Friday, April 20, 2012

Luxor for Mozart lovers

I've been in Egypt - for longer than expected. A few hours before our flight was due, a fearsome, hot wind sprang up from the Sahara and visibility was reduced to pea-souper levels by whirling sand. The incoming plane diverted to Hurghada and after a very long afternoon playing Scrabble in Luxor Airport we found ourselves facing an extra night away. We didn't get back until yesterday evening, so unfortunately I missed both a vital interview and the Proms launch. But April showers and the news that there's to be a Wallace and Gromit Prom have assured me I'm finally back in Blighty.

For the whole week, touring Karnak, Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, I have had one piece of music on the brain. It is Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. The connection of this extraordinary and still almost unfathomable opera to the symbols and temples of ancient Egypt seems stronger than I'd anticipated. It is impossible to appreciate the full marvel of those ancient carvings, paintings and hieroglyphics without seeing the real thing - the widespread reproductions and tourist tat we see here give no idea of them, any more than a cack-handed copy of a Rembrandt would of an actual portrait by the master. And when you're there, immersed in it, the impact of those surroundings conjures an atmosphere that feeds forward by thousands of years to the 18th-century Enlightenment.

Mozart/Schikaneder's symbols? You don't have to look far in the hieroglyphics to find images of a three-headed serprent, which might have attacked Tamino; nor for images of creatures half human, half animal - mostly gods, of course. Is Papageno perhaps an Egyptian god in disguise? Either way, he would have had a field day with the Egyptian birdlife.

Tour the Luxor Museum and the image of the incredibly beautiful face of Thutmosis III brings to mind the perfect balance of Tamino's great aria - Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön indeed. The vast, jagged-cheekboned image of Akhenaten seems to conjure Sarastro.

Could this be Sarastro's temple?

Or, even more likely, it might be Karnak, where Papageno could easily be lost amid the forest of "papyrus" columns...

Here, too, Tamino and Pamina might walk together through their trials of fire and water. They are often staged with Pamina just behind Tamino, one hand on his shoulder....

Such Mozartian fantasy prods at the grey matter (or what's left of it) and leaves you marvelling at how much there is to learn of this other world - so distant yet, in its imagery, also so close, for it's clear that neither owls nor people have changed all that much since 1500BC.

My friends keep asking "Is it safe?" One taxi driver summed up the current Egyptian situation neatly: "Cairo: problem. Luxor: no problem." (Basic Arabic, lesson 1: Mishmushkela = no problem.) The pleasure over the revolution is split, with the younger generation happier than the over-60s. A young man I spoke to in the Luxor souk expressed surprise that tourists seem more reluctant to come to Luxor now than they did when Mubarak was in power, since he considers things much improved. The scenes around the petrol stations told a story of their own: an older taxi driver raised his hands in frustration as we passed a jungle of minibuses - "No Mubarak, no petrol!" (But then, once upon a time, people also argued that Mussolini got the trains to run on time - you know the syndrome...)

The elections are coming up in about a month; candidate posters and the odd rally or two dab their way across the town centre. As tourists, though, Tamino and I never felt threatened or unwelcome in any way; quite the reverse. You get hassled by people wanting to sell you things, or by demands for bakshish for small and unsolicited services; but it's all good-natured and, in our experience, never threatening.
There's a slight sense of desperation across the town. Since the revolution, tourism, on which Luxor absolutely depends, has dropped; as a consequence airlines have been cutting back on flights and even if tourists want to go there, it's not as easy as it used to be to find a flight on the day you want. This means tourism is reduced even further. The cruise ships that progress along the Nile were plentiful, but on their decks inhabitants seemed, from the shores, sparse. 

Truly lovely hotels are therefore rather good value. We were at the Jolie Ville Maritim, booked about a month ago via Thomas Cook for a rate, including flights, that wouldn't go very far towards a UK "staycation". Run by a Swiss manager who seems to have left no stone unturned in his efforts to welcome his clientele, it's a real oasis, well removed from the hectic town centre. The food is terrific, the gardens gorgeous, the atmosphere friendly - we enjoyed an unexpectedly rewarding social time with many fascinating people among the guests. And for recharging the batteries, relaxing and soaking up some very serious sun, I can't imagine anywhere more lovely.

Tamino and I needed our break, having undergone trials by metaphorical fire and water of late. We are deeply grateful to Isis, Osiris and Wolfang Amadeus. Here is Solti with a tribute.

[UPDATE: A Musical Vision has a fascinating post about Die Zauberflöte - "Mozart's magical mystery tour de force". Well worth a visit.]

Triumph!  Triumph, triumph, du edles Paar!    
Besieget hast du die Gefahr!  
Der Isis Weihe ist nun dein.   
Kommt, kommt, kommt, kommt,   
Tretet in den Tempel ein!