- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2007

MUNICH — Music lives in Munich, and life is good.

It is not too early to plan a winter trip — certainly for next winter if not on the spur of the moment right now — to the Bavarian State Opera and Ballet as it enters an exciting new era. Although the Munich Opera Festival rightly is celebrated and promises to be especially interesting in June, it is in winter that this city and its opera company offer delights that are unsurpassed in the music world.

Here is a company on the move, welcoming its new American musical director, Kent Nagano, and building on a rich operatic tradition: The dynamic Mr. Nagano is the latest in an illustrious line of music directors stretching from Hans von Bulow to Richard Strauss, Clemens Krauss, Sir Georg Solti and, most recently, Zubin Mehta.

The American connection goes deeper than the arrival of the maestro from Berkeley, Calif.: The Bavarian State Opera and Ballet repertory offers a new production of “Salome” by William Friedkin as well as by now a baker’s dozen of productions, including Wagner’s “Ring” and the current staging of Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” by David Alden, an idiosyncratic American director familiar to Washington audiences. William Forsythe, an American dance genius whose work thrives in Germany, is represented this season by a searing production of his cool, sexy “Limb’s Theorem.”

Night after different night, the operas and dances range from Handel to Bellini, Wagner and Verdi to Wolfgang Rihm, most in daring productions of the sort that is rare in the United States but seems the rule in Munich. The audiences are diverse, young by American opera standards and decidedly loyal.

All of the productions, supported by one of Europe’s finest orchestras and choruses, come alive in a theater that lets every note tell with thrilling fidelity. The National Theater, home of both opera and ballet, is also the ideal spot from which to explore the Bavarian capital in winter.

Music lovers in the know — and those who plan ahead — stay at the Platzl Hotel. That this little Bavarian jewel is just steps from the Bavarian State Opera is only its most obvious advantage, as is its location around the corner from the beery Staatliches Hofbrauhaus, the bustling Marienplatz and all the delights of the Christmas Market.

What the recently renovated Platzl has over pricier choices such as the splendid Mandarin Oriental and numerous cheaper hotels near the historic Old Town is its cheeky combination of old-fashioned Bavarian comfort (think reassuringly heavy wood furniture and obscenely soft pillows) and world-class, high-tech facilities.

Add to this more than a touch of whimsy, and the Platzl easily joins the short list of the world’s uniquely welcoming small hotels. Its hospitality is distinctive: On Christmas Eve, a rare evening when the hotel’s Restaurant Pfistermuhle closes early, guests are greeted in their rooms by generous baskets of gingerbread men, fruitcakes, plums and Christmas cookies.

The new hotel gym, as bizarre as it is relaxing, is inspired by nothing less than the Moorish Kiosk that King Ludwig II of Bavaria imported from the World’s Fair in Paris and had installed in his fabled Linderhof castle. That translates into some very pleasant additions to the usual bicycles and treadmills, including a jasmine-scented mist in the showers, light therapy and sunbathing, aroma steam bath, foot bath, decorative tiles and stained glass, a second-floor solarium loft plus some soft and very funky Turkish pop music wafting lightly through it all.

One might be excused for not wanting to walk outside. Yet walking is what a visitor to Munich has to do, and not just to the opera or ballet. Much of the Old Town is a network of narrow pedestrian-only streets, and elsewhere bicycles — not taxis — have the right of way. It is a great city for what the French call “flanneurs” and, as with the Paris Metro, Munich’s U-Bahn and S-Bahn systems can get one anywhere in or near the city with surprising ease.

Sure, Munich is a big city of 1.5 million inhabitants, but in everything from its fall Oktoberfest and December’s Christkindlmarkt to even the prestigious summer Munich Opera Festival, the place has all the virtues of a small town.

Friendly sallies of “Gruss Gott,” the Bavarian equivalent of a hillbilly “Howdy” sing from strangers who can wear the spiffiest high fashion alongside dirndls and lederhosen. Church-hopping at Christmastime yields a feast of superb live music, from the magnificent Old St. Peter’s Church to the famed Frauenkirche and the Church of St. Anne, each presenting sublime liturgical music in a schedule designed for marathon music lovers as much as devout worshippers.

There is no war on Christmas here, where Christmas markets merrily dot the city and continue a tradition that is at least as old as that of Bavaria’s breweries. It all seems homey. The neighborhoods from the center of town out to the suburbs look and live like so many contiguous villages; the museums are exceptional but also manageable, without fear of contracting Stendhal syndrome. The place is, well, nice and easy.

All this belies a hard history. Munich was founded by monks in the 10th century and has since been ruled by the Swedes and the Austrians, by the French, by the Prussians. It was the capital of the Bavarian monarchy and later of a proud provincial state. It nurtured and was done in by the Nazis, was bombed to smithereens by the Allies in World War II, became a model of reconstruction after the war and suffered tragedy again in the 1972 Olympics, when the attempt to free kidnapped Israeli athletes from Islamic terrorists failed spectacularly and gave the shocked world a glimpse of things to come.

