BERLIN, PRAGUE, VIENNA!
A TOUR REPORT
(My personal reflections)
Everyone was in Berlin at the end of May! There was a huge convention of protestant churches celebrating Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the Church doors in Wittenberg, and Barack Obama arrived in Berlin to have a chat with Angela Merkel. And of course, there was our Tour! We began with a Reception for the 25 people in the tour group, in one of the meeting rooms at the Wyndam Excelsior Hotel, which, although the rooms were small, was very advantageously located close to the Zoo Station with the S-Bahn, U-Bahn, 100 and 200 buses, as well as being within walking distance of the two opera houses. Here we met our Tour Director, Daniel, who was our guide in Berlin and who travelled with us to Vienna.
Some of us who had arrived in Berlin earlier than the official start of the tour left for a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Riccardo Muti, The concert hall, the Philharmonie, is most unusual. The orchestra is not centrally placed but about 2/3 in with groups of seats around it. The sound was glorious! The first piece was Schubert Symphony #4, using a small orchestra, but the second piece was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #4 with a much bigger orchestra and sound. The third movement, the Pizzicato, was (to my ears) quite magnificent! The next day, a German public holiday, we began the tour with a bus journey around the city, trying to avoid all the crowded places, and listened to Daniel’s commentary as he described the city in which he lived and discussed its history. The following day began with a ride out of the city to Potsdam, once a separate town but now a suburb of Berlin and the site of Sanssouci, the palace build by Frederick the Great. We had a private guide to take us through the beautifully restored rooms and as we were the first tour of the morning there was no one ahead of us! In our free time in Berlin, we all went our different ways and managed to shop the KuDamm and eat at KeDeWe, explore Museum Island, Art Galleries, The Tiergarten and Hachischer Markt or visit friends.
We saw two operas in Berlin. The first evening the opera, well sung, was Andrea Chenier at the Deutsche Opera. The title role was sung by Martin Muehle, who is well-known in Germany, and “Madeleine von Coligny” was Maria Jose Siri (La Scala, Bolshoi, San Carlo, Dresden, etc). This was generally a traditional production in the costumes of the 18th century, but most of the action was set on a raised dais. At the end of the first act when the French revolution came to the Coligny family the dais was raised at one end and all the furniture and people slid off! At the end of the opera, when the Revolution became the Reign of Terror, this movement was reversed. We were to have a taste of modern German direction the next evening at the Staatsoper, performing at the Schiller Theatre, when we saw Rene Pape as King Philip, so the singing was wonderful, but the context of the story? I think we are still discussing this! There was a table, used for many different functions, which was perhaps meant to represent an altar, and an Inquisition scene which we likely won’t forget! Personally, I found the modern symbolism of the dais in Andrea Chenier enlightening, but the change in context in Don Carlo very distracting from the music and the singing. I am not even sure that the opera as performed had anything to do with Don Carlo as a character! But it was an interesting experience, I think!
We left Berlin for Prague in a comfortable coach and broke our journey in Dresden for a few hours. We had an interesting tour of the central section of the old town, including the Zwinger, and later, a tour of the Semper Oper. It was a lovely sunny day and pleasant to walk slowly around the restored town with many lovely places to choose from for lunch. It was the season for white asparagus, “spargel,” in Central Europe, so all the restaurants were advertising this in various dishes. Unfortunately the Frauenkirche was closed for weddings that Saturday, so we could not go inside, but we did see the brides and the decorated vehicles.
Another fairly short coach ride through lovely countryside brought us to Prague and a problem! The streets of the Old Town and the New Town are too narrow for a coach as large as ours to navigate, so the plan was to warn the hotel while we were still 45 minutes away so they could bring a van to collect the luggage – and perhaps take those who could not easily manage the 15 minute walk from the drop off point to the hotel. Unfortunately the van was not there when we arrived and so everyone had to walk to the hotel while Daniel took care of the luggage. The Hotel Beseda was well located for exploring the Old and the New Towns, as well as being quiet. The rooms were larger than in Berlin and there was a lovely Atrium. There were many and varied restaurants very close to us. Prague, like Berlin, was very crowded, as it was the final week of the Prague Festival.
Our first excursion was a Sunday morning drive into the countryside to Karlstejn Castle, an hour outside Prague. The castle is high on the top of a hill, so we took taxis or horse-drawn carts from the parking lot to the entrance, although many walked back. The castle was simple, interesting and not crowded. We had our own guide, a young man who tried very hard to make the castle come alive. The following day the city tour began with a walk into the Old Town to see the Astronomical Clock, but we used the coach to take us up to Prague Castle and to return to the hotel. Prague Castle was very crowded, but we did manage to find an entrance where there was no queue and were just in time to see the guard change! We were not quite so lucky at St Vitus Cathedral, but the line moved quickly.
