The Roman emperor Caracalla soothed his arthritis in the mineral waters at Baden-Baden in Germany. Dostoevsky lost big in the gaming rooms, squandering his young wife’s jewels in the process. Bill Clinton, on a visit soon after departing the presidency, proclaimed that “Baden-Baden is so nice you have to name it twice.”
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic are among the latest to feel the lure of this spa town on the edge of the Black Forest. Last month they announced plans to decamp from the Salzburg Easter Festival, where the orchestra has been showcased since the event started in 1967, and take up Easter music-making at Baden-Baden’s Festspielhaus beginning in 2013.
Classical music at the Festspielhaus has been prominent among the city’s attractions for more than a decade. Yet everything here traces back to the mineral waters, the literal wellspring for what the town is today. Now the waters are purveyed by a sumptuous array of grand resort hotels that you’d think could exist only in a bygone era.
Any one of them would be a landmark somewhere else, yet here the astonishing concentration is matched by the beauty of the setting. Take a stroll along the Lichtentaler Allee and the Kaiser Allee, with their rolling lawns and proximity to the gently flowing Oos River, and you’ll see what I mean -- an idyllic blend of Mother Nature and urban opulence.
Nude Dress Code
Whether the waters actually possess medicinal capabilities may be open to question. Reaching a conclusion is its own reward. Hotels have the full range of spa services, and whether you want to work out or be pampered is up to you. The dress code for saunas and steam rooms is nude, a point worth noting inasmuch as they are co-ed.
Also situated along the Lichtentaler Allee is the Kurhaus or casino. Gambling received a boost in the 1830s when Louis-Philippe banned games of chance in France. Baden-Baden’s proximity to the French border was never more propitious and the city gained its reputation as a place to see and be seen.
Russians came too, a practice already instigated by Tsar Alexander I, who married a local princess and visited regularly. Dostoevsky lost money, then gained literary capital to write his novel “The Gambler.” Another writer, Ivan Turgenev, maintained a residence, which he shared with his companion, the famed mezzo soprano Pauline Viardot.
Other musicians to find Baden-Baden congenial were Brahms and Clara Schumann. Berlioz’s final opera “Beatrice et Benedict” inaugurated a theater in the town at its premiere in 1862.
The casino remains an iconic institution, if not a big profit center. A visit to the ornate gaming rooms on a recent afternoon found them looking elegant, although a 40-strong group of French tourists outnumbered the gambling clientele by about 5-to-1. More lucrative for the house are said to be the video machines a floor below, but you can find their likes in any city where they’re legal.
Russians are back in force, drawn by another Baden-Baden attraction: high-end shopping. The many stores specializing in luxury goods offer ample opportunity for Russians and their rubles to be parted. The stores are within convenient walking distance, like everything else in Baden-Baden.
Everything, that is, except the train station, which was relocated some time ago. The old one, centrally situated, now supplies the picturesque foyer for the Festspielhaus. With 2,500 seats it is Germany’s largest opera house/concert hall.
The original thinking called for the Festspielhaus, which opened in 1998, to become an instant Salzburg with commensurate ticket prices. After that idea bombed, Andreas Moelich-Zebhauser became managing director and prudently yet steadily built the Festspielhaus’s offerings into what they are today.
His success with the Berlin Philharmonic, which will have greater flexibility to play in smaller configurations and the ability to give more opera performances than Salzburg allowed, shows how far he has come.
For opera, Moelich-Zebhauser favors what he calls “reasonable” stage directors in the belief that the days of Regie Theater (stagings by radical directors) are numbered. The illustrious veteran Nikolaus Lehnhoff has mounted several Festspielhaus productions, most recently Strauss’s “Salome,” a major attraction this summer.
With several takes on the Strauss opera behind him, Lehnhoff’s cogently directed latest effort, compellingly conducted by Stefan Soltesz, looks back on its predecessors rather than breaks new ground. The set depicted what resembled an Eastern European building from Communist times. Soprano Angela Denoke, gleaming of voice and kittenish in appearance, demonstrated why she is perhaps today’s leading Salome.
One challenge Moelich-Zebhauser faces is to ensure that the conductor Christian Thielemann, who will lead a new production of another Strauss opera, “Ariadne auf Naxos,” here in March, continues as a regular Baden-Baden guest even though he and the forces of Dresden’s Semper Oper are set to succeed Rattle and the Berlin orchestra in Salzburg. Simply having a challenge like this helps explain why the Festspielhaus stands high among Baden-Baden’s attractions.
(George Loomis writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)