Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bernard Haitink's Tristan and Isolde at the Zürich Opera House

Zürich Opera House Last Sunday Evening
I arrived back in Zürich last Sunday after a week in Birmingham just in time to see Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Zürich Opera House, conducted by the great Barnard Haitink.

I was amazed by Claus Guth’s  staging.  Act One, for instance, is supposed to take place aboard a ship on which Tristan (Stig Anderson) is bringing Isolde (Barbera Schneider-Hofstetter) from Ireland to Cornwall, where she will marry King Marke (at least that’s the plan – love gets in the way, naturally).  But instead of a ship, the opera opens in what is clearly a large bedroom in a great neo-classical villa. At one point the action moves to a terrace filled with plants, definitely not a ship.  It was only during the second act, when the neo-classical interior architecture continued, that the penny dropped.  Actually, I can’t take the credit – it was Esther who leaned over and whispered into my ear, “It’s supposed to be the Villa Wesendonck”.  Of course – why didn’t I think of that?  So the staging represented, not so much the love story between Tristan and Isolde, but that of Wagner himself and his muse, Mathilde Wesendonck. The location had been moved from a ship to the place where Wagner had written the opera,  the mansion of his lover and muse, right here in Zürich, the Villa Wesendonck (today’s Rietberg Museum).  This was a stroke of genius.

The birthplace of Tristan and Isolde: Villa Wesendonck

Another intriguing aspect of this staging was the role of  Brangaene (played by Michelle Breedt), Isolde’s maidservant. The two were visual doubles of each other, wearing the same costumes and the same hairstyles and, uncannily, even sounding a little like each other. It seems that Brangaene was meant to represent Isolde’s conscience, or more precisely, her rational self.  Thank goodness for the drama of opera; Isolde ignored her reasonable advice, and threw herself into illegitimate love instead.

Looking old and frail, conductor Bernard Haitink invested the entire evening with terror and sadness, euphoria and contemplation through his convincing performance.  The orchestra was outstanding, though perhaps too loud here and there as the singers were drowned out.

Isolde discovers near dead Tristan in the Villa Wesendonck

This was an original interpretation of one of the world’s greatest ever operas and again I was struck by the Buddhist metaphysics that form the core of the entire enterprise.  If you want to know more about the Buddhist aspect of this work, or wish to read about the personal background to the work’s creation, read my earlier posting Wagner and Buddha: Tristan and Isolde and if you want to take a tour of Wagner's see check out my A Stroll Through Wagner's Zurich.

The Very Clever Esther

Monday, October 18, 2010

Edward Burne-Jones' Stained Glass Windows

Edward Burne-Jones: The Ascension
After a busy day of teaching last week in Birmingham, England, I sought some quiet time in the Cathedral of St. Philip, set in a small park in the centre of the city’s busy business district. Surrounded by Victorian buildings that house law offices, and a stone’s throw from the brashness of fast food stores and shopping centres, it provides a surprisingly restrained, Baroque haven. Skateboarders and winos hang out between the ancient gravestones. Tall obelisks mark the triumphs and heroic losses that yesterday’s imperial armies found on foreign battlefields.

The church was designed by Thomas Archer and consecrated in 1715.  Built in the Italian style, it is remarkable for its simplified forms and what impressed me the most is its human scale. It is this that makes it the essential example of English Baroque. In the late 19th century the beauty of this space was enhanced with the addition of four windows designed by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones and manufactured by William Morris and Co. Burne-Jones was a local lad and had been baptized in this very church.

Above the simple altar we see Christ’s Ascension.  He stands on a cloud of blue, surrounded by the saints as he rises above his apostles below. While the saints in heaven are almost Byzantine in their stiffness and other worldliness, Burne-Jones has made the apostles look full-bodied and earthy.  A scene of the Nativity and the Crucifixion flanks this window.

Edward Burne-Jones: The Last Judgement
At the other end of the church, facing Christ’s Ascension is the Last Judgement. A white Christ sits majestically above the world surrounded by angels and archangels.  The archangel Michael sounds the trumpet that marks the end of the world while below him the people, young and old alike, look up in distress, as well they might.  Just beyond the humans we catch a glimpse of their blackened cities crumbling. In a style that echoes the facial gestures of Giotto’s paintings, Burne-Jones has captured the anxiety that surely comes when humankind realizes that its time is up, that the moment for atonement has passed, that judgement is imminent.

