Travel logs
2013 Wagner-Verdi Pilgrimage
September 27
After arrival on a bright sunny Friday, our group set out to discover Leipzig, the City of Trade and Music. Situated at the crossing point of two famous trade routes, the King's Road (Santiago de Compostela to Kiev) and the Imperial Road (Italy to the Baltic Sea), Leipzig has secured itself worldwide fame as a trading center, hosting three international trade fairs a year by the 18th century. Reminiscent of its past glory are the so-called trade fair palaces, which once exhibited and sold goods from all over the world and now house fancy shops selling everything from fur to clothing to jewelry. The City of Music acquainted us with Bach, Wagner, Mendelssohn and Schumann. Following the "music trail," we visited St. Nicholas church with its grandiose Ladegast organ of 6804 pipes, and passed by sites connected to Wagner (Alte Nikolaischule, where he studied from 1828 to 1831, and the Young Wagner Monument) before attending a motets service at the 13th-century St. Thomas Church, where Bach was master of music for 27 years. We had the unique opportunity of hearing the world-famous Thomanerchor, or Boys' Choir, in their “home space” – an unforgettable experience. Dinner was at Weinstock, a historic old establishment facing the Market Square.
September 28
We took a leisurely stroll this morning through the elegant, posh streets dotted with little shops, beautiful Art Nouveau trade palaces, passing by the headquarters of the university. Founded in 1409 as the second oldest university in Germany, the main building of the university today exhibits very modern architecture: glass, steel, and metal unite in an imposing Gothic church-like exterior, the interior of which also functions as an assembly hall. We learned from our knowledgeable guide Monika that Leipzig boasts the very first Conservatory of Music as well as the oldest surviving coffee house, which was Schumann's favorite hangout. Next to the St. Thomas Church is Mendelssohn's statue, which, as we learned, is a copy of the one destroyed by the Nazis, and was placed here strategically, as he is the most important figure in the revival....of Bach's music. The Bach Museum offered us manuscripts, paintings, the history of Bach's life in Leipzig, even the family genealogy of the famous composer, who put it together himself. We also learned that most of his forefathers and relatives were musicians of one sort or another, and Bach was not only a famous organist, but an organ technician as well! Next was the unique Collection of Musical Instruments, bought by the city of Leipzig from a collector in Cologne, and currently housed in the Art Deco Grassi Museum. The collection, the largest and best in Germany, introduced us to experimental or proto-pianos called "hammer instruments" made by Bartolomeo Cristofori in the early 18th century, and unusual objects such as violins made of porcelain or nails, glass trumpets, serpent bassoons, ivory flutes, etc. Lunch was a hearty affair of meat and potato dumplings, served with plenty of local beer in Auerbach’s Keller, the site of a scene in Goethe’s Faust. This afternoon some of us heard an organ concert at St. Nicholas Church, which offered rarely heard 19th and 20th-century pieces, such as Pierre Cholley’s Rumba sur les Grands Jeux, Andreas Willscher’s Variations on Paganini’s 24th Caprice, and Denis Bédard’s Eight Invocations. Tonight, we all attended the International Mendelssohn Prize celebration concert with the venerable Kurt Masur conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Schumann’s Second Symphony.
September 29
Some of our travelers attended church services at the Thomas Church and others at the Nicolai Church; both groups heard a Bach cantata appropriate to the day. We then drove to Weimar, arriving in time to settle in and get a quick lunch before seeing Lohengrin in the venue where it was premiered in 1850. The audience gave a very well deserved ovation to the choir and the Weimar Staatskapelle under the baton of Stefan Solyom, singling out Andrea Baker, who sang the explosive character of Ortrud, for especially enthusiastic applause. However, the production did not convince because of directorial decisions that did not make sense. The production is set as a play-within-a-play, with villagers cast in the roles cast and the game started. Soon reality and game merge, and we are confused as to what is play and what is reality. The dark, sinister, uncomfortable atmosphere is accentuated by rather scant stage objects. One gets the impression that the director is going somewhere but where is impossible to decipher! For instance: a red tricycle that the little Gottfried is sitting on at the beginning (practically the only colorful object in the production) which, though spotlighted, never reappears. In any case the play-within-the-play solution offered the director free hand to manipulate the plot: for instance Telramund’s assassination in the third act simply does not take place. We are left pondering: just what is the point here? As is so often the case, especially with Wagner: the musical performances saved the day.
