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.