On our free day in Prague, Milena Jande, a friend from Vancouver who was born in Prague, offered to take us on a short tour of the city and to lunch at an old Czech restaurant. This was enlightening and interesting as many of the buildings in the central area have had interesting uses during recent history. Daniel, our Tour Manager, joined us towards the end of the tour and for lunch. He said he had been coming to Prague for years but had not known about the area – nor the restaurant, which was close to the square where Huss was burned in the 14th century. It was kind of Milena to give up her time to share with us what she loves.
We saw two operas in Prague. Our first opera was at the Estates Theatre, a five-minute walk from our hotel and the only theatre left where Mozart conducted, and where Don Giovanni was premiered. The theatre is small and exquisite! The opera was charming, with an excellent and popular Figaro in Adam Plachetka, who had recently sung this role in Vienna, Glyndebourne and Covent Garden and other well-known opera houses in Europe. The next evening we used the Prague subway (guided by Daniel) to reach the Karlin Theatre, where we were to see Nabucco performed by the State Opera. We all loved the theatre! It was originally designed for musicals but the seats were very comfortable and the stage was very visible. Nabucco has wonderful chorus work and the huge State Opera chorus did not disappoint! Nabucco (Martin Barta) and Abigail (Jolana Forgasova) were guest performers who were both well known in Central Europe and beyond, and were lovely to hear. At the end of the performance Daniel was waiting with the small buses that were able to return us right in front of the hotel.
The following day, while our luggage was transported by van, some of us walked while some travelled by taxi to the coach that was to take us to Vienna. Our road passed through the lovely Bohemian countryside to Cesky Krumlov, a beautifully-preserved town dating from medieval and renaissance times. The town is surrounded by the Vlatava River, and a castle dating later than the town overlooks it from the height of the outer bank. We had time here to explore and/or have lunch at one of the many restaurants either by the river or around the town square. Then it was on to Vienna and Le Meridien Hotel, right across from the Staatsoper on the Opernring, where we stayed from Wednesday to Sunday in our most luxurious accommodations of the tour.
The Vienna City Tour took us by coach around the Ring and across the Danube and back before arriving at Schonbrunn Palace, where those who wished had a guided tour. Those of us who had been to Schonbrunn before (some several times) had an opportunity to have coffee and cakes in the lovely café and to wander around the shop to buy postcards before meeting up with the group again. The following day we drove out to the Abbey of Melk, about an hour’s drive outside of the city and located on an imposing position on the high cliffs of the Danube. This is a baroque and rococo-styled building dating from the 18th century and now occupied by a small number of monks and a high school (a few of the monks are teachers). The two most memorable buildings within the complex, which is very big, are the Library and the church. Both these building are amazing! As we passed through the Church a service was concluding and the organ was playing – a magical moment.
Our free time in Vienna was filled with shopping, art galleries and museums. As the Hofburg was just across the street, my free day included a performance of the Lipizzaner horses, followed by lunch at Demel and a ride back to the hotel in a horse-drawn coach! Others visited the Belvedere for the Klimts and other pictures, the Karlskirche, or the old town, or just walked. Vienna has so much to offer even for those who have made many visits.
We went to the Saatsoper three times: first for the ballet, Swan Lake, and then for the operas Fidelio and Der Rosenkavalier. Although we had good seats in the front section of the Orchestra we heard, rather than saw, much of the ballet. The ballet stage is flat and the slope of the orchestra is gentle. This was much better for the operas where both had a raked stage; even so, some people had trouble looking past the person sitting in front. Both operas were SOLD OUT, as we saw from notices posted outside the Staatsoper. Both operas were staged in a traditional way. Leonore was sung by Camilla Nylund, the Swedish soprano, and Florestan by Peter Seiffert and both voices soared over the orchestra. The overture was Leonora 3, which is usual, but in the pause between Acts 2 and 3 the orchestra played one of the other Leonores and played wonderfully indeed. The orchestra received the same huge applause as the singers, which was well deserved. Der Rosenkavalier, the following evening, also had a list of top-notch singers. The Feldmarschallin was Linda Watson, a native of California, who has made a name for herself singing Wagnerian roles in Europe, including Vienna and Bayreuth (and Kundry at the MET). Octavian was the wonderful French mezzo, Sophie Koch, while Sophie was sung by Chen Reiss, who had sung Marzelline in Fidelio the previous evening. Baron Ochs was Peter Rose. I thought the performance was the highlight of the whole tour. In fact both the operas in Vienna were excellent and provided a wonderful climax of experiences we had during the tour.
Thank you to all participants for your company and for your support. As ever, the opinions of this piece are entirely my own.
(VOG Tours Chair)