|Gonzo Opera Tour~Finale|
At long last, the final installment of the Gonzo Opera Tour. At the urging of my legion of fans, I am finally sitting down to write down the final days of this saga.
Dateline: Thursday May 4, 2000
When we last spoke, our intrepid travelers were in the Florentine train station, wolfing down their final plate of Fettuccine Alfredo and sipping the last of their Chianti Classico. On the way out of Florence, we ventured into the famous street market. I had spotted a few things I really wanted, but at the time I spied them, I was setting out on an adventure and didn't want to become burdened by shopping bags. I purchased two gorgeous wool evening wraps with nary a care as to where I was going to put them inside my bulging luggage.
Our train arrived at the platform and we checked in. This leg of the tour was travel by overnight train to Vienna in a cozy First Class couchette. For those who have never traveled by train in Europe, a couchette is a small sleeping car with bunk beds. First Class couchette is two bunk beds per compartment and Standard Class is three bunk beds per compartment. I don't know how anyone could have crammed another person into this cubicle which Tony likened to a "prison cell". Yes it was cramped, but after an exhausting day walking all around Florence in 90ş heat, a bed of nails would have suited me just fine. We washed up and bunked down to the lovely strains of Callas' Norma on the portable CD player and were lulled into a sound sleep by the peaceful "clackety-clack" of the rails.
Dateline: Friday May 5, 2000
When we awakened the next morning, we were in the lush mountains surrounding Vienna. You could see small ski areas, devoid of snow, and elegant hotels tucked into the folds of the mountains. Neat and tidy villages greeted us at each bend in the rails. What a marvelous way to greet Austria. Luigi, our ever-present porter, brought us cappucino and croissant for breakfast.
Then Luigi set upon me like a thief! He claimed that the Austrian Railroad Authorities demanded that we be rousted in the middle of the night and forced to pay a fine because we had failed to get some stupid Europass endorsement at the beginning of our trip. Luigi was pointing out to me that the fine was something like $50 per person for this egregious violation (please note that we paid $375 each for these rail passes!). Luigi kept pressing me that we would have been awakened had it not been for his adamant persuasion of these Neo-Nazi Train Officials. Suddenly an Italo-Austrian lightbulb lit up in my brain. This was the EuroPass version of baksheesh (I hope the spelling is correct), Luigi was asking for a large TIP/BRIBE/GREASING OF THE PALM. I pretended to not speak Italian and then Luigi asked if I spoke French. . . to no avail. Luigi left me in an extreme state of frustration. Just before the train arrived in Vienna, I went up to Luigi and gave him the equivalent of about $30. . . .Small price for a good night's sleep.
We got off the train and rolled our luggage to the central area of the Vienna Hauptbahnhopf. This place is a marvel of efficiency and commercialism. If you want it, you can get it at the Bahnhopf! What we wanted was a bank and something to eat because we hadn't had our daily 1 kilo ration of cheese that day and no chocolate! There in the midst of this crossroad of Europe stood the CANDY KIOSK! There was every manner, shape, size and weight of candy known to the Western World. We opted for some Mozart Kügel and jellied fruity things and made our way to the money exchange. In all of Europe, Vienna is the MOST expensive place to exchange money. My handy travel guide indicated that the Information Kiosk dispensed maps, and the train ticket sellers had the best exchange rates, so there I headed. Tony went to the "Cambio" booth and came away stunned, confused and lighter of wallet. No matter, this is Vienna, city of MUSIC.
We hopped into a cab and swiftly sped to our accomodations.. . . .at least I thought so. I had booked accomodations over the internet and when we arrived, we discovered that our reservations had not. This left me irritated because I had confirmed reservations elsewhere and cancelled them in favor of this more reasonably priced pension. As luck would have it, a room-finding service was just across the street. After calling over 15 pensions, accommodations were secured!
Friendship Test~Tony and I were really really grumpy after this leg of the trip. Both of us needed a bath, a nap, and a plate of Wienerschnitzel! Our accommodations turned out to be a suite. . . well, sort of a suite. The very large room had an outer parlor with a double bed, table and chairs. There was a bedroom wherein there was a bathroom. The W.C. was in the hallway, just outside the door and was shared with another suite. This floorplan required cooperation because we both wanted baths and we both wanted naps! ARG! I offered to go give Tony some privacy and I wandered like a zombie around the area where we were camped. I found a magnificent market and shopped for some bread, cheese, wurst, drinks and CHOCOLATE. I found a wonderful bank to exchange additional money and get some change. I wandered and got the "lay of the land". As luck would have it, we were less than a block from the U-Bahn and also the S-Bahn, so our transit needs were superbly met. After a light lunch, cat naps, and baths, we ventured out to take the S-Bahn around the Vienna Ring. Not to be confused with Wagner's Ring, the Vienna Ring is the route around the inner city of Vienna. This is the oldest and most historic area of Vienna. Within this Ring lie all of the Government Buildings, museums, a gorgeous park, the Vienna Staatsoper, and the magnificent St. Stephen's Cathedral. There is an S-Bahn train which takes this circle tour, so we hopped on and drank in the beauty of this city.
