Thursday, 17 December 2015

Ruhe in the Ruhr: 2

My previous posting on the subject of finding the picturesque in one of Europe’s most industrial regions concentrated on the Ruhr’s historic urban relics. This time my focus is on its scenic beauty. Yes, there is plenty – large swathes, especially around the river valleys, forests and open farmland that act as buffers between the main cities. This was often where the German equivalent of the Industrial Revolution originally started, with small-scale mining and cottage industries, before the heavier industry took over and concentrated themselves in the lowlands to the north.

When we talk of the Ruhr today, we tend to think of the whole region, stretching from Duisburg in the west to Dortmund in the east, Solingen in the south to Gelsenkirchen in the north. But the river which gives the area its name and reputation is actually one of these scenic wonders. Flowing down from the hilly Sauerland of the central German massif, it now takes a surprisingly rural route through the industrial heartland, winding in large, sinuous curves from Hagen, via the southern outskirts of Essen to Mülheim and out into the Rhine at Duisburg. For much of its length, this stretch glides through wooded valleys, often enlarged into reservoirs, and with its boating, walking and cycling opportunities has become the main ‘green lung’ and outdoors escape for the millions who live within its reach. In the south of the region, the Wupper and Düssel do a similar job. What follows are descriptions of three walks that, in my humble opinion, offer some of the best exposure to the charms of the Ruhr region’s countryside. All are based around using the area’s rail network for access.

A) Baldeneysee, Ruhr

The water provided by the Ruhr was crucial to the original exploitation of the area’s mineral resources, but is nowadays more important for human use. When the river was dammed just above the ancient town of Werden in 1933 it not only flooded the valley to provide drinking water for nearby Essen, but also allowed the installation of turbines to create hydro-electricity. (The dams that were the focus of the infamous ‘Dam-busters’ of World War II are upstream in the hills of the Sauerland.) The resultant Baldeneysee is now a beautiful, mature-looking lake, surrounded by forest and with its shore peppered with sailing clubs and hugged by a largely tarmacked foot/cycle path. A full circuit is shown locally as 14km, though my GPS registered it closer to 17km, and it is possible t
o do half that by using different suburban rail lines at each end of the lake. Depending on the season, there are various cafés and restaurants offering refreshment along the way.

Werden is a stop on the S6 rail line between Düsseldorf and Essen, running every 20 minutes during the week, half-hourly at weekends. This small town with an attractive Alstadt quarter is home to North Germany’s most significant late Romanesque abbey church, founded by St Ludger (who is buried in the crypt), one of Charlemagne’s bishops. In truth the interior is spoiled by typically hideous Baroque Roman Catholic excesses, especially a tasteless altarpiece, and there’s not much else to see apart from Ludger’s cask. Instead head down to the river and follow the shore upstream. The dam is about a ten-minute walk north of the town, and makes an interesting brief diversion to walk along the top, see the hydro turbines working and admire the views of the lake and up to the Krupp dynasty’s Villa Hügel sitting voluminously above the trees.

Villa Hügel looming over the lake
A wide, tarmac road, with minimal traffic, hugs the southern shore for 7km to Kupferdreh, paralleling a historic steam railway line for the last few kilometres – a relic of the numerous industrial lines that peppered the region. Here one can catch the S9 rail line that runs, at a similar frequency to the S6, between Essen and Wuppertal. Alternatively, cross the old box girder bridge over the upper end of the lake and follow its northern shore (foot and cycle paths frequently diverge along this stretch) back towards the dam and Werden. On the way, there’s an old mine lift, left as a memorial to valley’s former industry. If walking all the way back to Werden seems too much, one can cut the circumnavigation short by a few kilometres by catching the S6 at Essen-Hügel instead (this is the stop for the Krupp villa, which is open for visitors most days and is worth seeing in its own right for its moneyed opulence and interesting historical displays).

B) Müngsten Bridge and Schloß Burg, Wupper

Southwest of Wuppertal, the River Wupper takes a sharp turn to the south and flows between densely wooded hillsides in the Sauerland foothills – a particularly pleasant stretch. Take the S7 train from Wuppertal, or from Solingen, to Solingen-Schaberg station at the western end of Germany’s highest steel railway bridge, the Müngstenbrücke, which magnificently spans the deep Wupper gorge and has just been restored (the journey across by train is spectacular in itself). From the station follow the footpath that zig-zags down to the river, where’s there’s a visitor’s centre and, in season, a rope-pulled pedestrian ferry across the water. Head along the western shore, downstream, for several kilometres (largely flat, though there’s one steep diversion over a ricky outcrop), crossing the river where a small lane takes you to the village of Burg. Looming above the village is a well-restored medieval castle, now the regional museum and well worth the climb up (there is a funicular in season).
Burg church with castle in the background
This was once the seat of the Dukes of Berg, who ruled over much of the Lower Rhineland until subsumed by Brandenburg and then Prussia in the 17th century. Cross the river on the main road (Solingerstrasse) and take the first turning on the right after the corner (Friedhofsweg). Turn right on to a path that climbs up to the top of the hill. From here, a wide, high-level forestry track follows the river (down to your right) all the way back to the pier of the Müngster Bridge and a brief further climb back up to the station.

C) Neanderthal, Düssel

Recreation of a Neanderthal man in the museum
We have the region’s industry to thank for the discovery, in the mid-19th century, of the bones of our near-relative, Homo neanderthalensis, who lived in this area of the Düssel, just 12km from the centre of what would become Düsseldorf, some 40,000 years ago. Quarrymen excavating the rich deposits of limestone made the discovery in a cave here in 1856, in a then canyon-like section of the river valley named after a local pastor and naturalist, Joachim Neander, whose surname almost prophetically was concocted from the Greek for his true name, Neumann, or ‘new man’. In the intervening decades the canyon has been plundered of its limestone and the valley is now broad and tree-lined. Close to the fascinating Neanderthal Museum, devoted to the discovery and the prehistory of the area, are some concrete ‘beds’ on which one can lie and imagine the cave metres above your head, now in the open space of the valley. 