September 30: Eisenach
Today we spent the day Eisenach: a little town of 50,000, where two of the most important figures in the history of the Lutheran Church were born, almost 200 years apart - Luther and Bach. After visiting Luther's birth house, we explored the elegant Reuter Wagner villa, the last home of Fritz Reuter - a famous but now forgotten Northern German poet, novelist, and artist of the 19th century. We learned that Wagner had no connection to Reuter; in fact, he only stayed in Eisenach three times. It turns out that an Australian Wagner fan amassed a collection of 20,000 pieces, which were bought by the town at the end of the 19th century and subsequently placed in the villa, which had been willed to the city. Our next stop, however, did have a real connection to Wagner: the Wartburg Castle is the setting of the singing contest in Tannhäuser. Constructed between 1155-1172, the late Romanesque castle was never intended to be a fortification, but as a palace and symbol of power of the mighty Thuringian rulers. The castle is connected to the very revered St. Elisabeth of Hungary, who was married to the count of Thuringia at age 14, and who dedicated her short life to the poor and the ill. The castle is also connected to Luther, who was sheltered here by the duke of Saxony for 10 months (1521-1522), during which time, disguised as “Squire George,” he translated the New Testament into German. Duke Carl Alexander of Saxony collected most of the items now housed in the castle museum, which boasts portraits by Cranach the Elder. Our visit to Bach's birth house offered us a little surprise: a brief lecture/performance on musical instruments of Bach's time.
October 1: Weimar
On a cold fresh morning, we set out to explore Weimar. We walked around Goethe Park and found ourselves in front of the Art School building of Bauhaus University, the birthplace of the Bauhaus movement. The horseshoe-shaped building boasts an incredible foyer, with a freestanding spiral staircase, Rodin’s Eva and paintings by Oskar Schlemmer. We then visited the Liszt House, where the most famous pianist of the 19th century lived between 1869 and 1886. The house, a "Wagnerian luxury" in Weimar, looks much the way it did in Liszt's time, supplemented with exhibits such as memorabilia, paintings and busts of Liszt, even a Hungarian passport certificate authorizing Liszt to travel across Europe. Next was Park an der Ilm, the first English garden park in Europe, designed partly by Goethe himself. Walking among majestic linden, oak, and plane trees, we could even catch a glimpse of Goethe's garden house. The Residenzschloss, the court palace of the dukes of Weimar, a surprise: a collection of 30 Cranachs, including a portrait of Luther disguised by a beard and with sword in hand, ready to defend his ideals (1522). The fine classical style building boasts sculptures by Christian Friedrich Tieck and paintings by Tischbein. The big ballroom or banqueting hall (1800) is a total work of art: Egyptian lions, a Roman frieze, and Greek motifs abound, carefully planned by Goethe and Heinrich Gentz, a famous Berlin interior architect. The gesamtkuntswerk is repeated in the salon of Maria Pawlowna (Russian wife of Duke Carl Friedrich): there are stucco reliefs representing eight virtues, arabesque friezes, etc. Lunch was at the famous White Swan. Afterwards, we went to the Anna Amalia library, named for the Duchess of Saxony and Weimar, the patroness of the library. The Rococo Hall is a feast for the eye: intricate Rococo motifs on gilded wood, delicate archways, busts and paintings. The second upper gallery gives way to the ceiling painting, "Genius of Fame," which symbolizes art, science, and literature - the only way to reach true fame and honor. The real novelty of the room is that we see poets and artists' busts alongside those of dukes and princes - a sign that the nobility had no problems "mingling" with spirited bourgeois intellectuals!