We hopped of the S-Bahn and found a little bistro with outdoor seating and had a cappucino and the local speciality. . . . Sacher Torte. The weather was warm, so we sat outside and watched the Viennese pace of life.
We hopped back on the tram and then off again to venture to one of the most hallowed sanctuaries of opera-dom. . . .THE VIENNA STAATSOPER. There we stopped at the ticket kiosk and redeemed our tickets for the following night's performance of Die Frau Ohne Schatten. We could not redeem our tickets for Lohengrin for some odd reason, because the production was that same day. Our next stop was ARCADIA, the gift shop of the STAATSOPER. Inside there was a wonderful selection of opera CD's, souvenirs, posters and photos. One thing the Viennese have over the Germans is the knowledge of commercial exploitation of tourists. I bought a T-Shirt, some CDs, and an assortment of photos of opera celebrities. Then we hopped back on the tram and headed back to the ? Suite.
We returned to the Staatsoper, dressed up and ready to enjoy prime opera: Lohengrin with Johan Botha, Sue Patchell, Waltraud Meier, Tom Fox, and to my great surprise, Matti Salminen. We were concerned about our seats, the view, well just everything about our first VIENNA opera! The seats just plain sucked. We were in the third row of the side loge and couldn't see much. But that wasn't much of a problem because this was a very boring production. The singing and the orchestra under the direction of Fabio Luisi were superb. I was especially impressed by the pairing of Tom Fox and Waltraud Meier. This Telramund was completely under the love spell of his Ortrud; he was almost like a love slave to her, so entranced was he by her pronunciations. Matti Salminen's Heinrich was rich and full-voiced, plenty of power even at his advanced age! Johan Botha's bearded Lohengrin had the brightest, most heroic and ringing tones. This Lohengrin was aurally superb, but visually and dramatically dull.
At 1st intermission, it was our mission to seek out other opera lovers. At the pre-destined time, we ventured to the vast and ornate lobby in the hope of sighting the elusive pair of globe-trotting opera mavens. This is the birdwatchers' equivalent of sighting a California Condor or perhaps the tropical Lyrebird. There perched on the railing near the ticket kiosk was the quarry. . . .the urbane Nick Palmer and his lovely wife Allison. We chatted away the 1st intermission, and as we talked of opera, opera and opera..... a chum of Nick's passed by, and the equally urbane and charming Michael was added to the entourage. This was a sighting of no fewer than THREE globe-trotting opera mavens. I noted this occasion in my "Kobbé's" and we adjourned to Act II of Lohengrin.
After the performance, we ventured to a wonderful little casual restaurant. The habits of the globe-trotting opera mavens were soon revealed to us. One of their missions is to ply unsuspecting opera newcomers with Austrian wines. After inebriating their prey, it is their additional mission to ensnare the unsuspecting prey into their state of perpetual operatic rapture, and to this end, we were directed to visit "Da Caruso" the next day. We chatted endlessly into the wee hours until we were ushered out by the wait staff who were anxious to go home. How could one surpass such a day of operatic bliss? Does the Reverend Moon recruit these opera mavens? One wonders!
The next morning, after a vigorous turf war over bathrooms, toilets and privacy, we had a leisurely breakfast and hopped onto the train to the Schonbrun Palace. This Palace is the rival of Versailles. Its vastness and opulence are mindboggling. The one advantage which Schonbrun has is, its history remains largely intact. Schonbrun was handed over to the Republic when good old König what's-his-name decided that democracy was his "thing" early in the 20th Century. Lucky for us! All of the royal doo-dads and knick-knacks are all still there. At one bend in the tour, I was able to glimpse the gorgeous formal gardens of Schonbrun, and I long to return and see them. Back on the S-Bahn and back to town. . . .strange vibrations in the operatic universe were pulling us to DA CARUSO.
