All that glitters

As foiled as my plans were yesterday, they were successful in the same measure today. The familiar slight panic that sets in on the penultimate day in a place has set in. I had planned on a full day devoted to Gustav Klimt, the Viennese artist who painted The Kiss, and there were many opportunities in the city to see his work. But I hadn’t even been to Hofburg Palace yet, so I compromised.

I got up early and started at the Secession Building which Klimt and his friends built in 1897 as home for a break-away artist’s collective, The Secessionists. “To every age its art, to every art its freedom” is the statement above the entrance and the rallying call of the Secessionists. Freude’s first publications were also released in Vienna at this time, which informed the Secessionists’ work.  Klimt was the originator of Art Nouveau and you can see his influence in the golden globe entwined with laurel leaves (dubbed The Golden Cabbage by critical Viennese contemporaries) in brilliant contrast to the solid white block building supporting it.

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The "Golden Cabbage"
The “Golden Cabbage”

My target was the Beethoven Frieze housed deep in the basement.
In 1902, Klimt painted the Beethoven Frieze for the 14th Vienna Secessionist exhibition, which was intended to be a celebration of the composer and featured a monumental polychrome sculpture by Max Klinger. Meant for the exhibition only, the frieze was painted directly on the walls and was designed so that the sculpture of Beethoven was highlighted in an opening in the walls, himself becoming an intrinsic part of the Frieze. The painting was preserved but was not to be seen again until 1986 when it found a permanent home in the Secession Building.

The Frieze is as monumental as its subject, and the type of work you could surround yourself in for an hour and still be seeing more in it. It represents an epic human journey which wraps its way around the room, taking you on the journey with it.  It starts with human sufferering and a knight’s quest through the darkness to find joy and end human suffering. The journey ends in the discovery of joy by means of the arts and contentment, represented in the close embrace of a kiss. The frieze expresses human yearning, ultimately satisfied through individual and communal searching and the beauty of the arts coupled with love and companionship embodied in the secessionist idea of the gesamtkunstwerk – a comprehensive work of art.

The Beethoven Frieze
The Beethoven Frieze

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Far Wall, Left
Far Wall, Left
Far Wall, Right
Far Wall, Right

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I had decided in my slightly compacted schedule to rule out the Klimt permanent collection at the Belvedere Palace this morning. But on seeing the Frieze, I decided that I could no more leave Vienna not seeing The Kiss than Anna could have left Paris without going up the Eiffel Tower.

En route I passed through Schwarzenbergplatz.   The Hochstrahlbrunnen (high jet fountain) was built in 1873 to celebrate the completion of Vienna’s water supply system. Anton Gabrielli, the head of the company responsible for the projec, personally funded the construction of the fountain.

Right behind the Hochstrahlbrunnen is the Denkmal der Roten Armee (Red Army Memorial), locally known as the Russendenkmal (Russian memorial). The memorial was erected in 1946 by the Soviet Army which occupied a sector of the city until 1955. Before that year, a T-34 tank accompanied the monument. I recognized the rich, musical Russian language of Russian tourists at  the memorial when I was there.

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Naturally I got lost and tried a new tactic.   I took a gamble on following a small gaggle of guys who had the same Top 10 guidebook in their hands as I had, noticing they were going the opposite way to what I had intended and I got lucky. Sure enough we all wound up at the Belvedere Palace.

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I took an abbreviated tour of the main palace focussing on the Klimt rooms. It would be a wonderful place to return to another time, with beautiful grounds, two palaces, and lots of art. I snuck a few photos but lost my nerve when it came to The Kiss, heavily guarded as it was.    Klimt’s transition from Impressionism too his own style is evident in these paintings, you can see The Kiss starting to take shape:

Allee im Park vor Shloss Kammer
Allee im Park vor Shloss Kammer
Bauerngarten mit Sonnenblumen
Bauerngarten mit Sonnenblumen

The Kiss, and Judith were simply breathtaking, and larger than life.  Deanna MacDonald says of The Kiss in The Globe and Mail, “it is startling, vibrant, erotic and just a bit frightening. No image better embodies fin-de-siècle Vienna: an entwined couple kneeling precariously at the edge of a glittering abyss; the surface is dazzling  and modern, but just beneath lurks a sense of anxiety and impending doom.”  I downloaded these images:

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Headed back out in the sun and grabbed a tram to expedite my travels, landing me back in the centre of town. But all this Klimt had left me hungry. I headed toward the Hofburg Palace and the Albertina Museum, not for the exhibits but the ancient monastic winery beneath, the Augustiner-keller. It was a dark stone, moody place where one had to sample the wine and enjoy a good meal. It was everything I hoped for! I could eat it again right now….

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Well fortified, I headed for the Imperial Treasury within the palace, an orgy of riches. Ceremonial clothes and knights’ garb sewn with gold and silver threads, gilt bejeweled crowns, vestments of The Order of the Golden Fleece heavy as tapestries of gold. A cradle and christening set that had been sent to the new baby King of Rome, a gift of Maria Theresia.  Jewels so large they were named.