October 2: Bayreuth
We traveled to Bayreuth today, where we first visited the Festspielhaus (1866), designed by Wagner and generously funded by King Ludwig II. The seating plan is reminiscent of a Greek amphitheater yet the interior is constructed solely of wood and air, which gives the hall incredible acoustics – it is like being inside a cello! The festival season is only a two-month period in summer, and alas, the waiting period for tickets can take up to nine years! We then took a leisurely stroll in the city center, learning about the Bayreuth dynasty, whose most famous representatives were Wilhelmina and Friedrich, Margraves of Brandenburg-Bayreuth. Much of what we see in Bayreuth today was built during their reign. The Hofgarten is one of the first English style gardens on the continent, with the famous Villa Wahnfried, Wagner's house and the Liszt Museum, which was Liszt's last home at its border. Lunch followed, with hearty German food: Tafelspitze soup, roast pork with dumplings and sauerkraut, and apple fritters with ice cream. After lunch, we made a short stop at the Ermitage, a wonderful recreational area of fifteen acres, once the summer residence of the margraves. It is a wonderland of extravagant fountains, delicate archways, mysterious grottos, an outdoor theater in the form of a Roman ruin, a sun temple, and cascades. We went on to Nuremberg for the night.
October 3: Nuremberg and Linderhof
The charming Nuremberg derives its name from "the castle built on a rocky hill," which is where the town began in the 11th century. The Old Town has the architecture of a typical medieval city, surrounded by zigzagging walls with towers and a dry moat, and cut in the middle by the Pepnitz (Piglet) River. Our valiant group braced against the brisk but brilliantly sunny morning to discover the architectural riches of Nuremberg, including the Meat Bridge, constructed in 1595 with no central pillar. Afterwards, our group went to the Palace of Justice, where the famous Nuremberg trials were held. We then drove into the Bavarian Alps to visit Linderhof Castle. Constructed between 1869 and 1878 in Rococo style, is the most intimate of all King Ludwig II's castles, and the only one that the king really lived in. One can be overwhelmed with room after room of gilded stucco and carved wood ornamentation and sconces, vases and candelabra made of precious Meissen or Nymphenburg porcelain. The Room of Mirrors tops everything that had come before. The grotto, constructed under an artificial hill, is testimony to the eccentric king’s obsession with the music of Wagner while the Moorish Pavilion is an unsurpassed example of the late 19th-century fascination with all things oriental.
October 4: Parma
Today we traveled by first class rail to Verona, where our bus awaited to take us on to Parma. After settling into our elegant and perfectly located hotel in the heart of the city, we enjoyed an early dinner before attending Simon Boccanegra at Teatro Verdi just steps from our front door.
October 5: Parma
Today we strolled through Parma’s maze of charming streets to the Baptistery and Cathedral. Built of Verona marble, the Baptistery is certainly the most outstanding example of the transition from Romanesque to Gothic art in Italy, and its interior boasts notable sculptures by Benedetto Antelami depicting the Months, the Seasons and the Signs of Zodiac. The Cathedral dome is decorated by a highly influential fresco by Antonio da Correggio, the Assumption of the Virgin (1534). The fresco features the Virgin Mary ascending through a sea of limbs, faces and swirling drapery, in a breathtaking three-dimensional illusion. Teatro Farnese, commissioned by Ranuccio Farnese in 1618 to impress the powerful Medici family (more specifically, to celebrate the passage of Cosimo II de' Medici through Parma on his way to Milan, and consolidate the relationship between the two ducal families), is an impressive Baroque theater made of wood and plaster, with statues and busts made of paper and clay, reminiscent of Palladio's Olympic Theater in Vicenza. Next on the program was the Benedictine Convent of St. Paul to see an earlier work by Correggio in a little room that hosted lunches and dinners: a scene of classical motifs of antiquity, marble images and playful cherubs, with the abbess of the convent represented as Diana. Following lunch at a favorite restaurant of locals, we visited the Toscanini House and learned about the life and work of this fascinating conductor. The birth house boasts memorabilia, paintings, posters and furniture belonging to Toscanini, and an interesting find - Robert Hupka's photos of the rehearsing Toscanini, with the imposing, dramatic gestures of the conductor against a dark background.
October 6: Cremona
Today was dedicated to Cremona, the city where the violin reached perfection 500 years ago. Our first stop was at the beautiful Romanesque Cathedral with the highest bell tower in Italy (nearly 400 feet). The church interior surprised us with amazing frescoes by Boccaccio Boccaccino in the apse, frescoes of Christ's passion in the nave. A highlight is a highly dramatic mannerist fresco of Pordenone's Crucifixion in the counter-facade: a sacred scene framed by classical columns, and we, as "spectators in a theater", witness the scene of the crucifixion laden with contorted figures, demonic horses, and stormy atmosphere. We stopped by a loggia which a sculpture representing Hercules, the mythical founder of Cremona, before visiting the recently opened violin museum. The museum boasts an invaluable collection of Guarneri, Amati and Stradivari violins, and the very tools used by Stradivari. One can learn everything there is to know about the history of the violin, the parts of a violin, how to make a violin, and prize winners in the Cremona violin making competition. We had the privilege of hearing a private performance on a 1727 Stradivari instrument, which heightened our sense of a true Stradivari - not just an amazing sound, but exceptionally clear!
