From Dresden to Leipzig and Back Again: Opera in Saxony

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Leipzig’s Opera House, built in 1960 by the DDR, situated on the north end of Augustusplatz opposite the Gewandhaus. (© Richard S. Ginell)
Leipzig’s Opera House, built in 1960 by the DDR, situated on the north end of Augustusplatz opposite the Gewandhaus. (© Richard S. Ginell)
By Richard S. Ginell

The distance between Dresden and Leipzig is only 62 miles, and to see one city without visiting the other would seem to be an opportunity missed if you have the time.  While they are amazingly similar in population currently – Dresden as of 2010 has 523,000 residents while Leipzig comes within a whisker of that total at 522,000! – and both have deep connections with the great composers, they are not twin cities.  Leipzig is more of a trade center with a more bustling street vibe; it was also a book publishing mecca before the Communists took over. No great river bisects and defines the center of town as the Elbe does in Dresden, and while Leipzig suffered heavy damage during World War II, it was not on the catastrophic scale of what befell Dresden’s old city. Also Leipzig played a much more crucial role in toppling the DDR, with some mediating help from the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s then-chief, Kurt Masur.

So a colleague of mine in the Music Critics Association of North America and I boarded a local train out of Dresden and got out at Leipzig’s dazzling new train station after an easy 90-minute ride. We bounded down the streets and plazas, stopped by the impressive home of Mendelssohn (only a block or so away from the “office” at the Gewandhaus, but his rooms look like a great place to work) and that of the Schumanns, and visited the fountainhead J.S. Bach in his current resting place facing the altar in the church in which he worked so long and hard, the Thomaskirche.

Then, to top off the day, we took in Oper Leipzig’s production of Prokofiev’s The Love For Three Oranges in the current opera house, finished in 1960 upon the site of the previous opera house (destroyed in another Allied air raid) at the north end of the Augustusplatz.  The audience was the strangest opera crowd I will likely ever see; many rows of seats lay empty, and most of those that were filled were occupied by morbidly-costumed (in black) young people who were attending Leipzig’s annual Wave-Gotik-Treffen – the world’s biggest Gothic convention. It turned out to be a great setup for a delightfully weird, well-sung (in German) production, with a duplicate mock-up of the hall’s interior onstage facing us in the Prologue, nightmare visions with video clips of old telephones, blatantly Brechtian placards with single letters, a Wagnerian parody of a sorceress on a pedestal, the “desert” now a prison yard presided over by an Eastern bloc guard. Eurotrash to be sure, but it worked hand-in-hand with the surreal fairy-tale plot and the merrily raucous score, Prokofiev at his tweaking best. The Gewandhaus Orchestra is the house orchestra for Oper Leipzig, and they played Prokofiev brilliantly under the propulsive direction of Roland Kluttig (who was also duplicated in dwarf form onstage at the beginning of Act III).

Back in Dresden, the Saxon State Opera kept up its almost daily schedule at the Semperoper quite apart from the concurrent Dresdner Musikfestspiele.  The months of April and May found the company churning out the usual ample supplies of Traviatas, Don Giovannis, L’Elisir d’Amores and Rigolettos, but also dealing in esoterica that we hardly see at all in the States – Hindemith’s Cardillac, Weinberger’s Schwanda, The Bagpiper.  In September, in belated followup to Hans Werner Henze’s 85th birthday last year, the company will be doing We Come to the River, El Cimarrón, and a 2010 Semperoper-commissioned opera for young adults in collaboration with Christian Lehnert and Michael Kerstan, Gisela! or The Strange and Memorable Ways of Happiness– a veritable Henze festival. Shows what state support of the arts can do.