The striped poles mark where the discovery
was made, several metres above in what is now air!
One can walk up the valley from the museum, or make a longer, one-way walk that takes in more of the local scenery. From Gruiten station on the main commuter line between Düsseldorf and Wuppertal (make sure your train is scheduled to stop here), walk through the car park parallel with the rail lines and pick up the Neanderthalweg that soon becomes a footpath, down past a quaint farmstead and on to a path alongside the rushing Düssel river. Follow this upstream for a couple of kilometres; at the crux of a left-hand bend in the river a track head uphill to the left: climb up here until the road surface improves and you reach some scattered houses. Before the road takes a sharp left-hand turn, pick up a footpath that heads west through fields to another small road. Follow this to the left, take the right turn at the T-junction to its end, cross the main road and take the service road that runs parallel to the left. Cross back over the main road, follow the lane ahead until it becomes a path and enters the woods. From here a path descends down to the Düssel again and head downstream, passing an animal attraction and various prehistoric displays, to the museum. An enjoyable morning’s walk, with refreshment available at the museum cafe or the inn on the main road. From here, a short footpath climbs up to the Neanderthal station on the S28 line between Mettmann and Düsseldorf.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Bluebeard's Castle/Der Zwerg – Pfalztheater Kaiserslautern – 12 December 2015

Bluebeard (Guido Jentjens) and Judith (Alelheid Fink)

Photos: Thomas Brenner

Bluebeard’s Castle
Bluebeard – Guido Jentjens
Judith – Adelheid Fink

Der Zwerg
Dwarf – Heiko Börner
Donna Clara – Jihyun Cecilia Lee
Ghita – Arlette Meißner
Don Estoban – Alexis Wagner
Maids – Naomi Schäfer, Andrea Zabold, Christina-Mirl Rehm
Girls – Neung Mi Lee, Seung Min Baek
Infantin’s playmates – Women of the Chorus & Extra Chorus

Das Orchester des Pfaltztheaters

Conductor – Uwe Sandner
Director – Urs Häberli
Sets – Thomas Dörfler
Costumes – Ursula Beutler
Lighting – Manfred Wilking

The dwarf (Heino Börner), Clara (Jihyun Cecilia Lee) and Don Estoban (Alexis Wagner)

Double bills often work best when some thought has gone into the pairing. Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) is often twinned with the composer’s other Oscar Wilde opera, A Florentine Tragedy, and last years production in Lübeck (see here) made a good case for linking the two completely different stories. Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle makes an interesting coupling for Der Zwerg. There are parallels between the two composers, born a decade apart and both finding refuge from the Third Reich in the USA but dying within a few of years of emigrating. Both operas are based on what might broadly be termed ‘fairy tales’, though definitely from the darker end of the spectrum. Both also involve themes about revelation and self-revelation: Bluebeard’s innermost secrets are progressively revealed through the seven doors of his castle; the dwarf finally discovers the truth about his ugly appearance and dies from the pain. And both Bluebeard and the dwarf seek love but are betrayed by, respectively, self-deception and thoughtless leading-on.

Urs Häberli has made no attempt to link the two operas in his staging, and they inhabit visual worlds as different as their musical ones. Bluebeard’s castle is a split-level wall in shades of blue-grey, in which six of the seven doors are incorporated into the Mondriaan-like squares and rectangles (the other, for the lake of tears, is in the mezzanine floor). In fact I think this must be the first production I’ve seen which actually has physical doors, as opposed to other analogies for the openings on Bluebeard’s mind and realms, though the ‘contents’ are left to the imagination with changing colours of lighting. The interaction of the two characters is naturalistic and well directed, and there is a parallel in the baring of Bluebeard’s soul in the way he gradually removes garments – coat, gloves, jacket, waistcoat – as his secrets are uncovered; the fate of Judith, on the other hand, is to end up veiled and covered up along with the former wives. There was a sense that Adelheid Fink’s Judith was going through the motions for this last performance in a three-month run, and her slightly squally singing (the opera was given in the standard German translation by Wilhelm Ziegler) and unengaged acting detracted from the overall performance. Guido Jentjens’s Bluebeard, though, was richly sung and his fine acting projected much of the character’s pain and disappointment.

The Dwarf was a visual treat, with Ursula Beutler’s costumes giving a whimsical and contemporary twist to Renaissance Spanish court wear, with its extravagant wigs and ruffs. The brightness and lightness of touch of the direction only highlighted the ultimate tragedy, where the dwarf the Infanta, Donna Clara, has been given for her birthday is ultimately forgotten as another broken toy just at the moment his own self-revelation kills him. Heiko Börner, who had sung Peter Grimes in Krefeld only four days earlier (reviewed here), gave a gripping performance of the title role – touching, searing and lyrical in equal measure (and a better fit to his tenor than Grimes had been). Jihyun Cecilia Lee caught the Infanta’s childishness that drives the drama with singing that was bell-like in its clarity yet never sounded precious. The rest of the cast was just as convincing. But most impressive of all was the playing of the Pfalztheater’s orchestra under Uwe Sandner – quite simply the most texturally detailed, beautifully shaped and masterly performance of Zemlinsky’s irridescent score I’ve heard in the theatre.