October 7: Ravenna
Our first stop today was the St. Appolinare Church in Classe, 8 kms from Ravenna, dedicated to the patron saint of Ravenna. The 6th-century edifice houses a masterpiece of Byzantine art in the apse: mosaics depicting the Transfiguration. Christ is represented by a golden cross on a starry blue background, while the three apostles who were present at the Transfiguration - Peter, James and John - are represented by lambs. Moses and Elijah appear in the moment of Transfiguration, and the hand of God is also seen. On the upper part of the choir arch are the symbols of the Four Evangelists in flight, and below these figures are the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, from which twelve lambs (representing the 12 Apostles) emerge and ascend a hill toward Christ. One is often reminded how little Byzantine art has changed over the centuries! The walls of the side aisles are lined with magnificent examples of Early Christian sarcophagi, most of Ravenna archbishops, dating from the 5th to 8th centuries. San Vitale Church in Ravenna was next on the program: another 6th-century church with a different architectural solution – an octagonal building with a big central space beneath a cupola. The ceilings of the choir and apse are adorned with magnificent Byzantine mosaics in green and gold, with scenes related to the Eucharist and the Old and New Testament. The onlooker is constantly reminded of the divine nature of Jesus, whether by animal or plant motifs (peacock, grapes, etc.), who sits on the globe of the world, flanked by San Vitale (who is being handed a martyr's crown), two angels, and Bishop Ecclesius, who founded the church. The last point on our itinerary was the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the ruler of the western world for 12 years, 425-37 AD (as regent for her son, the emperor Valentiniano III.) It is unlikely that she was buried here, but the impressive small brick chapel has an entire vault covered in exceptionally beautiful mosaic work dating from the 5th century. There are stars (more than 800!) on a blue sky arranged in concentric circles around a golden Latin cross. Perhaps the most important mosaic is an early depiction of Christ as the Good Shepherd, located over the entrance. Another fascinating mosaic represents an open cabinet with four books inside, labeled with the names of the Four Evangelists. The books are clearly the Four Gospels of the New Testament, and this is an important early depiction of them as a canonical set. We ended the day with a mosaic-making demonstration, which taught us the basic technique of this ancient art.
October 8: Modena
Our first stop was an elegant art deco villa built in 1911, the setting for scenes in Bertolucci's "Novecento," starring Robert de Niro and Gerard Depardieu. The tour of the Davide’s acetaio and villa was one of the highlight of our Wagner-Verdi trip. We toured the villa, which offered an amazing collection avantgarde paintings and art deco pieces. Then we saw the rows of Balsamic battery (balsamic barrels) that have been aging in the attic. We were told about the traditional way to produce balsamic vinegar, and learned to appreciate the difference between commercially sold products and those of the Modena vinegar consortium. Then, we tasted four different types of balsamico: the young Trebbiano, the 6-year-old Nerone, the 12-year-old Affinado, and the Extravecchio, 20 years old or more, also known as the "dark gold of Modena." The tasting was completed with balsamico on gelato, which was quite a hit with our travelers. Next was wine tasting, in the heart of the Lambrusco-producing region, in the hills beyond Modena. The slightly fizzy, champagne-like Lambrusco wines, such as the Pignoletto (white), or the Canava (red) were served with cicciolata sausage, parmigiano cheese and crackers. Lunch was at beautiful B&B hidden above the hills of Castelvetro. The owner, Leone Monticelli greeted each of us and offered us a spectacular treat, appealing to all senses - a delicious 5-course meal set against the backdrop of the vineyard covered hills, to the accompaniment of Pavarotti's arias. We really felt like we were part of his family, dining with Leone and his wife at his dinner table – truly an unforgettable experience!  The afternoon continued with a visit to Modena, mainly to see the Cathedral. We admired the elaborate sculptures of the medieval artist Wiligelmo adorning the facade of the church, and the unusual representation of the legend of King Arthur on the so-called “fish market” door of the Cathedral.
