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Saturday, October 14th, 2006

Time Event
3:55p
Vienna, day 3 part 2; Dinner at the Palace
I found a good package deal on the tour of Schonbrunn Palace, dinner, and the Orangerie Mozart/Strauss concert, so had signed us up for that. We had no trouble getting to the Schonbrunn stop on the U-Bahn, but took a wrong turning coming out of the station and walked a ways through a large park accross the ring road from the palace grounds before figuring out our direction. Then, at the Orangerie, we had some difficulty finding the proper box office to pick up the tickets, but once that was done everything ran smoothly.

Schonbrunn Palace was built as the Emperor's "summer home." When established, it was in the country just outside the city, and sits in extensive open and landscaped grounds, unlike the Hofburg which is in the middle of the city. When we visted Windsor Castle in Britain, I said that I understood then what it was to be a King, as opposed to a mere knight or lord. Schonbrunn shows you what it was like to be an Emperor. The forty state rooms that the Grand Tour shows you are, to a great extent, individual works of art, many decorated in incredibly complex detail. There are rooms done entirely in a blue and white porcelain pattern. Another uses a unique collection of Persian fabric art as wall decor. The rooms used as office, study, and bedroom by Emperor Franz Joseph are some of the least grand, but the most interesting, as they give some insights into the character of the unimaginative, methodical man who described himself as the Empire's chief "civil servant". We also see the rooms used by his wife, Empress Elisabeth ("Sisi")during her increasingly unhappy stay there.

"Empress Sisi" seems to have replaced Maria Theresa as the Austrian's chief female historical character, perhaps fueled by a resurgence of interest at the 100th anniversary of her assassination, and the number of parallels (some strained) that can be drawn between her life and the unfortunate "Princess Di." A member of the Wittelsbach family ("Mad" King Ludwig of Barvaria was a cousin), Elizabeth was betrothed at age fifteen to Franz Joseph after a two-day courtship. Archduchess Sophie was the genuine mother-in-law from hell, making any friction between Diana and Queen Elizabeth of Britain seem like mild unpleasantness. "Sisi" didn't help things, evidently not being a very forceful personality but instead obsessed with her own looks and weight, which gives rise to conjecturs she may have been anorexic in some degree. After having produced an heir to the throne , the unhappy Prince Rudolf, who killed himself in 1889, she essentially left Franz Joseph and spent the rest of her life travelling, mostly incognito. Her death was due to newspapers having exposed her presence in Lake Geneva, Switzerland, where she was stabbed to death by an anarchist. There were a couple of very sentimental and idealized movies made about her in the 1950's which have contributed to her image as a tragic, romantic figure, when the reality is rather sad and sordid in my view.

After completing the tour of the splendid rooms, we strolled in the extensive gardens until it was time to go in for dinner. Dinner was served at the "Residenz" resturant which is in part of the Palace Complex once occupied by the Imperial kitchens, and was not only far better than expected, it was good by any standards. The menu read rather like a dinner-theatre meal, and that's what I expected. However, the "breaded turkey breast" translated into a turkey breast fillet with pesto stuffing, all enclosed in a light brioche. The appetiser was an excellent terrine of smoked salmon, and the dessert a nice chocolate mousse. It was all VERY good, as well as quite different from anything else we had during our stay.

The Orangerie is a wing of the Palace complex that was, indeed wused in winter to store the potted orange trees from the palace gardens. At other times, it became the palace's theatre/recital hall and this was where Mozart, Salieri, and others performed for the Court. Indeed, this is the only place documented where Mozart and Salieri actually went "head to head" presenting short operas comissioned by the Emperor Joseph II as a contest. (Mozart's "The Impresario" came in second to Salieri's more comic and accessible piece, "Prima la Musica, poi le Parole" ("First the Music, then the Words").)

The Schonbrunn Place Orchestra is a chamber-size group augmented by an operatic soprano and baritone, and a pair of ballet dancers. The all-white hall was artistically lit with colored washes setting the moods of each piece, starting out with an ominous red for the Overture to "Don Giovanni", which opened the show. The first half of the concert was all Mozart, and included songs from "Marriage of Figaro" as well as a suite of dance tunes (done at proper tempo, as Georgie noted) and other short pieces. The Strauss half of the concert started with the overture to "The Gypsy Baron," songs from "Die Fledermaus", and pretty much obligatory "Wiener Blut," "Tales from the Vienna Woods," and "Blue Danube," and ended with Strauss Senior's "Radetsky March," which has become a sort of second Austrian national anthem. It is so traditional that the audience clap along with the first strain that the conductor turns and leads the audience in the proper tempo. "Whipcrack Polka" was given as an encore. This was a light program, but good fun, well performed, and thouroughly enjoyable, and woth going to although it's definitely a "touristy" event.

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