Peter Grimes – Theater Krefeld – 8 December 2015

Grimes (Heiko Börner) with the sinister Dr Crabbe (Tobias Forstreuter) looking on.
Photos: Mattias Stutte


Peter Grimes – Heiko Börner
Ellen Orford – Anne Preuß
Balstrode – Johannes Beck
Auntie – Eva Maria Günschmann
First Niece – Amelie Müller
Second Niece – Debra Hays
Bob Boles – James Park
Swallow – Andrew Nolen
Mrs Sedley – Gundula Schneider
Rev. Horace Adams – Michael Siemon
Ned Keene – Rafael Bruck
Hobson – Matthias Wippich
Apprentice – Jonas Trebo
Dr Crabbe – Tobias Forstreuter

Chorus & Extra Chorus of Theater Krefeld und Mönchengladbach
Niederrheinische Sinfoniker

Conductor – Alexander Steinitz
Director – Roman Hovenbitzer
Sets – Roy Spahn
Costumes – Magali Gerberon

This, my third German Grimes of 2015 (see also here), was the first of them to be given the full Regietheater treatment. The previous two productions had displayed various degrees of naturalism, extending in Ulm’s case as far as Expressionism. Roman Hovenbitzer’s production for the twinned Krefeld/Mönchengladbach theatres extends to surrealism. He has latched on to the British seaside tradition of the Punch and Judy show and used it to cast light on the violence at the heart of the opera. The silent Dr Crabbe is the puppet-master, following and guiding the action, prodding characters into action and forcing Punch’s red cap on to them. The dock in which Grimes faces the coroner in the Prologue is also the puppet booth, and the puppet dolls are occasionally donned to mimic the actions of the people, the baby coming to represent the dead apprentices, whose shrouded, lifeless bodies both come to haunt Grimes in his final mad scene. 

Roy Spahn’s set is like the inside of a plywood box (an analogy to the puppet theatre again, made of the same material) with sides that open up to allow the towns-people to view the court from the outside and which provide a blank canvas for some highly evocative aqueous video projections. The Borough is represented by a model village and the Boar is little more than a rowdy gathering. Hovenbitzer portrays a society where casual violence is the norm: Mrs Sedley trips Ellen up as she is called to the court in the Prologue; knives are drawn in the pub – the idea being, presumably, that Grimes’s brutality (for which he exhibits remorse in the hut scene) is drawn from the environment in which he lives. 

The surrealism comes in with the populace’s fancy dress for the dance scene in Act III, highlighting the commedia dell’arte roots of the puppetry and which gives a gawdy, lurid hue to the posse that hounds Grimes to his death, waving their slapstick weapons like Punch. It also colours the characterisation of the townsfolk, with a certain amount of caricature of the ‘quaint Englishness’ that make this and Albert Herring favourites with German audiences. In a more naturalistic setting one could quibble about the clerical costuming of vicar and methodist preacher, though I liked the idea of Auntie as an escapee from behind the bar at Coronation Street’s Rover’s Return.

The production opened in Mönchengladbach in May and has been running in Krefeld through the autumn, with a few cast tweaks along the way. This final performance had the staging’s original Grimes in Heiko Börner, a singer who looked the part and was a compelling actor but who didn’t sound wholly comfortable with the language or the tessitura [he proved much more at home in Zemlinsky Heldentenor territory a few days later – see here]. Anna Preuß’s Ellen was a treat, with beautifully nuanced singing and strength of tone, though Johannes Beck’s Balstrode felt a little distant dramatically, though this may have been the fault of the direction rather than the singer, an imposing figure himself. Eva Maria Günschmann, who I have previously admired in the trouser roles of Octavian and Adriano (Rienzi) at this house, was as impressive as ever as a blowsy Auntie and Gundula Schneider, although looking formidable in her tweeds, for once under-played the more caricatured temptations of the role of Borough busybody, to good effect. James Park’s detailed Bob Boles, Andrew Nolan’s eloquent Swallow and Rafael Bruck’s fluent Ned Keene were all notable interpretations. The chorus didn’t have the power of Koblenz’s in the summer, but made a decent impression, and the Lower Rhine Symphony under Alexander Steinitz brought their months of familiarity with the score to bear in a performance with bite and plenty of atmosphere.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Opera in the Ruhr and Lower Rhine

The Ruhr/Lower Rhine conurbation, or Ruhrgebiet/Niederrhein, is one of the most densely populated areas of western Europe and as a result boasts as many as nine more-or-less fulltime opera companies. This guide, a conflation of the Southern Ruhr and Northern Ruhr pages listed at the top of this blog, provides a personal introduction to each of them, listed in alphabetic order.


Best known for beer and football, unprepossessing Dortmund can hold its own in the operatic field, too. Theater Dortmund is the kind of place where a Strauss opera, Viennese operetta and West End musical can be in repertoire over the same weekend, yet it also recently mounted the German premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, and has had a strong line in Mozart stagings in the last few seasons. As the Intendant’s motto puts on the company’s website, ‘We make the popular challenging and the challenging popular.’ (Its parallel activities in dance, plays and youth theatre combine to make it one of Germany’s busiest theatre operations.) The company operates a semi-stagione system, with productions in rep over several months.

Theatre: the curved roof of this 1960s building, built on the site of the city’s bombed pre-war opera house, is a striking sight, and makes for a light, airy foyer (the ‘working’ part of the theatre is built into the neighbouring office block that comprises the company’s offices and workshops, and is separate from the Schauspielhaus for spoken theatre next door). The box office is just inside the main entrance, between the two entrance doors, and the foyer includes free, full-height lockers in lieu of cloakrooms. The auditorium is partly shaped by the curvature of the roof and seats 1,170 between Parkett and two Logenrängen (‘vineyard-style’ boxed tiers). Theater Dortmund is a 15-minute walk from the Hauptbahnhof – take the subway under the major ring road to the pedestrian zone and follow the red tourist signs via Hansaplatz.

2015/16 repertoire: Tristan und Isolde, Kiss Me, Kate, Hansel und Gretel, La traviata, Rinaldo, Peter Grimes, plus revivals of Le nozze di Figaro, Der Rosenkavalier

Reviews of performances in DortmundRoxy und ihr Wunderteam (Abraham), Don Giovanni

Tickets: €10–49, bookable online, printable or for collection.

Practicalities: Dortmund is a major fulcrum on the Intercity and ICE networks, as well as a major focus of the local train service, so is a useful base. It also has an international airport (served by EasyJet, among others). As such, hotels are plentiful, though they can fill up when Borussia Dortmund is playing at home.

