Amsterdam Day One – Settling In

In The Lap Of Luxury

So, my apartment is great, and not being in it makes me feel like I’m neglecting it somehow. Nonetheless, my first task (after removing the t-shirt entirely glued to me) was to exit the flat and begin some circulatory exploration. I know that I get anxious if I think I’m lost, so getting to know the area is vital for my sanity. I started just spiralling out from the road, Fokke Simonstraat, getting a feel for where the apartment is relative to the city around me. I’m not good with maps. Christ, I genuinely struggle with left and right, never mind NSWE and rotating a damned map. I’ve already been using the Tripadvisor Amsterdam app on my tablet and phone to mark up places of interest and start learning street and canal names again.

My other purpose in wandering, besides just how pleasant Amsterdam is to wander around, was to find a supermarket – a source of fridge beer and breakfast. I’m exactly the kind of traveller who brings his own teabags and preferred coffee with him. I am not sorry for that. Routine and familiarity enable my mind and heart to run in the tracks, not to judder out of them. This trip is all about getting back in the groove of myself. Hugely pretentious, yet important. I wandered a looong way off track, all the way up Utrechstraat by accident, which was really handy as I found places that I knew from last time we were here – Rembrandtplein, and even better had almost made it to Waterlooplein where I would need to be later.

I came across Marqt (on Utrechtstraat) which is a really cool, upmarket supermarket (like M&S with hipsters and a funky soundtrack). I found many beer, including the alcohol free Weistephanen (lovely), as well as awesome bread and cheese (note: must get more cheese). Then I spazzed out because my phone told me it was five to seven. The opera is at seven thirty. I quite quickly got back home and established that my phone had added an extra hour to the time. I continued breathing… I had proven I could find my way home under pressure = victory.

Best Dam Flapjack
Best Dam Flapjack

A Pact With The Devil

I’ve adored Faust since it was studied by the other class at A Level, and I played Marlowe’s bad doctor himself on stage. I got a beautiful copy of Charles Gounod’s opera of Faust in Oxford many years ago, with the programme and tickets from the 1920s inside. One of the first events I heard about when I began to look at this week in Amsterdam was Faust at the Nationale Opera & Ballet. It ain’t cheap, and I struggled with committing myself to it. That’s a complex mix of value and self-worth. I’m glad I got the ticket. I went for the best fourth class ticket available, which was 82.50 EU. That got me a seat just off the end of the 13th row – an almost perfect unimpeded view of stage – close enough to see every movement of their extraordinary throats.

DSC02647_Ivan_Golden_Femton

My plan (as a fool) was to get there early and find somewhere to eat. I’m glad I was too disorganised to sort that out however, as once I’d picked my ticket and ambled upstairs to mingle with hundreds of far more smartly decked out audience members, and went to order a beer and some amazing flapjack I learned that the show started at seven, not half past. I reassured the bartender that I could deal with the beer in under a minute. Oo-rah. I took my seat, with no expectations whatsoever and it all began…

The stage is set with a vast plastic screen in the middle, with an airlock door at one end and a keyboard at the other. Across the top of the arch we are told this is the ‘Human Homunculus Project’ – the doctor of philosophy has been updated to master of genetics. Behind the screen we see strange organic columns being tended to by men in huge biohazard/environment suits. And it all begins…

I don’t think I can really capture the experience of my first opera. It was incredible. Never mind the singing – I was carried along by the (not brilliant) surtitles while the opera plays on in Italian (of course). The sounds emerging from these people’s throats is just extraordinary. I’d have been content to just listen to the throat music. Add to that an orchestra with two massive harps and everything else besides and it’s already an auditory treat. Not content with that, the set design is ingenious, the plastic wall is removed, replaced with red towers that throb with lust and darkness, columns of lights that switch from candlelight to prison cells, menace to romance as they rise and fall. It was astonishingly done.

The Devil Has All The Best Threads

The costumes were perhaps even weirder – Mephistopheles (the fucker) is immaculately dressed, even when stripped by his minions to a skeletal body stocking (looking amazing under the lights), which is matched by the tactical combat gear of the soldiers. The women, who are the focus of Faust’s ill-thought lusts, are either virgins or whores (natch). We first encounter the women in a bar, and they all have the most disturbing costumes which make them look like shop mannequins with their joins clearly showing. That was upsetting. It was made worse by the arrival of the wives and older ladies – with their absurdly enhanced breasts, like footballs up their jumpers.

I’m going to find the trailer for it – because trying to describe how it plays out is almost impossible. We were presented with endless disturbing scenarios and imagery. I found Marguerite (how the human body can produce such notes I have no idea) with her powder blue hair and hands unbearably affecting, especially when she drowns her baby.

There’s a fantastically upsetting moment when Mephistopheles offers to share his wine with the rest of the bar – he raises a pedestal to sing from, which is a tank of water with a naked woman in it. He taps the glass and blood blossoms through it. While the woman writhes in pain he draws off glasses for the crowd.

Kicking Out Time At The Opera
Kicking Out Time At The Opera

It was remarkable. In Hell we get a feast and orgy whose depravity shames even Faust – it wasn’t much easier to watch from the audience. When they bring the babies out for eating and waving… Gosh. I’ve never seen anything like it before. It was one hell of a first night out! Afterwards the crowds empty the opera house fast.

Half past ten – I still haven’t eaten, or spoken to my darling…

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