an early piece – first performed in 1930 – it is fraught with difficulties for any company.
Unlike in later works, Brecht was here still developing his worldview, and Mahagonny offers an unrelentingly misanthropic and dystopian perspective, with nothing – even right at the end – to suggest that we might have a chance to stop the insane drive to self-destruction.
One also has the sense that, when writing this, Brecht was still a small-town boy feeling ill-at-ease in the big city – it isn't simply a rant against capitalism per se.
Jenny (centre)
Three on-the-run criminals – Widow Begbick, Fatty and Trinity Moses – find their vehicle broken down in Amerika, and decide that, since they can go neither forward nor back, they will found a city based on nothing but pleasure, and that city will be called Mahagonny (Brecht’s nickname for Munich – this is not simply an onslaught against the ‘American Dream’).
It’s a place for (male) workers who are exhausted, and offers booze, fighting and sex.
When the first group of prostitutes arrive, we hear one, Jenny – a role first created by the legendary Lotte Lenya – sing the work’s most iconic number, the Alabama Song.
However, trouble starts, when lumberjacks Jimmy McIntyre, Jack O’Brien, Bank-Account Bill and Alaska Wolf Joe arrive from Alaska and, when Jimmy defies an impending hurricane, his own even more anarchic ideology wins approval.
But even in Mahagonny, rules are required and, when Jimmy cannot pay for a round of drinks, he’s arrested, tried and – as he has no money left to bribe the court – executed.
This current production is in English, with a new translation by Jeremy Sams, but this was never a straightforwardly German libretto anyway: Alabama Song is one of two songs that were written in English originally.
It is certainly flawed – the third act is paced far too slowly and reduces the possibility of any real punch at the end.
But there are some very interesting aspects to it – not least the opportunity to see such an early work. The staging is wonderful, as the new city starts from a single lorry and, at the start of the second act, we see a container city rise up.
Jimmy McIntyre (centre)
There’s plenty to maintain interest and plenty to consider, up to an including working your way through Brecht’s philosophical jumble.
There’s a big question as to whether Weill’s works with Brecht should be sung by opera singers or non-opera singers, but that’s generally subjective. My Other Half – a serious Brecht buff – and I had differing responses, but while he was, in general, more critical of the overall production than I, he still considered it a very worthwhile evening out and with plenty of points of interest to spark subsequent conversation.
As it happened, we saw this three weeks after seeing Der fliegende Holländer at the ROH. It made for some intriguing contrasts and connections. Not least in that Wagner never regarded many of his works as ‘operas’ but as ‘music dramas’. It was a serious point for him.
And it’s a description that can probably fairly be applied to Brecht and Weill’s works together. While in general, Wagner’s own choice of terminology has been quietly forgotten and his works widely accepted as part of Opera, it is easy to see why people still feel uncomfortable, if you will, with knowing how to describe and site works such as this, since they don’t fit comfortably into most established cultural pigeon holes.
Mahogany is not, strictly, ‘opera’, but neither is it a ‘musical’ or a ‘play’ or a ‘cabaret’ or any other performance type that you can think of. ‘Music drama’ – Wagner’s term – seems entirely the best fit.
At the end of the interval, two other members of the audience behind me were discussing why it was being staged at the ROH, with one wondering whether it was a “cash cow”: it remains to be seen when Brecht (and Weill) has ever been a “cash cow” in the UK. And if you wanted to go down that route, using Brecht, your best bet would be Die Dreigroschenoper, not this.

So, to the cast.

Container city
It was a joy to see Sir Willard White as Trinity Moses, while Anne Sofie von Otter as Begbick really grew into the role as the evening went on.

Christine Rice gave a strong account as Jenny – beautiful singing on the Alabama Song – while Kurt Streit as Jimmy was, for me, also very strong.

There, are nods to all sorts of things all over the place – including to Nietzsche, in terms of the citizens of Mahagonny killing God – and to Wagner, whose ‘motif of longing’ from Tristan und Isolde is quoted in the opening sequence of the work.