Daytime: despite being flattened in the war, the city has plenty of history, though its cultural interest today lies more in the 20th-21st-century sphere: a leading contemporary art collection in the ‘U’ complex (the city’s former main brewery) and a sobering but fascinating museum covering the city’s history from 1933 to 1945 in the former Gestapo prison just north of the Hauptbahnhof (free admission). On a lighter note, the city is famous for hosting one of the country’s biggest Christmas markets, based around the world’s largest Christmas tree on Hansaplatz. Dortmund’s train connections make much of the rest of the area accessible for trips out.

Nearby (average journey times by train / per-hour frequency pre-performance / per-hour frequency post-performance): Essen (23/3/3), Hagen (30/5/2).


Theater Duisburg is the junior partner in the dual-theatre operation of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein based in Düsseldorf. Indeed, it is junior to the extent that it is in severe danger of being cut back to minimal operatic activities. But for the moment at least it shares productions and staff with the main house in Düsseldorf, though it has its own orchestra, which means performances run in both theatres concurrently, if somewhat more sparingly in Duisburg. It currently puts on about 100 opera and ballet performances a season, running in semi-stagione pattern.

Theatre: a building from 1912, rebuilt in 1950 after bombing, and seating 1,218 in Parkett and two Ränge (see right). The Abendkasse is easily found just inside the entrance. The theatre is under a ten-minute walk from Duisburg Hbf.

2015/16 repertoire: L’elisir d’amore, Turandot, Ariadne auf Naxos, What Next? (Carter)/Trouble in Tahiti (Bernstein), plus revivals of Die Zauberflöte, Aida, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Hänsel und Gretel, Der fliegender Holländer, Werther, Il trittico, Rigoletto, Der Rosenkavalier

Reviews of performances in Duisburg: Die Zauberflote

Tickets: €15–70, bookable online and printable.

Practicalities: Duisburg is well-connected, being halfway between Düsseldorf and Essen on the intercity network and with plenty of local services well into the evening. As such, it would make a good base, if a rather uninspiring one.

Daytime: Duisburg’s claim to fame is in being Germany’s largest inland port, at the point where the Ruhr runs into the Rhine. There’s a small area of surviving/rebuilt Altstadt near the rivers and revitalised dockland areas for eating/entertainment.

Nearby (average journey times by train / per-hour frequency pre-performance / per-hour frequency post-performance): Düsseldorf (20/7/4), Essen (15/7/5), Krefeld (20/3/2).


As the capital of North-Rhein-Westphalia and with the seventh largest population among German cities, Düsseldorf is the main cultural hub for the whole Rhein-Ruhr region. The city is well enough known and written about not to need further introduction, though other musical draws include its Tonhalle concert hall by the Rhein and a history that included Robert Schumann as its ill-fated director of music in the 1850s. Its opera company, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, by its very name claiming national status, spills beyond the city to encompass a second base in neighbouring Duisburg (see above). Düsseldorf, though, offers the fuller programme, making it, with the addition of ballet, as busy as the opera companies in Cologne and Essen. It is reasonably well regarded for the scope of its repertoire, and a new Ring cycle has been announced for the 2016–17 season.

Theatre: Düsseldorf Opernhaus is situated on the edge of the Altstadt, the city’s nightlife centre, conveniently next to the well-connected Heinrich-Heine-Allee U-Bahn (underground) station, which is a short three stops from the Hauptbahnhof (or about a half-hour walk). The building, on the site of the bombed-out 19th-century Stadttheater, is a functional and sleak 1950s construction, which can seat just short of 1,300 patrons in a large Parkett and three shallow tiers. Row 14 and back in the Parkett, plus the very sides, are in the overhang, and sides of the upper two tiers offer a somewhat restricted view of the stage.

2015/16 repertoire: Arabella, Die Zirkusprinzessin, Don Carlos, The Golden Cockerel, Die lustige Weiber von Windsor, plus revivals of Die Zauberflöte, Aida, The Fiery Angel, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Le nozze di Figaro, Hänsel und Gretel, Les contes d’Hoffmann, Tosca, Lohengrin, Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Giovanni, Carmen, Rigoletto, Der Zwerg, Der Rosenkavalier.

Reviews of performances in Düsseldorf: The Fiery Angel (Prokofiev)

Tickets: €15–82, bookable online and printable.

Practicalities: As Düsseldorf is a leading centre for shopping and commerce, there’s no shortage of hotel accommodation, though prices tend to be higher than the rest of the region, especially during trade fairs. There are plenty of options near the Hauptbahnhof, though the area to the south is somewhat insalubrious – the more upmarket places are in the Altstadt or near the Königsallee luxury shopping street. A handful of places include a free Ruhr-wide travelcard for the duration of your stay – always something worth looking out for (equivalent to c.€27 per day, including the full extent of the day you leave). Düsseldorf makes a convenient base for visiting all the other opera houses in the region – Duisburg and Krefeld are even linked by tram. The international airport is an easy ride away via S-Bahn.

Nearby (average journey times by train / per-hour frequency pre-performance / per-hour frequency post-performance): Dortmund (60/3/3), Duisburg (16/7/4; plus tram/U-bahn), Essen (40/6/5), Gelsenkirchen (40/2/2), Hagen (45/2/1), Köln (33/4/2), Krefeld (30/3/2; plus tram/U-bahn), Mönchengladbach/Rheydt (33/2/1; plus further deps changing MG Hbf), Wuppertal (20/3/2 + Schwebebahn connection).


Essen runs on a semi-stagione system, with long runs of new productions interspersed with short ones – maybe just three performances – of revivals. It’s often possible to catch two operas in a single visit.

