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Dispatch From Zurich: celebrating opera, music, dance, drama and art

June 24, 2011 | 10:18 am

Known for its delectable chocolates and cheeses, exquisite watches –- there seems to be a Patek Phillippe on every wrist –- and private banks, this lakeside burg of fewer than 400,000 smells of money.  Or maybe that's the perfumed scent of Linden trees, which bloom only in June and create a kind of arboreal nirvana.

Yes, life is good in Switzerland, and whether you’re seeking haute cuisine, a refreshing dip in Lake Zürich or a stroll down the famed Bahnhofstrasse to ogle luxury goods, this picturesque town is the apotheosis of civilization. Oh, yes: Its cultural offerings aren’t too shabby, either.

Indeed, the Zürich Festspiele (through July 10), is a mix of opera, concerts, dance, drama and fine art, with the Kunsthaus (literally "house of art") featuring a quirky Joseph Beuys exhibition.  The festival kicked off last weekend with a party offering free horseback rides through the erstwhile stables/cum/Theaterhaus Gessnerallee and music by, among others, DeVotchKa, whose leader is theremin sensation Nick Urata.  Happily, I held my mount and lived to enjoy Sunday evening’s Zürich Ballet performance at its jewel box Opera House. 

Zurich Built in the 1800s, the 1,100-seat hall became the focus of Wagner’s activities during his period of "exile" from Germany, and in 1957 Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron” had its first complete staging there six years after the composer’s death.  Acoustics are pristine, and with Vladimir Fedoseyev ably conducting the Zürich Opera Orchestra, Heinz Spoerli’s beefy ballet based on Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”  (the world premiere was April 2), proved a study in melancholy and madness, with a monkey thrown in for mythic measure.

At 70, Spoerli, who began his directorship with Zürich Ballet in 1996 and steps down next year, made sure that the troupe has gone, well, toe-to-toe with the best.  In other words, the dancers are world-class, particularly the men, including the above-mentioned simian danced by a supple Arman Grigoryan. 

As The Man, Vahe Martirosyan oozed sensuality in sheer white neo-leggings (costumes by Claudia Binder), his astonishing splits Olympian.  But this is Mahler, after all, with yearning omnipresent in solos, duets and trios:  guest artist Karine Seneca (Eternity) seemed to float atop Martirosyan; Sarah-Jane Brodbeck (The Beauty) had a recurring Fosse-like fluttering hand motif; and Filipe Portugal (Death), sporting sunglasses and in “Matrix” mode, stalked the stage with feral grace.

The one-hour performance also featured mezzo-soprano Liliana Nikiteanu and tenor Erin Caves enlivening Mahler’s horn- and harp-heavy score, its elegiac melodies ebbing and flowing like the city’s Limmat River, the dancers’ bodies equally mutable.

On tap this weekend is the world premiere of Schubert’s “Winterreise,” by Elfriede Jelinek, the 2004 Nobel Prize winner in literature. Directed by Johan Simons, the performances take place at the Schiffbrau in Zürich West, a trendy industrial section where artists once lived cheaply but apartments now go for millions.

Zürich, with its half-timbered medieval houses and Romanesque-Gothic Fraumunster church -- whose five stained glass windows were designed by Marc Chagall when he was 80 -- is a lot more than fondue and francs.

-- Victoria Looseleaf

Photos: Top, Vahe Martirosyan and the men of Zürich Ballet. Below, from left,  Filipe Portugal, Arman Grigoryan, Vahe Martirosyan. Credit: Ismael Lorenzo