October 9: Verdi-day
We started with a brief stop at the inn in the tiny village of Roncole where Verdi was born; even as a child, his musical talent was unmistakable, but had he not come to the attention of a wealthy man in the nearby town of Busseto, serious musical study might well have eluded him. The remainder of our morning was spent at the home of that man, the Casa Barezzi, where, in addition to a wealth of Verdi memorabilia, we found furnishings from the days when Verdi lived here and fell in love with Barezzi’s daughter whom he eventually married. That is a long story, which, along with many others, was told with delightful charm by a docent of the house. We then visited the tiny Teatro Verdi (which the composer unwittingly paid for but steadfastly refused to attend) in the local castle where we were allowed to slip into the loge boxes to listen in on a rehearsal of Falstaff. We also stopped by the Pallavicino palace in which a new (and not very successful) Verdi exhibition has been installed. Much more memorable was lunch at I due Foscari, named for one of Verdi’s less-well-known operas. Afterwards, we visited Sant’Agata, the villa nearby. One really could feel the master’s presence as we passed through the rooms where heand his second wife, Giuseppina lived in peace for many years. But wait . . . there’s more! What would a day be without a gastronomic adventure? Our last stop was at the cheese museum in Soragna where we learned how real Parmesan cheese is made and sampled the goods, of course!
October 10:  Sabbioneta
This morning, we headed to Sabbioneta, a town founded by the great Vespasiano Gonzaga in the 16th century, which still lies inside the fortification walls, very little changed over the centuries, thanks largely to neglect. Everything in the palace reminds you of the grandeur and refined taste of the duke: the wooden equestrian statues of exquisite quality, the intricate carved cedar wood ceilings, the beautiful classical frescoes adorning the ceilings and the walls. When Vespasiano died without heirs, the town became an inconsequential backwater. However, its sleepiness and timelessness enchant you in unexpected ways, be it in the “ah!” moment at entering the tucked-away Teatro all’Antica or the Jewish synagogue, or the imposing Corridor Grande, a long gallery extending from the Palazzo Giardino, which once housed Vespasiano’s vast antique collection. Lunch followed at a Michelin-star restaurant, which gave us the opportunity to taste sbrisolona, a deliciously sinful dessert made with cornmeal and regular flour, nuts, and eggs. Next on the busy agenda was Fontanellato Castle, built for the Pallavicino family and later acquired by the Sanvitale family, with its famous Parmigianino room. In a small rectangular room, the story of Diana and Acteon from the Metamorphosis of Ovid unfolds: Akteon is transformed into a stag and then killed by his own dogs just because he stumbled upon the bathing Diana, naked. The early mannerist composition reminds the onlooker of the cruelty of fate.
The evening was dedicated to Verdi’s 200th birthday gala celebration at the Teatro Regio. Several short works “opened” but the focus of the evening was a concert performance of the second act of Aida plus many encores, capped off by the brindisi from La Traviata: “Let's drink, from the joyful chalices since the beauty is in bloom. Let's drink, my love, so that love among the chalices will produce even hotter kisses.”Corr
October 11-13 Milan
On the program for the Milan extension: the Poldi Pezzoli Collection, the La Scala Museum, and the Brera Gallery: all were within a five-minute walk of our delightful hotel, Milan’s first “Zero Emissions” hotel.  The first is housed in the 17th-century home of Count Pezzoli, a 19th-century art collector, displaying his very personal collection of paintings, sculpture, jewelry, tapestries, glasswork and porcelain. The Brera, located in an elegant eighteenth-century Palazzo, offers unforgettable masterpieces: Mantegna's Dead Christ, Pietro della Francesca's Montefeltro Altarpiece, Bellini’s huge canvas on St. Mark preaching in Alexandria, Raffaello’s Marriage of Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, and Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus. The La Scala Museum has recently been renovated and enlarged, allowing the visitor to see memorabilia of the generations of great singers and conductors who have performed there.  Of course, everyone in the group wanted to see Leonardo’s Last Supper, which we happily arranged.
On the eve of our departure, we all squeezed into the tiny Cafe La Scala for an aperitif and antipasti before walking across the street for the opening performance of Don Carlo at La Scala, with the venerable Rene Pape still sounding magnificent in the role of Philip II.