Theatre: Essen has what must be the only opera house since Dresden’s Semperoper to be named after its architect, but the city was so proud of the result that it named the building, completed in 1988, as the Aalto Theater, after its creator, the Finnish master Alvar Aalto, who had died during its long journey to fruition. It is indeed an iconic piece of modern architecture, admired as much for its sleek beauty as for its practicality – gleamingly white outside and in the foyers and refreshingly blue in the auditorium itself, which is highly unusual in being semi-circular but asymmetrical, as if an uneven bite has been taken out of a Greek theatre. It seats 1,125 in Parkett and two slender balconies, giving excellent sight-lines from all areas; the box office is in a little ‘pod’ within the outer foyer. The theatre is less than ten minutes’ walk due south of the Hauptbahnhof and even has its own eponymous tram stop outside. It’s also worth noting that the Essen Philharmonie concert hall – the main symphonic venue in this part of Germany – is virtually next door and hosts all the great visiting orchestras.

2015/16 repertoire: The Greek Passion (Martinů), The Love of Three Oranges, Faust, Elektra, Il barbiere di Siviglia, plus revivals of Fidelio, Madama Butterfly, Macbeth, La bohème, Un ballo in maschera, Die Zauberflöte, Der fliegender Holländer, Into the Little Hill (Benjamin), Aida, Tosca, La traviata, Rusalka, Don Giovanni

Reviews of performances in Essen: Die schweigsame Frau, Le grand macabre

Tickets: €25–47.

Practicalities: Essen’s central location in the Ruhr (it is indeed regarded as its capital) makes it the ideal base – apart from Mönchengladbach, all the region’s venues can be reached comfortably from here. A couple of hotels (InterCity and City Hotel) offer Ruhr-wide public transport tickets in the room price, which is always good value, but there’s a reasonable spread of places to stay at all prices, many of them close to the station and thus the opera house. Note that, as with a number of cities in the region, room rates rise markedly when there’s a trade fair/Messe on. Restaurant choices are fairly limited, both near the opera house and in the central shopping area.

Daytime: Essen markets itself as shopping capital of the Ruhr, but the city also offers some of the region’s cultural highlights. Principal among them must be the Folkswang art gallery, a short walk across the park from the Aalto Theater, and home to one of the best collections of 19th- to 21st-century art anywhere, with representative works from all the great artists from the German Romantics onwards. The other draw is the Zollverein Coking Plant in the city’s northern outskirts, a vast former industrial complex built between the wars in modernist Bauhaus style and now housing a fascinating museum on the Ruhr as a whole and on the mining history in particular. Essen city centre is a pleasant enough place for a wander, with several historic buildings surviving, including its Romanesque church.

A highly recommended excursion is to the neighbouring town of Kettwig, a rare surviving example of a historic townscape in the region, full of old half-timbered buildings clad in the distinctive local green slate and with atmospheric lanes tumbling down to the River Ruhr – there’s also a pleasant riverside path. The S-Bahn line between Essen and Düsseldorf, along which Kettwig sits, is a surprisingly rural and scenic ride. The town centre is a 15-minute walk from either Kettwig or Kettwig-Stausee stations.

Nearby (average journey times by train / per-hour frequency pre-performance / per-hour frequency post-performance): Dortmund (23/3/3), Duisburg (15/6/5), Düsseldorf (35/5/4), Gelsenkirchen (8/4/4), Hagen (37/2/1), Krefeld (40/2/2), Wuppertal (46/3/1).



2015/16 repertoire: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tosca, Norma, La gioconda, Die Fledermaus

Tickets: €11–41

Nearby (average journey times by train / per-hour frequency pre-performance / per-hour frequency post-performance): Dortmund (40/4/4), Essen (8/4/4).


On the face of it, Hagen is one of the more unprepossessing of the Ruhr’s towns: a bit down on its luck, saddled with municipal debt and with few cultural sites, though it is scenically situated among hills and adjacent to some of the River Ruhr’s leisure hotspots on its reservoirs. However, its theatre is one of the region’s more enterprising, tackling interesting repertoire (neglected American operas have been a recent theme) with energy and skill - but catch it soon, since recent budget cuts are currently threatening the company's very existence.

Theatre: Theater Hagen is a Jugendstil building from 1911, reduced to a shell by American bombardment in 1945 and rebuilt four years later. Unfortunately, the rather tired state of the seating suggests not much more has been done to the auditorium since, though it’s otherwise a comfortably intimate, rectangular space with 774 seats distributed between Parkett/Orchester and two upper tiers. A neat widget on the website shows what the view is like from different parts of the theatre. The venue is on one of the main shopping streets, approximately ten minutes’ walk from Hagen Hbf. Note that the box office (including Abendkasse) is in an annexe to the right-hand side of the main frontage and difficult to find from inside the foyer. Hagen uses the semi-stagione system with extended, overlapping runs that also feature musicals.

2015/16 repertoire: Die Zauberflöte, Fidelio, Madama Butterfly, Das Land des Lächelns, Jonny spielt auf (Krenek), Eugene Onegin, Der Rosenkavalier

Reviews of performances in Hagen: Vanessa (Barber)

Tickets: €15–38, bookable online.

Practicalities: It’s possible to stay in Hagen, but other than on a flying visit it may prove preferable to stay in neighbouring Dortmund, Essen or Wuppertal for their greater general cultural attractions and connectibility.

Nearby (average journey times by train / per-hour frequency pre-performance / per-hour frequency post-performance): Wuppertal (25/3/1), Essen (39/2/1), Dortmund (30/1/2).


Theater Krefeld is the northern arm of the two-city Theater Krefeld-Mönchengladbach operation (see below for Mönchengladbach) and uses the ‘semi-stagione’ scheduling system. The two theatres share an orchestra, the Lower Rhine (Niederrhein) Symphony, meaning that although seasons run concurrently, individual performances broadly alternate in short batches between the two venues and it is possible to see a couple of different operas in the same theatre on consecutive nights. Although Mönchengladbach and Krefeld are only 25km or a 20-minute train journey apart, the theatres enjoy distinct audiences, as suggested by the fact that a new production given in one venue one season will usually be presented afresh in the other the following year. Repertoire is an eclectic mixture of popular classics with some rarer material – the company was the only one outside the Wagnerian heartland of Leipzig/Berlin to present Rienzi in the composer’s bicentenary year, for example.

