Wednesday, January 26, 2011

a weekend in dresden

Dresden is a beautiful and historic city. Though razed in February of 1945 by Allied bombs, it has been gloriously rebuilt in its old style, mimicking the regality of its past. This can be problematic, as George Packer eloquently wrote in a New Yorker article last year. But it is the perfect contrast and counterpart to Berlin, a city so marred by its tragic past and reflective about its deep history that the very architecture resonates with the brutal noise of the twentieth century. So while I have fallen in love with Berlin's grimy glory, a weekend in fairytale Dresden was a much-needed break.

And, of course, an opportunity to hear some great music.
Though lacking the vast musical infrastructure of Berlin, Dresden has a long lineage of musical greatness, with its grand Semperoper house dating back to 1841. The Dresden Staatskapelle is one of those lofty German orchestras which somehow plays with the same rich sound as a hundred years ago, when it was premiering every Strauss opera under the sun; its lineage of conductors includes Weber, Wagner, and the legendary Ernst von Schuch.

Schuch was the focus of one of my odder Dresden adventures, a joint effort between the Semperoper and the DVB public transit system celebrating the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Strauss's Rosenkavalier. Apparently, the premiere (conducted by Schuch) was so hotly anticipated that special trains were commissioned to shuttle opera-goers from Berlin to Dresden; in honor of this, the Semperoper and DVB set up a two-hour tram ride through the city. Participants gathered in the plaza across from the opera house, and a tram drove up blasting Rosenkavalier waltzes, flashing"100 Jahre Rosenkavalier." Milling among our crowd were several actors dressed as opera-goers from 1911.

The actual train tour ranged from fascinating to mind-numbingly boring. I had hoped there might be live performances of Rosenkavalier excerpts, but instead we were treated to interviews with an historian, a dramaturge, a Staatskapelle horn player, and, weirdly enough, the granddaughter of Schuch. Though it was nice to see the city, two hours felt a bit long--but there was a certain weighty grandiosity to riding back into the center of the city while listening to the Presentation of the Silver Rose.

On Saturday night, I attended a small, new production of Dido and Aeneas in the Semperoper's rehearsal space. Directed by Manfred Wei
β, it spins off of an historical fact: the first known performance of Purcell's opera took place at an English girl's school. Weiβ stages the opera as a kind of play-acting among several boarding school students, taking place in a single contemporary dormitory room. It begins with Dido clutching her cellphone, as if having just ended a traumatic phone call (or having received a troubling text). The rest of her friends, five other young women, rush in giddily from having won a sports game; they comprise all the characters, including the chorus, Dido's trusted handmaid Belinda, and the love interest Aeneas.

The dramatic action is conceived as a game among these schoolgirls, who act out the typical tropes of sorority cinema--pillow-fighting, suppressed homosexuality, playing dress-up. In an attempt to comfort Dido, who is having boyfriend troubles in "real life," they enact an imaginary story of love and loss, approximating the horror the evil sorceress with flashlights after lights-out and the fierce storm with the shaking of bedsheets. Though this barrier causes the opera to lose some emotional immediacy and intensity, it gains a fairytale sense of innocence and lightness. Dido's final lament is less a harrowing suicidal announcement than a moment of subdued melancholy: a release and catharsis of the "real life" Dido's emotions.

(copyright Matthias Creuziger)

Despite a weak performance from the instrumental ensemble, a wonkily-tuned string quartet and harpischord, the production was musically sound, with an excellent-voiced Stephanie Atanasov as Dido and a playful but concerned Romy Petrick as Belinda. The reduction to only six voices gave the choruses a buoyancy and clarity, though occasionally the ensemble diction became muddy. As the first opera in the Semperoper's Junge Szene series, designed towards attracting younger audiences, it seemed a success; the small hall was filled with a youthful and energetic crowd.


There is something anachronistically indulgent about hearing Dido's Lament on Saturday evening and Isolde's Liebestod on Sunday. Separated by two centuries, these works somehow still fall within the same genre. Though the sentiment expressed by each woman's apotheosis is the same, the means by which they are conveyed are radically different. Dido weeps in the antique formalities of the cyclic chaconne, framing her sorrow within a bound structure; Wagner sets Isolde free, soaring through the oceanic wonder of the massive orchestra, finding transfiguration in the climactic submersion into the Welt-Atems, the world-breath. Dido's death is personal; Isolde's is universal.

