Eleven times as marvelous?

Germany’s largest opera house was built in the 1990s on the site of an old railway station, incorporating the station’s elaborate entrance hall and front façade.

The station itself had been built a century earlier as the terminus of a 4.3 km branch line. At first glance this might seem like an unusually large and fancy terminus for a short branch line, but there was a reason, since the line served to bring the rich, the super-rich and the ultra-rich into the center of Baden-Baden so they could take the waters, attend the horse races or simply promenade and admire the other rich people who were doing the same.

Entrance hall with old-timey ticket windows

In its heyday, this branch railway line was used not only for shuttle trains, but also for direct long-distance trains from Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Luzern and Munich, all terminating in Baden-Baden. It was also served by through carriages (Kurswagen) that were uncoupled from one train and coupled onto another, to enable a direct connection that would not otherwise have been possible.

Decorations on the walls and ceiling of the entrance hall

By the 1970s, the rich, the super-rich and the ultra-rich no longer traveled by train but by car — chauffeur-driven or not, depending on the level of wealth. The branch train line had grade crossings which interfered slightly with car traffic, so of course it was discontinued and the tracks were soon dismantled, leaving only the elaborate terminal building, which remained standing because it was a listed building of special architectural or historical interest. The mayor of Baden-Baden was furious about this at the time, since he wanted to have the station demolished to make room for a parking lot.

Auditorium of the Festival Hall Baden-Baden

The opera and concert hall which was built here in the 1990s is called the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden (Festival Hall) and seats 2,500 people. Unlike most of the other opera houses in Germany, it does not have its own ensemble or orchestra, but aims to attract the rich, the super-rich and the ultra-rich by presenting the world’s most famous and prestigious orchestras, singers and musicians. The program booklet devotes twenty pages to listing the patrons and donors whose contributions pay for a third of the operating budget.

Balcony seating in the Festival Hall

The opera I saw in Baden-Baden in 2018 was Adriana Lecouvreur by Francesco Cilea (1866-1950), an opera I had seen several times in Frankfurt over the previous six years.

For my seat in the middle of the second balcony in Baden-Baden I paid € 154.00, whereas four weeks earlier I had paid € 13.50 for a comparable seat to see the same opera in Frankfurt, so Baden-Baden was over eleven times more expensive.

The title role in Baden-Baden was supposed to have been sung by Anna Netrebko, who I’m sure would have been marvelous but probably not eleven times as marvelous as Angela Meade, the world-famous soprano who sang the role in Frankfurt.

The orchestra in Baden-Baden was the Mariinsky Orchestra from St. Petersburg, conducted by Valery Gergiev. They were brilliant, but so was the Frankfurt opera orchestra under Steven Sloane.

Program booklet

The staging I saw in Baden-Baden was also from the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, by the celebrated French stage director and set designer Isabelle Partiot-Pieri. She was present in Baden-Baden and even came out for a bow at the end of the show. Her staging was excellent, and in some places even more convincing than Vincent Boussard’s staging in Frankfurt.

The costumes in Baden-Baden were also fine, but in this case Frankfurt had the edge with the costumes by Christian Lacroix, who is deservedly one of the most famous French fashion designers.

Frankfurt also had the edge when it came to casting the role of the Countess of Bouillon, the ‘other woman’, the ‘rival’, the ‘evil countess’ who was rumored to have killed Adriana Lecouvreur by sending her a bouquet of violets dipped in poison. For this kind of role, nobody can top Frankfurt’s dramatic mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner.

View from the third level of the Festival Hall in Baden-Baden

A few days before the performance I received a long e-mail from the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden. It began: “A few hours ago we learned that Anna Netrebko has become infected with the Noro virus and has to spend most of her next few days in quarantine with her family. Therefore, she and her husband Yusif Eyvazov cannot sing the two scheduled performances of Adriana Lecouvreur on 20 and 23 July 2018 in the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.”

This news did not bother me in the slightest (I thought of what our army medic used to say in Vietnam: ‘That’s a catsasstrophy!’), but I amused myself by imagining the consternation of people who go to the opera only to see and hear the big-name stars.

Applause for Adriana Lecouvreur in Baden-Baden

As it turned out, her replacement Tatiana Serjan was fine, and the substitute tenor Migran Agadzhanyan was sensational. Nonetheless, the management of the Festspielhaus is giving all of us (nearly five thousand people with tickets for the two performances) a compensation. “For every ticket bought for Adriana Lecouvreur you will receive a voucher for a 50% discount on the purchase of a ticket of your choice for the upcoming Festspielhaus season 2018/2019.” So I might actually go there again, who knows?

By now you might be wondering why I went to Baden-Baden in the first place, and the reason is the same as Leporello’s explanation, in Mozart’s opera, of why his master Don Giovanni seduced elderly women as well as younger ones: delle vecchie fa conquista / pel piacer di porle in lista. = He seduces the older women for the pleasure of adding them to the list.

In the first act of Don Giovanni, Leporello shows the list to Donna Elvira and summarizes: 640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey and of course the winner is Don Giovanni’s home country, Spain, with 1003. The opera in Mannheim projected graphs and pie-charts during Leporello’s aria to illustrate this.

My own list is much more innocent: before Baden-Baden I had seen performances at 62 German opera houses, so Baden-Baden was the 63rd.

More applause for Adriana Lecouvreur in Baden-Baden

Despite the paucity of my initial motivation, it turned out to be an enjoyable opera evening. Isabelle Partiot-Pieri had some really good ideas for her staging, one of which was to introduce the philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) as a silent character. At the beginning he is standing at an upright desk and writing with a quill-tipped pen. What he is writing promptly appears as a projection on a gauze curtain: an elegy to Adrienne Lecouvreur that he wrote after her death.

Que vois-je ? Quel objet ! Quoi ! Ces lèvres charmantes,
Quoi ! Ces yeux d’où partaient ces flammes éloquentes,
Eprouvent du trépas les livides horreurs !
Muses, Grâces, Amours, dont elle fut l’image,
O mes dieux et les siens, secourez votre ouvrage !

(You can find the entire poem here.)

It turns out that Voltaire as a young playwright in Paris was one of the many ‘admirers’ of the actress Adrienne Lecouvreur, who starred in at least three of his plays at the Comédie Française in the 1720s. He described himself as her lover, but their degree of intimacy remains unclear. In any case, he was at her bedside when she died (probably not of poisoned violets) on March 20, 1730 at age 37. He later wrote the elegy to express his outrage at the Catholic Church for refusing to give her a proper burial.

In Isabelle Partiot-Pieri’s staging of the opera the silent Voltaire re-appears several times at appropriate moments. He is also by Adriana’s side when she dies at the end, but so is Maurizio, Count Moritz of Saxony, who in real life had by this time moved on to one of his other mistresses.

Buses outside after the performance

After the performance there were nine of these busses lined up outside the Festival Hall, to transport spectators back to the nearby cities of Mannheim, Heidelberg, Heilbronn, Bretten, Karlsruhe, Pforzheim, Stuttgart, Offenburg and Freiburg. This service is organized by the Festival Hall and costs 20 to 35 Euros round-trip, depending on the distance.

My photos and text in this post are from 2018.

See also: Excursion to Baden-Baden.

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