Theatre: a modern building situated to the north of the city centre and a good 20-minute walk from Krefeld Hbf, or a five-minute tram ride. Theater Krefeld (right) has an intimate auditorium seating 674 between Parkett and a single balcony.

2015/16 repertoire: Peter Grimes, My Fair Lady, Il barbiere di Siviglia, Die Schone und das Biest (Spohr), Les contes d'Hoffmann

Tickets: €12-38, bookable online and printable.

Practicalities: there’s a convenient Ibis Budget hotel near the station and places to eat in the shopping streets between the Hbf and the theatre, but it’s not the most inspiring place to base oneself for more than a single night.

Daytime: there’s not much else to keep you in this city, but it provides convenient rail links to the historic towns of Kleve and Xanten to the northwest, as well as to Düsseldorf and Cologne.

Nearby (average journey times by train / per-hour frequency pre-performance / per-hour frequency post-performance): Duisburg (20/3/2), Düsseldorf (35/5/3), Essen (40/2/2), Mönchengladbach/Rheydt (22/3/2).


Theater Mönchengladbach is one half of the Theater Krefeld–Mönchengladbach operation (see above for Krefeld) and uses the ‘semi-stagione’ scheduling system. The two theatres share an orchestra, the Lower Rhine (Niederrhein) Symphony, meaning that although seasons run concurrently, individual performances broadly alternate in short batches between the two venues and it is possible to see a couple of different operas in the same theatre on consecutive nights. Although Mönchengladbach and Krefeld are only 25km or a 20-minute train journey apart, the theatres enjoy distinct audiences, as suggested by the fact that a new production given in one venue one season will usually be presented afresh in the other the following year. Repertoire, though limited in number of productions each season, is an eclectic mixture of popular classics with some rarer material – the company was the only one outside the Wagnerian heartland of Leipzig/Berlin to present Rienzi in the composer’s bicentenary year, for example.

Theatre: just to confuse matters, Theater Mönchengladbach is not in Mönchengladbach itself, but in the neighbouring town/suburb of Rheydt, six minutes south by train – the generously lobbied postwar building (90% of Rheydt was bombed in the war) sits in a little park just a few minutes’ walk from Rheydt Hbf. Its plain, square auditorium seats c.778 divided between Parkett and Balkon.

2015/16 repertoire: Un ballo in maschera, Der Rosenkavalier, Katya Kabanova

Reviews of performances in Mönchengladbach: Les contes d'Hoffmann

Tickets: €12-38, bookable online and printable.

Practicalities: if not using the area as a base, there’s little reason not to stay in Rheydt itself: Parkhotel Hayma ( is reasonably priced and just across the road from the park and theatre. Restaurants and shopping streets are within walking distance. With one of Germany’s major football teams in the vicinity, hotels can get heavily booked out on home match nights. Otherwise, central Mönchengladbach can be reached by twice-hourly trains and additional local buses after performances.

Daytime: there’s little to see in Rheydt, so head to Mönchengladbach itself – this was only 60% destroyed by the RAF and a few older buildings survive, notably the Münster, or abbey church, on the top of the hill that forms the historic heart of the city (church closed Mondays) and a few fragments of the former city walls. There’s also one of the country’s leading contemporary art museums, the Abteiberg (, also closed Mondays), all about 15 minutes’ walk uphill from Mönchengladbach Hbf. Aachen is an hour away and Düsseldorf 20 minutes.

Nearby: Krefeld, Düsseldorf, Aachen, though late-evening train connections are thin on the ground.


Wuppertaler Bühnen has unfortunately recently lost its whole operatic ensemble (and closed its separate Schauspielhaus) in a drastic cost-cutting exercise, and a reduced roster of operas - only half a dozen in 2015/16 compared with eight or more in previous seasons - will now be cast with guest singers. Yet artistically, the company has been on a roll and always seems to throw up something worth travelling for each season, culminating in a Parsifal of international stature in March 2015. Performances are given at the Opernhaus in the Barmen district of the city, also the home of the world-renowned Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal contemporary dance company. The company operates almost to a ‘stagione’ system, with often only a small overlap between productions and meaning it’s usually only possible to see a single work in one short visit.

Theatre: an intimate, modern, semi-circular auditorium in a reconstructed Jugendstil shell from 1905, seating c.360 in the stalls, c.150 in the first tier and c.120 in the second tier. Good sight-lines from most seats, though rows 1-3 and 5 of the stalls are not raked.

2015/16 repertoire: Eugene Onegin, Lulu, Madama Butterfly, West Side Story, plus revivals of St John Passion, Tosca

Reviews of performances in Wuppertal: Krol Roger (Szymanowski), Parsifal

Tickets: €8-41, bookable online and printable.

Practicalities: Wuppertal, the one-time textiles hub of Germany, is a ribbon city strung out for some 13km along the leafy valley of the Wupper river, and a conglomeration of formerly separate towns. The opera house is adjacent to Barmen DB station and close to Adler Brücke station on the Schwebebahn, the ‘swinging railway’ that is suspended over the river and is the city’s main transport link. Most of the hotels and other infrastructure, though, are in Elberfeld, close to Wuppertal Hauptbahnhof and some ten minutes to the west by Schwebebahn (an easy connection). There’s a vast redevelopment of the Hauptbahnhof frontage underway until 2017, which is making getting between station and town a bit of a hassle, but it’s still manageable. Wuppertal is second only to Essen in convenience as a base to stay while visiting different theatres in the region. Especially if you are using Wuppertal as a base, it’s worth considering staying in one of the handful of hotels that provides a ‘free’ (ie included) Ruhr-wide travel pass (worth €27 a day and valid on all non-Intercity transport, including the Schwebebahn) for the duration of your stay, including the InterCity and Central hotels. Apart from the theatre café there’s nowhere to eat immediately close to the Opera House, and in Elberfeld, the Luisenviertel offers more restaurants than the central shopping area.