For more on stained glass windows see my post on Sigmar Polke

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sign of the Times

I am blogging in Birmingham, England this week, where I am teaching a week long seminar in Political Systems at the College for International Citizenship.  I always enjoy coming here, but I never cease to be amazed by the number of signs from some governmental authority telling me how to behave.  How do the British cope with it I wonder.

Soon after disembarking from the plane I was greeted by a sign that told me that taking photos was fobidden.  Another sign told me that smoking was forbidden. A few steps later I read the sign: "Please remove your passport from your wallet or passport holder".  As I joined the line, passport in hand, I saw the sign indicating "Do not use mobile telephones".  At the desk of the immigration officer I read the sign "Threatening behaviour towards airport employees will result in prosection".  Well, welcome to the UK - five signs instructing me or warning me how to behave, and I hadn't even officially entered the country yet.

In the train ride to Birmingham city centre I counted 14 signs on the train telling me how to behave. One sign read: "Place your light baggage on the overhead rack".  Another read: "Do not place heavy baggage on the overhead rack" and a third sign warned: "When standing, mind your head on the overhead rack".  I had no idea that overhead racks could be so dangerous, did you?  It is a wonder that I have survived until now, because back home in Switzerland we have no signs warning us of the dangers of overheads racks. 

Signs on the train told me that I musn't smoke, musn't listen to music that is loud and that if I eat I should be thoughful of my neighbours and not leave a mess.  I was told to pull a red cord if there is an emergency but warned that there is a fine for inappropriate use. If the train stops, a sign told me not to open the doors, but in case of fire I was told "Use hammer to smash emergency window".  Once again I read "Penalty for inappropriate use".  The doors of the train were fairly covered in signs that gave me a five step programme on how to exit the train via the doors.  Once again, I must admit, I had no idea that exiting through a door on a train can be so harrowingly dangerous.  It is a wonder that anyone is left alive in Switzerland, where we thoughtlessly step out of trains without reading the non-existent signs, obviously risking life and limb everytime.

The best of all was an announcement that I had never seen before. It appeared on an electronic rolling sign and, just in case you missed it, it was announced after every station.  This is what it said (I joke not): "Please familiarise yourself with the safety notices in this train".  The British are in such constant danger it seems, or perhaps they are simply so down right badly behaved, that their lives need to be not only circumscribed by warnings and safety signs, but they even need signs ordering them to read the signs.  That sign reminded me of one of the thousands that I read while driving from Sussex to London last June.  It said, and again I joke not: "Warning: some signs have been removed".  Shudder... "Should we turn back?" "Will we survive without signs?" We bravely ploughed on along the M25 and, it is hard to believe, but we managed to find London.

As my train was pulling into Birmingham New Street I was relieved to see the sign: "For your own comfort and safety this carriage is being monitered by CCTV".  Well, it would be, wouldn't it.  After all, this is the country whose citizens are the most filmed in Europe, and it's not because they are on The X Factor.

Just before I got off the train I was reminded to "Please take all of your personal belongings with you" and, finally, the reassuring "Please mind the gap".

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Beyeler Foundation: Vienna 1900 - Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Their Time

Beyler Foundation (photo: Bijan Sayfour)
 The Beyeler Foundation’s is a magnificent collection of modern, mostly French, art. The collection is exhibited in a building just outside Basel, Switzerland, designed by Renzo Piano, of Centre Pompidou fame. Unlike the iconic building that dominates Paris’ Right Bank, the Beyeler Foundation Museum is characterized by restraint and tranquility. A long, low pavilion, the walls of glazed glass allow the filtered rays of the sun to embrace every room in natural light. A roof canopy of glass extends over a pond, supported by steel pillars encased in red stone. At strategic points from within the museum, clear glass permits a view of the peaceful garden or the surrounding countryside, with woods and hills rolling into Germany. The floors are of polished oak and heating is provided though discrete grills in the floor.

