The opera last night was an amazing experience. I think I had the best seats I've ever had for any performance. As I wrote yesterday, the only tickets left were in the highest price group; I bought a box seat because I wanted more leg room. The only seats better than mine were in the box next to mine on the right: the presidential box.
After you leave the elaborate foyer of the opera, one ascends a red carpeted marble stair case to the lobby. I was directed to the first floor boxes, and mine was on the middle. I wasn't sure how box seats work, but when I got in, I saw that there were three chairs in two rows, along with a movable love seat. Two of the first three chairs were occupied by an Italian-Hungarian couple; I took the third. The views of the theater were fantastic. Like the presidential box (which had nicer upholstered chairs), our box jutted out a meter or so beyond the curving row of boxes, so I had great views of everyone seated to my left, as well as my right. I also had a terrific view of the stage.
The interior of the theater is a riot of late 19th century cherub-encrusted columns, all coated in gold leaf, alternating with red plush walls and floors. A large, chandelier hung from an elaborate trompe l'oie ceiling. Most people were nicely dressed, though I spotted some shabby Americans (or Canadians) with shirt tails flapping out. I could see the cheap seats in the upper gallery where I sat the last time. The highest row goes for 400 ft (my seats went for 10,700 ft).
I was less impressed with the actual performance than the performance space. The orchestra was good and the music is lovely. The staging, however, varied from dull to bizarre. The set was a non-descript beige, vaguely Mediterranean plaza. Among the many extras, the director added a 1920s-era tourist group, along with a tour guide carrying an umbrella. They didn't have any dialogue, but they continually came through scenes photographing, even in Act II, set in a gypsy hideout in the mountains. The costuming was also dull, with the tourists all in beige, the town children in light pastel blue and pink, the townsmen in beige and black, and the gypsy girls all in nondescript floral skirts. The total effect was rather muddy.
Two of the singers were very, very good. The man who sang Don Jose, the romantic lead, was excellent, and the woman who sang the role of his fiancee, Marcaela, was wonderful. She only has two or three songs, but boy did she make the most of them. When she came out for her ovation, the cheers were deafening.
Far less impressive, but still ok, was the Carmen. She could belt out her numbers, but she lacked the flair and style of the Micaela. I'm no expert on opera (I don't know the difference between bel canto and coloratura), but I thought her only so-so. The audience seems to have agreed, since her applause was noticeably less than Micaela's or Don Jose's.
But the real problem was the man singing the part of Escamillo. His big number is "Toreadore" (google or youtube it, you'll recognize it immediately), but as he sang it, at least twice there were times where he sounded out of synch. Since it had been so long since I've heard it, I wasn't sure but when he was done, I thought I heard some boos from the boxes to my left. When he came out for his ovation at the intermission there were distinct and audible boos, the first time I've ever heard that in a theater before.
At the intermission I had some orange juice and a pastry and then went back to the box to read about the Italian and French world cup fiascos. People kept coming into our box to peer into the presidential box next door. I was so tired from so little sleep the night before I kept dropping off, but I perked up during the break and was wide awake for the final two acts.
Because the public transportation system in Budapest shuts down around 11:30 pm, I was concerned about making it back to my hotel in the Buda suburbs, but I had no problem. On the tram, I ran into another stag party group, this one from France. I've been surprised how many French and German, as well as British stag party groups I've seen in eastern Europe. Apparently, the British disease has spread to the continent. One can always spot them with their matching shirts and stupid disguises. The groom is always singled out for particular abuse. In this case, he was wearing a silly blonde page boy wig, while his mates wore matching brown/beige sweaters, padding for a pot belly, and large black mustaches.
Today, we went to Gundel for Sunday brunch. I made reservations because it had filled up quickly the last time, but I needn't have bothered. They have clearly been hurt by the recession, with half the restaurant empty. The dessert table was a third smaller, and I noticed that the eggs were now deviled as opposed to filled with fois gras. They still had rack of lamb, but instead of roast beef round, they now had beef ragout. Instead of cold melon soup, they had a fogash soup with dill (sort of like a very mild gefilte fish). It also seemed to me that their selection of cheeses had been more varied in the past. Still, I enjoyed the salads, cheeses, fruits, and main courses.
The dessert selection remained very good. I tried a chocolate mousse with sour cherry base, a very mild chestnut-pomegranate panna cotta, a chocolate Gundel cake, and a piece of cheese retesz (like a strudel) with vanilla sauce (these were all exceedingly small pieces). The coffee was delightful, and I did go back for a creme brulee, which we all split. We ate slowly to give our stomaches time to digest, spending almost 2.5 hours in the restaurant. Annie surprised me by picking up the check as a thank you for organizing the trip.
Afterwards, we walked through the park to try to find a flea market for Cherie. We eventually reached it as they were closing up shop. While Cherie tried on a dress, I found a book table, stocked with books with titles like Die Wehrmacht, Die Kriegsmarine, and Die Luftwaffe. He also had some Nazi-era weaponry that he was packing away (mostly large knives). I decided I had seen enough.
Right now, we're back in the heart of Pest, where Cherie is window shopping next door at Zara. It's hard to imagine we're going to eat dinner tonight, but I suppose in several more hours I might feel peckish again.