Daytime: Riding the Schwebebahn is an attraction in itself. Elberfeld is home to a leading art collection, the Von der Heydt Museum, and there are several concentrations of grand villas built by textile magnates in the late 19th century worth wandering past, particularly in the Briller and Zoo areas – pick up a walking guide from the Tourist Office at Schloßbeiche 40. Near the Opera House in Barmen is the birthplace of Friedrich Engels (now a museum) and behind it a further museum of early industry. For a more rural experience, take the S7 train to Solingen-Schaberg and explore the picturesque, wooded lower Wupper valley on foot, with a chance to marvel at the engineering wonder of the Müngsten Bridge, the highest steel railway bridge in Germany, and visit Schloß Burg, the one-time seat of the Dukes of Berg, now a regional museum covering the history of the Bergischer Land. Otherwise, Cologne is only 45 minutes away from Wuppertal by train and much of the rest of the region is equally accessible.

Nearby (average journey times by train / per-hour frequency pre-performance / per-hour frequency post-performance): Düsseldorf (25/4/2), Hagen (25/3/1), Essen (46/3/1), Dortmund (49/1/1), Cologne (45/3/2).

Disclaimer: this guide has been compiled in good faith using facts available at time of writing, but please double-check practical matters – repertoire, prices, train frequency etc – with the appropriate websites and organisations before making any travel or ticketing arrangements.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Parsifal in Wuppertal; Meistersinger in Mainz; Lohengrin in Pforzheim - Spring/Summer 2015

From the November 2015 issue of The Wagner Journal

Parsifal (Tilmann Unger, 2nd left) watches as
Amfortas (Thomas Gazheli) pays for his betrayal of the community

Parsifal – Oper Wuppertal – 15 March 2015

Parsifal – Tilmann Unger
Kundry – Kathrin Göring
Amfortas – Thomas Gazheli
Klingsor – Andreas Daum
Gurnemanz – Thorsten Grümbel
Titurel – Martin Blasius
First Grail Knight – Andreas Beinhauer
Second Grail Knight – Peter Paul
First Squire/A Voice from Above – Lucie Ceralová
Second Squire – Johannes Grau
Third Squire – Markus Murke
Fourth Squire – Mine Yücel
Flowermaidens – Sandra Borgarts, Lucie Ceralová, Carla Hussong, Ralitsa Ralinova, Silja Schindler, Mine Yücel
Chorus and Extra Chorus of Wuppertaler Bühnen
Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra (Sinfonieorchester Wuppertal)

Conductor – Toshiyuki Kamioka
Director – Thilo Reinhardt
Designer – Harald Thor
Costumes – Katharina Gault
Video – Sönke Feick

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Staatstheater Mainz – 5 July 2015

Hans Sachs – Derrick Ballard
Walther von Stolzing – Alexander Spemann
Eva – Vida Mikneviciute
Veit Pogner – Hans-Otto Weiß
David – Martin Koch
Magdalena – Linda Sommerhage
Sixtus Beckmesser – Armin Kolarczyk
Kunz Vogelgesang – Max Friedrich Schäffer
Konrad Nachtigall – Johannes Held
Fritz Kothner/Nightwatchman – Peter Felix Bauer
Balthasar Zorn – Christopher Kaplan
Ulrich Eisslinger – Christoph Wittmann
Augustin Moser – Scott Ingham
Hermann Ortel – Manos Kia
Hans Schwartz – Georg Lickleder
Hans Foltz – Stephan Bootz

Chorus and Extra Chorus of Staatstheater Mainz
Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Mainz

Conductor – Hermann Bäumer
Director – Ronny Jakubaschk
Designer – Matthias Koch
Lighting – Alexander Dölling

Lohengrin – Theater Pforzheim – 10 July 2015

Lohengrin – Reto Rosin
Elsa – Tiina-Maija Koskela
Friedrich von Telramund – Hans Gröning
Ortrud – Anna Agathonos
King Henry – Matthias Degen
Herald – Aykan Aydi

Chorus and Extra Chorus of Theater Pforzheim
Badische Philharmonie Pforzheim

Conductor – Markus Huber
Director – Wolf Widder
Designer – Joanna Surowiec

Enthused by the experience of exploring Wagner performances in Germany away from the big, international houses in the anniversary season of 2013 (see review in TWJ, Nov. 2013), I ventured back earlier this year and, by coincidence, alighted upon two of the dramas that share the idea of an outsider transforming the status quo. It’s a theme that the directors of both Wuppertal Opera’s Parsifal and Staatstheater Mainz’s Die Meistersinger made central to their concepts, emphasising the role of both Parsifal and Walther as agents of change in deeply conservative, rule-obsessed societies.

Thilo Reinhardt’s Parsifal, supported by Harald Thor’s meticulous designs, relocates the grail order to an elite sporting academy where Gurnemanz is the track-suited gym master (a neat way of emphasising his lowly position in the eyes of the tail-coated academic masters/knights). That this is an institution that glories in blood-lust becomes clear when Parsifal enters: as part of some arcane hazing ritual, he has shot the school acrobat (the swan) with an archery bow and rather than attend to the wounded athlete, all the students and masters can do is laugh at his misfortune.

The Transformation Music takes us to a grand initiation function for the new pupils, who include Parsifal. The ‘uncovering of the grail’ – which here seems to be symbolised by a ceremonial cloak – entails a gruesome blood-letting ceremony in which Amfortas is strung up in Christ-like pose and the new recruits have to open up new wounds with their fencing swords before his blood is collected and passed around for consumption among the assembled men. Amfortas’s wounds, plural, it would seem, are inflicted by the community he has dishonoured as revenge for allowing the renegade master Klingsor to steal the spear under his watch.

Parsifal’s response to this violence, as appears to be the case at the start of Act II, is to have run amok among his former fellow pupils, who are seen mourned over by the school cheerleading team – the Flowermaidens. His crucial encounter with Kundry is presented as a vision. At the kiss, she takes up Amfortas’s crucifixion pose from Act I, which triggers Parsifal’s memory and response. And at the end of the act, as if in a dream, Parsifal deflects Klingsor’s spear by simply covering his eyes and ‘waking’ from the enclosed world of the vision.