On the side street to the North of the Staatsoper lies DA CARUSO. This store is like heroin to a junkie, like a sorority house to a Lothario, like a sweet nectar to a bee . . . .there is no mystery as to why the globe trotting opera maven is drawn to DA CARUSO. Inside the portals of DA CARUSO is the most amazing and mind-boggling array of operatic CDs I have ever encountered. This is not the run of the mill selection you would see at any Borders Books or Tower Records, this is a peg-legged, shoulder-perched parrot pirate's treasure trove of opera. Obscure, arcane, and out-of-issue opera CDs abound. The decisions were tough, what to buy. The buy versus discard pile was ever changing. It was agonizing, but I managed to get out after spending over $150 and wishing I had bought more.
I emerged from the pheromone fog of operatic frenzy in a small café next door, salivating over a groaning board of luscious desserts. Tony joined me, and we had sandwiches and more Sacher Torte and a gorgeous Nusse Torte (nut torte). (Please note that this occurred over a month ago and I can recall the vision of these photo-perfect desserts!).
After we finished off our lunch, we walked up the street to the magnificent St. Stephen's Cathedral. I was steeped in Catholicism while growing up, so the comfort of a Roman Catholic Church is a respite in the primarily Protestant Europe. For all the trauma of a Catholic upbringing, there is still something about the smell of bee's wax candles and incense that strikes me at the soul. Entering the Gothic Cathedral and seeing the vaulted interior is an awe-inspiring experience. One wonders, "How did they do that!"
Back to the suite of "doom" for a quick nap, the bath lottery, and dressing for Die Frau Ohne Schatten and our final night on holiday. We hopped the U-Bahn and made it to the Staatsoper in time to fetch our tickets and find our seats.
I had never seen this Strauss masterpiece before. Trying to describe this production would take days. It would require a high degree of introspection, serious contemplation and a thesaurus. What the director did with this piece was to completely discard the "book" for this opera. Yes, the words were intact, however the story was profoundly altered. It was changed into a deeply effecting psychoanalytical probe into the psyche of a frigid woman, unable to love, and her quest for full integration of her body, soul and psyche. The end result was a production so powerful, so moving and so definitive, I scarcely believe I will ever see a production which so completely merges music and drama into a whole as this production did. The cast was a producer/director/conductor's dream: Deborah Voigt, Gabrielle Schnaut, Jane Henschel (a most worthy substitute for Marijana Lipvosek), Ben Heppner, and Falk Struckmann. Giuseppe Sinopoli conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with unparalleled passion and empathy. I was positively breathless and speechless at the end. I was not alone in this impression, as the audience's reaction was endless and deafening applause and bravos. Europe is not so stingy in its appreciation of fine music as is the U.S. of A.
After this magnificent opera, the globe-trotting opera mavens retired to a magnificent restaurant across from the Staatsoper for an evening supper. Talk about gilding a lily, this restaurant was fantastic! Nick, Allison, Michael, Tony, & I chatted, noshed and chatted for hours! Never had I seen an array of luscious food, a groaning board of gourmet delights! Course after course were served and many bottles of the now endearing Austrian wine. We gabbed & laughed away again into the wee hours, with a patient and weary serving staff unobtrusively waiting in the wings . . .praying for our departure. As we bid fond adieus in the Staatoper Platz, I dreamed that this night would never end. However, it was the next day. . ..the day of our departure and return to the U.S. << SIGH... >>
We had only a few hours' rest and then our van fetched us for the ride to the airport. This was another of the split-second feats of travel. We had a quick flight from Vienna to Frankfurt and then dash to our flight to San Francisco. All of this went off without a hitch. We both could have used a few hours more sleep, but what the heck. . .this is OPERA! This is the greatest of all spectator sports!
Our return to the U.S. was marred by a very sad event: one of the passengers was stricken with a heart attack en route, and the plane had to make an emergency landing in Iceland. Normally this would not be much of a bother to me. However, we were on the ground and in the plane for over 5 hours awaiting clearance to leave. By the time we left, Iceland became less of an exotic location and more of a God-forsaken wasteland. Good riddance!
My mental sojourns back to the Gonzo Opera trip are frequent, now that I am
back in the U.S. of A. and back at the work-a-day scheme of things.
However, every once in a while, I take a mental break and transport myself to
Stuttgart, Munich, Altenkirchen, Venice, Florence or Vienna, and my soul
becomes revitalized with pleasure and those sights and sounds filling me
with operatic vigor.
I think that people at work are beginning to wonder about me, when I have that distant look in my eyes and suddenly have a craving for CHEESE & CHOCOLATE!
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