I think that John Fulljames has done a generally good job with a difficult piece, while, as mentioned earlier, the set design of Es Devlins really gave me another look at opera as spectacle – and I have so appreciated that in the last month.

The use of projection works really well here – and it does also make you aware that Brecht, as someone who used surtitles to further stamp home what he was saying, was arguably a leader in terms of multi-media theatrical performances.

But if this is cannot offer a perfect production of an imperfect work, then it still a very good opportunity to see a rarely-performed piece by Brecht and Weill and a production that has a great deal to enjoy and admire, and will certainly provide plenty of food for later conversation, as The Other Half and I found.

Photos: Clive Barda for the Royal Opera House

Thursday, 5 March 2015

There can never be too many books

And so it is that World Book Day is upon us again – and almost gone, at the time of writing.

In an era where, increasingly, digital seems to dominate, it’s wonderful to think about books.

Yes, yes: I know that books can be digital too, but, to me – and many millions more – there is nothing to beat the tactile joy of a real book. Indeed, for billions of people on this planet, the old-fashioned variety of bound paper is all that they can hope to have access to.

Do you remember the joy when, as a child, you managed to read a book on your own for the first time?

I cannot remember the title of the first book I managed like that, but I remember sitting in a small red and white straw child’s basket chair with it, and being so proud when I got to the last page.

Not that long after, I took enormous pleasure in Enid Blyton’s Well Really, Mr Twiddle, which had me hooting with hysterical laughter.

Many years later, I got pretty much the same sense of pride from reading an entire Asterix book in German. Books always offer potential for new moments of personal achievement.

At the beginning of my twenties, I suffered some sort of breakdown after being injured and then chucked out of polytechnic. For ages, I couldn’t read – even much-loved books could not hold my concentration beyond the first few pages.

What revived reading for me was Stephen King. I picked up Carrie in a local bookshop and couldn’t it down. Then The Stand and It, with many more to follow.

I ‘discovered’ Terry Pratchett before he was anywhere near national treasure status, standing in a small sci-fi and fantasy bookshop to meet him once when nobody else was even around.

The result is three very precious signed volumes of the earliest Discworld novels.

Books – among the very first things I’d unpack in my nomadic early adulthood: get those out and it would start to feel like home.

Books, which provide a wonderful pre-holiday ritual when considering what from my buckling shelves I wish to take.

Books, which bring with them knowledge and entertainment.

While the majority of the books that I have bought in recent years have been non-fiction, I still seek out good storytelling too.

Penguin are now releasing the entire Maigret collection, and with new translations that finally do Simenon’s noir novels justice. Those are on pre-order with me.

There are old friends that I have read many times already and will probably read many times more: Jan Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Brönte’s Jane Eyre (which I hated at school), Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Stephen King’s The Shining (the movie was crap) and Joanne Harris’s Chocolat, all of which I find new things in every time I pick them up.

I have a few antiquarian (relish that word) books – some up to 200 years old. They are to be treasured and looked after: I feel only a temporary guardian.

And I also rather pride myself on having a collection of books about German history – no! Not that period! – that would, I suspect, count as pretty decent.

I still judge a bookshop on its history section: on whether it is just full of WWII and the Nazis or goes beyond that.

Of course, talking of the Nazis, its always worth remembering how they burnt books on Bebelplatz in Berlin in 1933 – right next to the Humboldt University. That symbolism should tell you something about the power of the written word. And today, of course, we have groups of religious fundamentalists who want to deny people – and women and girls in particular – the right to learn.

Whether in the deepest, darkest days or winter, curled up on the sofa with a good read and a hot chocolate or under a parasol on the beach in the height of summer, is there really anything that can compare to the pleasure that can be found in the pages of a good book?

So let’s celebrate books today – and those who create them and those who read them – but let’s never stop loving books for all the other days of the year.

And PS: make sure you love your local library too.