The curtain opens in Act III on a vision of complete devastation. A grey-haired Parsifal arrives in UN peace-keeping uniform with a posse of war-wounded colleagues. When they demand the uncovering of the grail, Parsifal saves Amfortas from further torture and creates a funeral pyre for the school’s emblematic cloak, spear and old texts. A new order, free from the violence and victimisation of the academy’s former ethos, is welcomed in as the members of the chorus step forward and kneel to greet the closing music coming from the pit, as if to say art and beauty will now transcend evil and provide redemption.

Reinhardt’s approach, then, is more than a simple gloss – it has something deep to convey that is in line with if not exactly the same as Wagner’s conception, and it is in the friction between these two visions – and between action and sung text – that greater comprehension can be found. Perhaps its overriding achievement is in the way it conveys Parsifal’s own growth as a person, from a cocky, ignorant youth thrust into a bewildering community to a mature, worldly-wise man whose experience of and participation in the evils of that community transform him into its saviour, the redeemer who is himself redeemed. This characterisation was enhanced by the performance of Tilmann Unger in the title role. This young German tenor has the youth to be convincing as the ‘pure fool’ as well as the maturity as an actor to convey the old soldier and brings a baritonal depth and charismatic, lyrical warmth to every line he sings. His performance stood out, but not at the expense of his colleagues, from the strikingly intense Kundry of Kathrin Göring to Thorsten Grümbel’s determined Gurnemanz and Thomas Gazheli’s torture victim of an Amfortas, all vocally at one with their roles. Toshiyuki Kamioka’s conducting, in keeping with modern trends, kept Wagner’s musical tapestry moving yet found the space to delineate its many threads of line and colour.

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Mainz's 'green' Meistersinger
The city of Mainz can lay a certain claim to ownership of Meistersinger: Wagner was staying in neighbouring Wiesbaden while visiting his publisher, Schott, when by his own account a vision of ‘golden’ Mainz’s skyline silhouetted across the Rhine inspired him to begin the Prelude. And in its own way, Mainz’s resident opera company returned the compliment by staging a fresh, witty production, performed with the consummate sense of a company at the peak of its collaborative power.

Set in a milieu somewhere between Brave New World and The Wizard of Oz’s Munchkinland, Ronny Jakubaschk’s vision for the work creates a regimented society where green is the only permitted colour, where the Lehrbuben form the floor-mopping drone class, where the Masters are indeed the masters and control every aspect of society and where a machine is the arbiter of artistic rectitude. Into this apparently benevolent dictatorship of the Mastersingers enters the daringly red-headed Walther, and his difference begins to have its effects on this stultifying order: Eva is the first to be enticed, and her bright green hair and clothing gradually take on more red as the evening progresses until by the end Walther’s colour has taken her over completely. The moiré-wheeled machine, doing Beckmesser’s job of marking the young knight’s first attempt at a master song, overheats from the novelty and audacity of his singing and begins to turn a shade of pink itself. Kothner’s doubling as the Nightwatchman, meanwhile, emphasises the hold the Masters have enjoyed over the populace, though his powerlessness to quell the riot suggests the people are already on the turn. Of the Masters themselves, only Sachs seems willing to accept and welcome Walther’s difference, though never going so far as to become coloured by it himself. At the end, he firmly asserts his ‘Habt acht!’ before realising that the cause is lost as, in the closing bars, the liberated Eva leads a peaceful revolution in which all – Masters and people – at last intermingle as one beneath a rosy glow.

It would all seem rather simplistic an interpretation were it not carried out with such élan. Matthias Koch’s sets and costumes are integral to that success – in their simplicity and stylisation they pay homage to the austerity of Wieland Wagner, yet Jakubaschk’s direction ensures that characters aren’t reduced to automatons beneath the monochrome visuals. One particular coup comes during Sachs’s Wahn Monologue, when the set revolves to reveal a frozen tableau from the previous night’s riot, complete with Beckmesser in full scream while being throttled by David and everyone held in uncomfortable-looking ‘mid-air’ poses until the scene has disappeared from view. Apart from the riot, stage clutter is minimal – barely more than a last for Sachs’s cobbler’s workshop and a podium for the song contest – very much putting the onus on the singers and the music. While Wuppertal has recently had to lay off its house ensemble to save it from bankruptcy, Mainz’s still evidently thrives: Derrick Ballard’s Sachs and Alexander Spemann’s Walther were just two who were cast from within the resident company. Armin Kolarczyk’s Beckmesser, ‘borrowed’ from the Karlsruhe ensemble, was a scheduled replacement for a house singer at this performance and Mainz’s indisposed David was covered with remarkable assurance at short notice by Martin Koch from Oper Köln. In all, it was evidence of a marvellous company achievement, without a weak link in the cast, though one might have wished for more vocal heft from Spemann in riding the orchestra and, if being pernickety, Ballard could have brought greater warmth to his more lyrical moments. Kolarczyk played the hurdygurdy-wielding Beckmesser vocally and dramatically ‘straight’, rather than for laughs (he and Walther shook and made up amid the concluding celebrations of Act III), and Vida Mikneviciute made Eva a more assertive character than usual, mirrored in the bright vibrancy of her singing. Mainz’s chorus and orchestra did the company proud, and conductor Hermann Bäumer held everything together with the skill of a master himself.

Two highly ‘interventionist’ approaches to staging Wagner, then, both of which succeed on their own terms, in their internal logic and in the insight they provide on the themes underlying the dramas. The composer’s detailed plotting may sometimes go out the window, but is it too far-fetched to suggest that he was more concerned with idea than story-telling specifics in any case? Better this approach than the kind of bland narrative that marked this summer’s Lohengrin at Theater Pforzheim, where Wolf Widder’s modern-dress production promised much (and was tremendously sung and played, with a slightly reduced orchestration) but lacked that crucial element of directorial interpretation that makes operatic theatre a living art form.