Some years ago one of my daughters, aged eight, dropped a colouring pencil into one of the air vents. She was drawing her interpretation of a Matisse at the time. A guard saw it happen and quickly came over. I thought that perhaps we were in trouble, but the guard was only concerned that my daughter could retrieve her pencil. The guard called on her walkie-talkie, alas, no engineer was available to remove the grill. But ten minutes later the guard reappeared with a new pack of colouring pencils, compliments of the museum. My daughter, in turn, gave the guard her interpretation of the Matisse, duly signed. It was a nice, warm moment.

The guards on duty yesterday seemed less relaxed. Perhaps it was because the exhibition “Vienna: Klimt, Schiele and their Time” contains so many objects of great value, loaned from museums worldwide. After all, a Gustav Klimt painting sold in 2006 for 135 million dollars - a world record. We had only stepped into the first room of the exhibition when a guard asked two of my daughters (now aged 13 and 11), to ‘take it easy’. I enjoyed seeing them so excited, but the guard seemed apprehensive when he saw their fingers a couple of inches from a photograph of the first Viennese Secession Exhibition in 1898. I then stepped into the second room, with the glorious, large canvasses of Klimt. Alas, I stepped too close to one and an alarm rang, which earned me a warning from a guard. I wish they had told me before I paid the 25 dollars entrance fee that I would have to stand so far (I guess it was about a metre) from the paintings. And then, just to add to my disappointment, the reconstructed Viennese Fin-de Siècle café was closed for a special event.

But I am being fascicous. The guards were never anything but friendly and the art, well, what can one say. I know that Klimt is not everyone’s cup of tea, or cup of coffee. His work has grown in popularity, but some will say that this is because of its decorative quality – it makes for nice postcards and posters. I admit, I am a fan. Klimt’s career was a wonderful journey, from acclaimed and respected painter of historical tableaus in the accepted style to an avant-gardist with a style that blended post-impressionism, cubism, Japonism, fauvism and a very personal form of Byzantine revivalism. As he got older he continued to soak up influences that came to him from younger artists, and yet, a Klimt is unmistakably a Klimt.

Gustav Klimt: The Dancer
 A highlight of my visit yesterday was “The Dancer”, painted in the last few months of his life in 1918. The image above doesn't do the original justice. As with most of his portraits, she is looking to the right. She is stiff, like in an ancient Egyptian or Minoan relief. The tyranny of perspective that had dominated western art since the Renaissance has been defied and the surface is flattened. To her right, at shoulder level, we can see a number of oriental figures, Korean or Chinese. Her right hand is raised in a symbolic gesture and flowers burst across the upper corner of the painting in an explosion of colour. The round table with flowers to her lower right and the rug with the zig-zag design have just wandered in from a Matisse painting. Her dress is heavy, like a kimono, and decorated with colourful, geometric forms. Aren’t her shoes simply wonderful?

Gustav Klimt: The Park

“The Park” is entirely different. A word of warning – if you travel to Basel for the exhibition, don’t step too close to “The Park” – you might find set off the alarm and find yourself in trouble. Obviously influenced by post-impressionism here, Klimt has avoided the temptation of using illusionist techniques in order to create perspective. Instead, splashes of paint are piled on splashes of paint rising to the top of the painting (and beyond) to create a real density. Amazingly, the canopy of trees cover almost the entire canvas, with just a tiny sliver in the bottom left which provides the vital open space. It is one of the most unusual pictures I know.

Gustav Klimt: Attersee
“Attersee” is a mesmerizing painting. Again, the surface is knowingly flat, your eyes are led to gradually look upward to meet a vague silhouette of mountains on the left while on the right an out of focus island comes into view – has Klimt been influenced by photography here? (I only ask because most of my photos appear out of focus.) But it is the water that holds one’s attention, and the play of light on its surface. It dominates the bulk of the canvas, becoming almost an entirely abstract painting.
The exhibition runs until January 16th 2011. There is a lot more to enjoy besides the paintings I have discussed. These are simply three of my favourite things.

To watch a documentary on this exhibition, including an interview with the chief curator,click here.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Zürich For a Song

The New York Times ran an article from Charles Isherwood last week about my favourite city, Zürich, Switzerland.  I think he captures something about this delightful place, with its mountains and lake, its river and cafes, music and art, and, despite the stratospheric prices, the easy going nature of the city. To read the article click here.