Marco Arturo Marelli's production embraces this sense of the universal, crafting a fine blend of the abstract and the real. Though now fifteen years old, the staging is still riveting. The entire opera is set on a pivoted square, creating a condensed geometry; narrative is pitched forward through slowly shifting lighting, which casts different emotions in different hazes of color. Individual details evoke powerful sentiments: in the first act, tall panels surrounding the square swing away to reveal a painted, gently rocking seascape, enhancing the sense of unease on which the drama rests. There is a sense of blissful timelessness, echoing the stark limitations of scenery and dramatic lighting of Wieland Wagner's post-war Bayreuth productions.

This is the first Wagner production I have seen live which actually heightens the dramatic tension of the work. When Tristan and Isolde drink their love potion, Marelli smartly has them drink together from the same dish, instead of the usual awkwardness of exchanging a goblet; the moment is accompanied by gorgeous rays of color, breathtaking glowing pastels projected onto transparent sheets which enclose the lovers from the outside world. The mood of the second act is ecstatic, with the lovers almost claustrophobically sealed off from the world. When they decide they can only be together in death, the deep blues of the set fade away into darkness, and the screen surrounding them becomes a completely opaque cube: they are totally fortified from light, and thus life. When Brangäne, in the final, torrid moments of the duet, sounds her warning, the stage suddenly rises, the square tilting upwards and upsetting the lovers' careful balance. The jealous Melot, in an almost-too-obvious metaphor, actually breaks down their curtain with his sword, and King Marke emerges in a shaft of light. When Tristan throws himself on Melot's sword, the entire stage is bathed with light---the outside has fatally ruptured the darkness of the union.

Act III takes on a mythic and mystic portent, with the still-raised square transformed into an endless, dirty staircase. Tristan lays in the center on a bed of rumpled white sheets, in a vaguely Christ-like position. The image is immediately powerful, a theatrical epiphany of the kind one usually sees in history books but which never seems to make an impact on stage--unlike, say, the Berlin Staatsoper Magic Flute, which takes its cue from from Schinkel's haunting designs but in the act of bringing them to life transforms them into kitsch. Marelli's third act Tristan stands as operatic iconography, an image both frozen and alive.

The strong cast on Sunday night didn't hurt, either. Katarina Dalayman has almost perfected her Isolde (I saw her in the role at the Met a couple years ago in Barenboim's debut), though she still occasionally shrieks instead of sings. Christa Mayer sang a nuanced Brangäne, Christoph Pohl a vicious but noble Melot, and Matthias Henneberg a strong Kurnewal, though it took him most of the first act to find his voice. Liang Lai's Marke struck a regal pose, his voice well-suited for the king's molasses-like sorrowful languor. The only weak link was, understandably, Leonid Zakhozhaev, filling in last-minute for Stephen Gould as Tristan, but you really can't fault someone for singing a shaky Tristan with only a few days for preparation. Unfortunately, despite the gorgeous sets and overall concept, the acting was rather weak, with little to no chemistry between Tristan and Isolde--an essential problem when a production becomes this old and the director is no longer supervising.

Obviously, the real dramatic force in Tristan is the orchestra, and the Staatskapelle was, well, Wagnerian. They have the ability to play a seemingly-infinite legato, stretching far beyond bar lines or divisions of measure, in which each individual phrase breathes within the context surrounding it. It is a creamy sound; a touch of brass vibrato in the prelude, for example, added an almost overwhelming warmth to the texture. Ascher Fisch conducted with flowing majesty, especially in the opening to Act III, which he treated with understated menace.

On a sad note, the opera house was barely half-full for Sunday's performance. I spoke to a woman sitting next to me who had been seeing Tristan at the Semperoper for fifty years, and remembers when every performance would sell out. It seems that even in its most historically rich homes, classical music still needs to be shaken up.

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