Friday, April 29, 2011

Westminster Abbey

Yes, I insisted on revisiting Westminster Abbey on my trip to London last month because of the royal wedding this morning. I hate to admit it, but I’m a sucker for the pageantry of it all. It’s one reason I love attending Catholic mass despite the fact that Protestant hymns are vastly superior.

In any case, it had been a long time since I had been inside. I was quite shocked by the entrance fee, which is £16, or about $25. As a rule, I have a problem with a church charging an entrance fee. There just seems to be something inherently wrong in that. And, when that church also asks that you respect the setting and not take pictures? That seems a bit like trying to have your cake and eat it too. In any case, the photos here are from the official website.

Quire, Westminster Abbey

It was crazy crowded, which was a shame, because there really is a lot to see beyond just the architecture of the church itself. The audio guide is decent, but could give more detail. Of course, with so many people (and a friend waiting outside), I couldn’t really linger. Highlights include the Quire, the Chapel of Henry VII with the tombs of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, the Cloisters, and the Coronation Chair, which for restoration had been moved to near the Grave of the Unknown Warrior at the main entrance. Personally, I found Poet’s Corner a bit disappointing; it was too crowded, both with the dead and the living. My favorite piece by far was the monument commemorating Lady Elizabeth Nightingale in the North Transept and Ambulatory. The figure of Death reaching out to grab her is incredibly moving.

Sculpture by Louis François Roubiliac

All in all, despite the cost, I highly recommend a visit. The church is very beautiful and there is lots to see inside to make it worth the detour.

* Photos were taken from the official Westminster Abbey website.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Phantom of the Opera

—What’s wrong with it?
—I'll tell you what's wrong with it, my lad. It’s dead, that’s what’s wrong with it!
—No, no, it’s uh,... resting… it’s, ah... probably pining for the fjords…

It seems only fitting to resurrect this long-dormant blog with an entry about the home of one of the most famous “ghosts” of all time. This post is dedicated to La Javanaise, who has been looking for a new entry here for quite awhile and who thinks that the Palais Garnier is worth the detour.

Palais Garnier facade

Marc Chagall's famous ceiling

While in Paris to visit family last month, I had the great good fortune to attend two performances at the historic opera house of the Opéra National de Paris, the Palais Garnier. For some reason, throughout my time living in Paris, I never made it inside this building, despite attending multiple ballet performances—all of which happened to take place at the Opéra Bastille, the new opera house in the twelfth arrondissement.

You can, of course, take a guided tour of the opera house itself, but I highly recommend attending a performance if you can. For one, you might get to sit in the best cheap seats I’ve ever experienced:

Seriously, if the War Memorial Opera House had this kind of seating in the upper balconies, I would get full subscriptions for both the opera and ballet every year.

So, how does one get tickets? Well, if there are tickets available, you can reserve online (in either French or English) at the official website and print out your ticket. Unfortunately, to even check availability, you have to first register, which is annoying. Furthermore, the seating and pricing chart is very complicated and advice on where to sit was hard to find on the Internet (the reservation site will tell you your potential seat, but there is no corresponding chart with numbered seats to let you know where it’s located). For the boxes pictured above, it’s important to know that the boxes are numbered starting at the stage with even numbers to the right (stage left) and odd numbers to the left (stage right). So, the lower your number, the closer you are to the stage, and the more cut off one side of the stage will be. Boxes numbered in the thirties are at the center of that particular level. Ideally, in each box, you want seats #1 and/or #2, which are at the front, or #3 and #4, which are in the second row; it will be very difficult to see from seats #5 or #6. One great feature of the reservation system is that it picks the “best” seat for your price range and, before you actually purchase your ticket, you see a photo of the view from your exact seat, so you do eventually see precisely what you are buying.

For Kátia Kabanová, I was able to buy tickets online and was seated in the 2ème loge, box 12, seat 1. This box was fairly close, which was nice, but much of the right side of the stage (stage left) was blocked from view. Luckily, the performance was primarily blocked to be on stage right; I’m not sure what I would have seen had I been in a box on the other side. You can see my write-up of the performance over at Sly Wit.

For Coppélia, I had to be a bit more adventurous. I went early for last-minute tickets, but only three tickets were available for the Sunday matinée and there were already quite a few people in line. I ended up buying tickets from a scalper at the front of the opera house itself. Obviously, I was taking a chance, but I had scoped out the guy in advance and watched him sell a ticket. Since he stuck around, and he was right in front of the security guard, I figured I could immediately check its authenticity and would at least have the recourse of yelling at him if it didn’t work. Based on the prices I was quoted, I would plan on paying an extra 30-40 euros per ticket. For my seat, which was in the 3ème loge, box 23, seat 3, this meant paying about $70 total for an $18 ticket (an orchestra seat would have been about $185). Technically, this seat had reduced visibility, but it really didn’t and I could see everything. Given the luxuriousness of my loge, it still seemed a better value than the opera house tickets I buy in San Francisco. While I still wish I had seen the production here in San Francisco, I don’t regret it one bit.

For both performances, the chandelier stayed in place. No phantoms were seen.