Monday 6 February 2023

2023 Paris


Sitting in the Bastille Opera, watching Tristan und Isolde – on a TV screen…  We got here early, at just after 6pm, since the performance was starting at 7pm.  Except it wasn’t – it started at the crazy time of 6pm.  And they weren’t letting in anyone until the interval…

I seem cursed with Tristan: the first (and only) time I saw it at the Royal Opera House, Jon Vickers was Tristan.  Brilliant...except that before the start of the 3rd act, he decided he had a sore throat, and wasn’t going to sing any further.  One man in the audience cried out “money back” after the announcement, and before we went straight to the Liebestod, with a stand-in (lie-in) sprawled on the ground as Isolde sang over him.

Tonight’s performance was the main reason for this quick visit to Paris, but fortunately we’ve done much else besides.  Arriving with the super-convenient Eurostar – one of my favourite ways to travel – Thursday afternoon, we walked around the Bastille area, where our rented flat was located.  I don’t know this part too well, so it was good to see this different slice of Paris.  Lots of fine sandstone buildings, broad boulevards with high apartments on either side – often six storeys high.

On Friday, to the Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet.  Shockingly, this is the first time I’d been here.  Clearly, a really fine collection, with some masterpieces from various Asian cultures.  But a bit of a labyrinth – I found it hard to create any kind of thread moving through it.  We’d come partly for the special exhibition of Afghan art.  Which turned out to be fabrics.  Nice enough, but nothing special.  Some of the videos in the exhibition were – because of the stunning landscapes of Band-e-Amir (I think, searching for them afterwards online), used as backgrounds.  This was reinforced when, on the way out, we discovered another Afghan exhibition – about French archaeological excavations there.  Again, some stunning pix of glinting azure tiles and towers, including the amazing Minaret of Jam.  Pity that it’s unlikely I’ll ever get to see them first-hand.

In the afternoon, to the Musée de Cluny. Another one that I’d somehow failed to visit before.  To be fair, this was closed for restoration the times I did try.  Ultimately, I found the relentless medieval art a little oppressive and – dare I say it? - boring.  Some stuff not bad, but really so circumscribed in its range.

In the evening, a meal with friends in a Peruvian restaurant near Bastille.  Interesting flavours, but painfully small portions – and hideously expensive.  The sum involved was particularly obscene because nearby our flat there is a homeless bloke that we have to pass every day.  The contrast between the meal and the man was painful.

Today, to Place des Vosges, and Victor Hugo’s house.  Or rather a reconstruction of it.  Place des Vosges has always been one of my favourite spots in the city – so balanced, civilised, so French.  Hugo’s house had plenty of good stuff.  I was struck by a painting of Hugo and his son.  Particularly the tight grip that Hugo had of his son, as if preventing him from fleeing.  Very weird, disturbing.

The along to Musée Cognacq-Jay, concentrating on art of the eighteenth century – lot of young ladies with fashionable grey hair, and carelessly-exposed bosoms.  Soft porn for aristocrats.  Best pix were two Canalettos, one that I didn’t recognise, of the canal of Santa Chiara, with unusual blind brick walls – not something you see much of in Venice.

Then later to here, where I now sit watching a rather static production of Tristan und Isolde – the singers sitting on a bench, while above them are projected “relevant” images – of a stormy sea that could be Cornwall, and also a man and a woman – Tristan and Isolde, I presume – taking their clothes off – all of them.  Afterwards, lots of water splashing around, so I supposed this was some kind of ritual cleansing.  As far as I can tell from the tinny sound of the TV, tonight's singers are quite good.  I’ll be interested to hear them in the flesh when they deign to let us in…

Despite this little mishap, it’s always good to be back in Paris – and it’s very much “back.  It’s the only city that feels the equivalent of London – like some parallel world instantiation – different in details, but the same overall.  Been using the metro extensively – so much cheaper than the Tube, and more convenient in that the stations are closer together.  But it is, I have to concede, dirtier and stinkier than London’s…  Lots of cyclists here thanks to the Green mayor, Anne Hidalgo.  French drivers still bonkers.

I have noticed – too late – that there an exhibition of Uzbek art at the Louvre, but I don’t think we’ll be able to fit it in before we go back tomorrow.  Still, saw plenty last year.  I hope that I make it back to the region in the summer as planned.  I’m a bit concerned that we have learned nothing from Covid, and are about to go through a bird flu pandemic – it already seems to be jumping between species, and yet it isn’t even on governments’ radar.  We shall see…


This Eurostar lounge in 
Gare du Nord always feels like a bridgehead of the UK – probably because it only goes to London, and thus, in some sense, is already part of it...

A gentle morning with friends in the 19th, including a walk around Parc des Buttes-Chaumont.  Unusual because of its extremely steep gradients – and because it is completely artificial, built in a stone quarry (hence the gradients).  Reminds me that this is one big difference with London, which has hundreds of parks, big and small, whereas Paris has far fewer in the centre.  

Last night was, well, interesting.  After waiting an hour and a half in the bar area, we were allowed in, for Act II of the opera.  Which basically consists of Tristan and Isolde saying “I love you” for an hour, followed by King Mark saying “I’m really sad you betrayed me” to Tristan, followed by ten seconds of Tristan running on to Melot’s sword (bizarrely, a couple of outstretched fingers in this production…).

After the second interval, I finally heard Act III of Tristan und Isolde live – undoubtedly my favourite bit.  The opening chords, deep in the bass – Bb minor, with an added G resolving upwards – followed by violins climbing up and up into the musical stratosphere – get me every time.  But hearing it live is something else: no hi-fi can quite capture the low graininess of the opening chord on the strings, or the soaring, glittering ascent of the violins.

After that, the wonderfully plangent cor anglais – always makes me think of Sibelius’ “Swan of Tuonela”, doubtless inspired by Tristan and the sounds of Act III's opening.  Then we have Tristan dying for an hour, followed by the big tune – “Mild und leise” in which Isolde dies slightly more quickly.  The staging again very static, the projected images again involving lots of water, culminating in a reasonable transfiguration and ascension with the upward stream of drops.  The end – audience goes mad in the annoying way they do.  We leave.  To be fair, the voices were pretty good – especially Isolde and Kurwenal.  Tristan was good too, but the effect rather spoilt by his bantam-like body – all belly and no legs – which was embarrassing when supine, which he was for most of Act III.

But opera is such a crazy experience anyway – and Wagner even more so.  Thousands of people sit almost motionless for four hours, watching this improbable Tristan and slightly more probable Isolde, singing this lush version of an old tale.  In many way, this incredible coming-together – of ancient Celtic, romantic German and contemporary Parisian – was the most touching aspect of the evening.  It underlined to me why the Musée Guimet and the Musée de Cluny had left me cold: they lacked this incredible complexity and richness.  Similarly, the Canalettos in the Musée Cognacq-Jay spoke to me because they were Venice and “Walks with Lorenzetti” and all that these imply and touch on for my life.

This Paris trip – perhaps my tenth – re-affirms how important the central points of European culture are for me, and how familiar they feel when I encounter them.  And for that I am grateful…

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