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The Hair Amythest
The Hair Amythest
Hyacinth "La Bella"
Hyacinth “La Bella”

Ephesus Museum

The Neue Berg holds the Museum of Arms and Armoury, the Museum of Ancient Musical Instruments and the Ephesus Museum. Viennese archeology at Ephesus continues, but relics no longer follow the scientists home. Between 1895 and 1907, objects did find their way to the Kunsthistorisches and I was most impressed by the Parthian Monument.

The Parthian Monument is one of the most important Roman-age reliefs from Asia Minor. It commemorates the Roman Emperor Lucius Verus, who established a camp in Ephesus during his Parthian Campaign of 161-165 AD. The individual pieces have been arranged in the form of a monumental altar, but this is only a guess at their correct arrangement, as they were not found in their original state. The friezes have a total length of about 70 metres, of which 40 metres are on display. The detail of these reliefs amazed me.

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Papyrus Museum

The Museum originated from the collection of Archduke Rainer, who began acquiring texts written on papyrus, parchment, ostraca and paper from Egypt in 1883. On August 18 1889 the Archduke donated his collection as a birthday present to the Emperor Franz Josef I, who included it in the Royal and Imperial Court Library as a special collection.

Today, the Papyrus Collection with its 180.000 objects is one of the largest in the world. In October 2001 the Collection was included in UNESCO’s list “Memory of the World” as a world documentation heritage site. The museum is tiny, within the Austrian National Library (in the Neue Berg), and only exhibits a couple of hundred specimens at a time. The small size of the museum does not detract from the delicacy of the artifacts, the sophistication of the writing or the bridge that these items form reaching across 3,000 years to connect us with our past. If you thought your writing was going to be read again in 3,000 years, what would you say?  Watch out for the snakes would definitely be something I would say, too!

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Once again I saw everything I had hoped to and more. I dashed home and changed into the dress I had been saving for the occasion, for what I knew was going to be a night to remember, a sold-out performance of Verdi’s opera Simon Boccanegra at one of the world’s greatest opera houses, the Vienna State Opera House.

The Viennese love their music.  The waiting list for subscriptions to the opera is 13 years.  Yet the VSO still manages to be accessible to all.  Standing room only seats cost 3 euros, and the SRO areas were jammed.  Here is the lineup for the SRO tickets, down the block and around the corner out of sight.  And after standing for four hours, the SRO section gave the loudest bravos, the most curtain calls.

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A tent has been erected on the roof for children’s concerts.

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Often in opera, the music follows the plot: soaring, full of hope and love in the first half, depressing and tragic as revenge, death and tragedy unfolds in the second.

Not so in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, with some of the most beautiful music in all opera, achingly gorgeous from the first note to the last. Stunning solos, duets and trios.

Played by the fabulous Vienna Philharmonic, rated 3rd greatest orchestra in the world. Attached at the link above, the Gramaphone U.K.’s article in which the panel discusses their rankings of the world’s greatest orchestras. (Bonnie will recall that we first saw the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall with Yo-Yo Ma in another inspiring concert.) Thomas Hampson, playing Simon Boccanegra, has sung the role before. The award-winning American baritone will perform across Europoe and the US including the title role in Eugene Onegin in Zurich and several roles at The Met in the 2013-2014 season. He interpreted Simon Boccanegra beautifully with all the heart and pathos of this tragic figure.

The real Simon Boccanegra was the first Doge of Genoa, whose term of office from 1339 to 1344 was marked by wise and sober government. He was not a pirate, as in the libretto – although he had a pirate in the family: his brother Egidio. Boccanegra resigned as Doge after five years in the face of strong opposition and outright hostility on the part of the feudal nobility and the rich merchants. In 1356 he was recalled from retirement in Pisa to resume office again – only to encounter the same obstacles as before, and in fact several attempts were made on his life. He was fatally poisoned in 1363. His successor as Doge was Gabriele Adorno, a weak and irresolute ruler who retired from office in 1370.

The plot has all the elements of a great Italian opera: power struggle, back-stabbing politics, true love, misunderstandings, deceipt, revenge, murder, reconciliation and regret. But this story is moderated by a father/daughter subplot: more tender, more bittersweet. Both want the cycle of violence in Genoa to end. Look at this impassioned plea from Simon:

“Plebians! Patricians! People!
Heirs only of the ferocious story of the hatred
between the Spinolas and the D’Orias,
while the vast kingdom of the seas happily beckons you.
You break hearts in the homes of your brothers.
I weep over you, over the peaceful light of your hills
Where the olive branch flowers in vain.
i weep over your hypocrital flower festival,

And I want to cry out: Peace!
And I want to cry out, Love!”

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And at the interval, champagne, delicate little open-faced sandwiches and petit fours.

Amazingly, if you were so inclined, you could watch the entire recent Met production of Simon Boccanegra with Placido Domingo (in a baritone role) conducted by James Levine on youtube at:

http://youtu.be/L4thw7kSTrw

A body-and-soul nourishing and unforgettable day.   Five gold stars!

Jan

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