02/26/2013 06:59 am ET Updated Apr 28, 2013

Munich Travel: Opera With A Beer Chaser

When thinking about travel (which is a lot of the time), Jackie and I use a couple of online classical music databases -- Operabase and Bachtrack -- in two different ways. If we already know where we're going, we look to see what operas and concerts are on during our stay. But sometimes, we'll probe the sites without much regard for destination until we find a show or two that could be the focus of a trip, with any luck to a city we've never visited.

A few months ago, we searched for productions featuring the American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, a long-time favorite both for her singing and acting and for her spunk: she's the woman who once completed a performance on a broken fibula before agreeing to be taken to the ER. I've cracked that bone myself, and I can tell you that the crippling pain is nothing to sing about.

In tourism terms, the search result was perfect: Ms. DiDonato was scheduled for February performances of an opera we'd never seen (I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Vincenzo Bellini's sort-of Romeo and Juliet first given in 1830) in a town I'd never been to (Munich). What's more, there were adjacent performances of a new production of the original 1869 version of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. (Like most opera and theater companies, the Bavarian State Opera sells tickets online; depending on the seat and the production, they can cost as much as €264 -- about $350 -- for the best seats and most costly productions, and less than €10 for the cheapest tickets.) Giving ourselves some extra time for museum-going and sightseeing, we planned four nights in Munich with the two operas at their center.

The Bavarian State Opera plays in a number of theaters, but our two performances were on its home stage, the National Theater, opened in 1818, rebuilt after a fire a few years later and wrecked by bombing in 1943. The present reconstructed theater opened in 1963. With 2,100 seats, it counts as a moderately large house, though New Yorkers like me, used to the Metropolitan's 3,800-seat vastness, will find it pretty intimate.

Before we left for our trip, Russian friends expressed the hope that Munich's Boris would not be "one of those" updated productions. Well, it was, and it was brilliant. The various versions of the opera that are commonly given include sub-plots and love interest and, to my mind, can be a little flabby; the original 1869 text (rejected by St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater at the time) is almost purely political and contains no substantial female role. You'd think that this would make it less appealing than the later revisions, but in fact it creates a taut, focused drama that lends itself (all too well) to a modern setting.

The director was Calixto Bieito, whose Carmen at London's English National Opera made a tremendous impression on me last year. Apart from the absurd decision to make the Tsarevich Fyodor a girl (whom Boris nonetheless addresses as "my son"), Bieito's bleak and violent look at power and powerlessness in twenty-first-century Russia was entirely on target and made us look at characters like Prince Shuisky in a new and horrific light (here, he is a Beria-like murderer, not that he ever pulls the trigger himself). Also on target was the decision to play the 135-minute opera's seven "pictures" without intermission: a break would have shattered the tension and diminished the effect, which was considerable and haunting.

American conductor and Bavarian State Opera music director Kent Nagano led a finely detailed performance -- and those details were clearly discernible thanks to the National Theater's notably excellent acoustics. The cast was uniformly strong, from Alexander Tsymbalyuk's Boris to Kevin Conners's heart-tugging Fool. The choral work was powerful, its effect amplified by Mr. Bieito's staging.

After we'd been put through the wringer by that Boris Godunov, the next night's I Capuleti e i Montecchi was like a pre-dinner passeggiata in Verona: delightful. The production, by Vincent Boussard (with costumes by couturier Christian Lacroix, no less) and conducted by Yves Abel, was not as thought-provoking as Mr. Bieito's Boris. Nor could it have been, given the flimsier text (don't bring Shakespearean expectations to a Bellini performance). But there were telling moments, some a little too literal (like characters' emotional precariousness indicated by their balancing on dangerous-looking edges of the set), but others quite wonderful. Notably, the operatic silliness of a dying couple continuing to sing while sinking to the ground was avoided elegantly by keeping them on their feet as they were united in death. Sounds corny, like the Swan Lake apotheosis, but it made Jackie and me cry.

We'd been drawn to Munich by the casting of Joyce DiDonato as Romeo, and she delivered a performance that was beautiful in every way. A great singer's first note of the evening can illustrate why she's a star. Ms. DiDonato's was so tellingly wrought: a single note with shades of color and volume that made me remember how much intelligence, study and work go into turning a terrific voice into an actor-musician's tool. Soprano Ekaterina Siurina's Giulietta and tenor Joseph Calleja's Tebaldo might not have evoked the same shivers, but they were extremely fine: lovely singing and musicianship, and graceful, intelligent movement. They are both singers I could imagine searching online databases for.

As the Michelin guide says of three-star restaurants, they were "Worth the journey."

* * *

At home, we are anything but night people. When on these opera or theater trips, however, we try our best to save supper for after the performance, even if that means audible tummy rumbling during the final act. Some cities are better than others for this. Paris is short on late-night options; London is full of them; Italian towns may not offer many choices but what there is tends to be good. What we wanted from Munich was traditional Bavarian food not far from the theater or from our nearby hotel, the excellent Mandarin Oriental.

Two popular, well-known nearby restaurants, one for each opera, were open late enough to accommodate hungry, thirsty theater-goers: Zum Dürnbräu and Spatenhaus an der Oper. Both were friendly (even though we managed to confuse our reservations and went to the wrong place on the first night, matters were hospitably arranged).

Both served what we'd wanted: honest, unreconstructed Munich meat, sausages, sauerkraut, potatoes and dumplings, with pleasant German and international wines and easy-to-drink beer. The best dish I ate was Spatenhaus's liver and blood sausages, one of each, enclosed in sturdy natural casings from which I scooped the highly (and interestingly) seasoned fillings, to be eaten with mashed potatoes, sauerkraut and crisp fried onions. There are lighter and more modern dishes on the menu, but if you're in Munich you might as well go for the sturdy old-fashioned options. (You probably won't need a first course unless you're ravenous.) Our dinners for two cost €40 at Zum Dürnbräu (no dessert) and more like €60 at the marginally more elegant Spatenhaus, where we drank more and had dessert.

Munich: Opera With A Beer Chaser