Yet life in Munich went on, goes on, as everywhere it must. The National Theater was not rebuilt from its bombed-out shell until 1963, which explains the witty insouciance of its interior decoration even as it celebrates the sheer exhilaration of this architectural and acoustical marvel.

At least as moving a spectacle as the Bavarian State Opera is the much quieter Glyptothek, an exquisite museum built by King Ludwig I in 1830 to house and share with the public his collection of Greek and Roman sculpture. The pride of the collection is the Barberini Faun, in many ways the most sensual among all the world’s surviving Hellenistic sculptures and by any account a heroic survivor on its own.

The life-size figure, serenely reclining for all eternity, probably was carved in Greece in the late third century B.C., was removed to Rome and later was damaged by the Goths in A.D. 537, was lost in the Dark Ages and later found in Hadrian’s Mausoleum, then restored by the Barberini Pope Urban VIII in 1624.

The restorations, some say carried out by Bernini, made the Faun once again splendid. It remained in Rome’s Palazzo Barberini until, amid much international controversy, it was sold first to another sculptor and then to Ludwig in 1827. The Glyptothek was built primarily for the Faun, and the room where it originally was exhibited was inspired by the Pantheon.

Protectively smothered in bags and bags of wheat, the Faun survived the World War II bombings that nearly destroyed the Glyptothek, which today boasts a more chaste, clean architectural setting than the 19th century imagined.

The marriage of Ludwig I to Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen in 1810 is said to have been celebrated with the first Oktoberfest.

Next to the Faun is a marble Medusa admired by Goethe; nearby are kouroi — sculptures of male youths — of sublime quality as well as a quiet courtyard right out of Petronius. History, in all its ineffable sadness, lives in this masterpiece.

Laughter, too, lives throughout the city. The hip and happening Cadu, short for Cafe an der Uni, is a favorite hangout for university students and offers a free paperback book exchange along with its steaming cups of chocolate with cream. It is housed in what looks like a second refectory of St. Ludwig’s Church, on Ludwigstrasse just north of the National Theater and across the street from the birthplace of the legendary Sisi, the Bavarian bombshell who became the Empress Elizabeth of Austro-Hungary.

The presence of the empress’s cousin, Ludwig II, is everywhere, his madness long forgiven by a history that has seen much worse since his day. In cold weather, and especially during the Christmas Market, warming gluhwein is offered everywhere next to the crafts and religious-art kiosks surrounding Munich’s many churches. The aroma of this uniquely spicy mulled wine alone makes taking the long way while strolling to the theater an attractive option.

For walking outdoors in any season, the Monopteros should not be missed. This Grecian-style temple is a romantic spot on a small rise in the English Garden. The city’s famous Nymphenburg Palace in the western part of Munich looks grand in summer, but in snow it takes on a more elegant fairy-tale look. The palace grew with wings and other additions ordered by a succession of rulers.

The popular Hofbrauhaus, a mess and a must for first-time visitors, dates from the 16th century and provides the chance to taste a bit of venerable beer history. Elsewhere, the oom-pah-pah of Bavarian blasmusik beats in what seems like every other cafe or pub.

The beer, often served in liter-sized tankards that make the British pint look puny, is among the world’s best and boasts some of the oldest brewing traditions. The Augustiner, Paulaner and even the well-known Lowenbrau must all adhere to the Beer Purity Edict that Duke Wilhelm of Bavaria introduced in 1516.

The seasonal beers for summer and fall, the year-round monkish Franziskaner Weissbier, and the rich, dark King Ludwig Dunkel could make even the prissiest of Napa snobs consider switching from wine to beer with meals. Ordering a dessert beer is not unusual here. Now, in late winter, the Starkbier is ushering in the new beer season.

On the classier, no-less-fun side of dining, Restaurant Mark’s in the Mandarin Oriental has been re-energized by its consecutive Michelin stars in the past two years: Proud chef Mario Corti adds Perigord truffles to Bavarian delights, can make rabbit always tender, herring and potatoes exciting, confit a thing of joy. All this is served with theatrical flair in an atmosphere that refuses to boast.

Such is Munich: without a lot of fanfare, some of the tastiest food anywhere as well as the finest and most touching classical art outside Greece and Rome; Baroque churches that make Spain’s seem modest; the heartwarming sweetness of Christmas innocent of any culture wars; urban pleasures lived through a small-town lens; a cheerfully cosmopolitan attitude; and the considerable weight of history carried with a hard-earned smile.

Oh, yes, there’s also some of the best opera on either side of the Atlantic.

• • •

Platzl Hotel, Sparkassenstrasse 10, Munich, Germany; visit www.platzl.de/ english or phone 49/89 23 703 0; fax 089/23 703 800.

Bavarian State Opera, National TheaterMax-Joseph-Platz, Munich; visit www.bayerische.staatsoper.de.

Bavarian State Ballet, National Theater, Max-Joseph Platz, Munich; visit www. bayerisches.staatsballett.de.

Restaurant Mark’s, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Neuturmstrasse 1, Munich, 49/89 290 980.

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