Of the two productions that I was able to catch, a newly-minted one of Mozart’s La Clemenza da Tito best showed off this company from a musical standpoint.  However fine the Semperoper is as a concert hall, it is even better as an opera house, the primary purpose for which it was designed.  The voices, all opulent and stable even unto the trickiest melisma, carried beautifully over the orchestra into the house in near-perfect balance with the instruments.  As in Leipzig, the Dresden Staatskapelle doubles as the pit ensemble for the opera – and they played like a top-notch Mozart orchestra for their conductor du jour, Tomás Netopil, who struck exactly the right balance between classical style and the sheer beauty of sound for its own sake. No period-performance dessication here; they still use modern instruments here with just a few intelligent hints of period-informed phrasings. The production looked like a mishmash of ideas – a stage-wide, three-section Act I mural of ancient Rome with a few contemporary buildings deep in the rear, while in Act II, the chorus distributed itself all over a series of multi-story platforms and compartments. All the choristers had tails – the animal kind – in Act I, but by the finale of Act II, they had been shed possibly as a sign of the best in man overcoming the beast in man (there’s that phrase again). In any case, the chorus sang sonorously, and movingly, at all times.

The other production was something you don’t see everyday in the land (USA) where it was written, Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, a Broadway show well on the way to becoming an opera.  Weill had every intention of making this his breakthrough toward a new vision of an American Broadway opera, and it was celebrated at the time of its premiere (1947) as such.  But it was never a popular success, and various sporadic attempts to revive it – also mostly praised – have not planted it squarely in the repertory.  As someone who is perpetually fascinated by this chameleonic composer, I have a wildly mixed reaction to the piece. The show has a heart and a conscience and you want it to succeed, but the score and plot lapse into indigestible sentimental melodrama that always leaves a sour laste in my mouth.

The Saxons couldn’t redeem the piece either; indeed, they added to its problems. Setting Street Scene, originally placed indelibly in front of  sweltering New York City tenements, in a contemporary high-rise apartment complex of indeterminate locale made one wonder whether these lower-to-lower-middle-class urban dwellers are really struggling. The “Ice Cream Sextet” was sung to an entertaining, ever-speeded-up video show of USA destinations and kitsch – it looked like the viewpoint of an outsider, and maybe a hostile one.  Singing Street Scene in German creates its own disconnect; true, Broadway shows are done that way all the time in Europe, but it’s still an awkward fit – and in any case, I suspect even native German speakers would have had trouble picking up the dimly-heard passages of speech over the underscoring.  Then there’s the issue of musical style, following the zigzagging Weill trajectory of blues, jazz, Broadway showstoppers, operatic arias, and verismo thunder that switches at the drop of a hat. The cast, a good mix of opera and musical theatre singers, did alright with the score’s more classical aspects, and they somehow managed to make it lean more toward Weill’s Berlin period – taking him home against his will, as it were – than any other performance I’ve heard.  But the quintessentially American Broadway jitterbug number  “Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed” – which should have been a hit in its time, but wasn’t – was laughably stiff, although Jonathan Darlington’s conducting elsewhere could sometimes lift the Staatskapelle into something resembling a crackling American street rhythm.

Finally, as part of the festival itself, there was an operatic curiosity within the still-heavily-scarred salon of the Palais in Dresden’s Grosse Garten, La Casa Disabitata (The Uninhabited House) by Princess Amalie of Saxony (1794-1870), a student of Carl Maria von Weber (the latter’s grave can be found in Dresden’s Old Catholic Cemetery). How this piece came to be performed is a slightly more interesting tale than the piece itself. It lay unperformed for 177 years, became part of a haul of stolen art that the Soviets trundled off to Russia at the end of World War II – and after much negotiation, a copy of the score was lent to the Festival for a single concert performance. Princess Amalie evidently used her spare time diligently; this was the last of her twelve operas, all of which were performed in court, and by this time, she had thoroughly absorbed the language of Mozart and knew the formulas well.  The overture is a graceful piece of classical fluff, and the rest rolls on in a tuneful, nicely-crafted, lightweight Mozartean manner for about 89 minutes, with one particularly good aria for bass-baritone (Don Raimondo, sung by Ilhun Jung) that has an inventive pizzicato accompaniment. In Scene X, the character Eutichio simulates a dialogue between Don Giovanni and the Commendatore, though the Princess apparently resisted the temptation to insert a Mozart musical quote. Though sometimes tough going in an uninterrupted stretch for the listener, the performance by the Dresdner Kapellsolisten made a lively case for the Princess’s amiable comic farce – and it sounded mellow and clear within the ruined salon.  The whole experience reminded me of a famous album cover of Pablo Casals conducting within what looked like a similar ruin in the first Prades Festival of 1950.  Atmosphere that only Old Europe can provide.