Seen and Heard International, May 24, 2013
Michael Cookson
Wagner-Geburtstagskonzert, Dresden, 21. Mai 2013
Dresden Festival 2 : Dresden Remembers its Strong Associations with Wagner
On the eve of the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth Christian Thielemann conducted the Staatskapelle Dresden in a programme of Wagner overtures and great tenor opera scenes. How wonderfully appropriate it was for the Staatskapelle to play these Wagner scores all premièred either in whole or part by this orchestra in Dresden where the composer resided and made his name. For the vast majority of those present I should think it was heartthrob tenor Jonas Kauffmann who was the main attraction. So with Kaufmann singing Wagner the audience had the best of both worlds.

Incisive and direct, as soon as music director Christian Thielemann commenced the overture to The Flying Dutchman, the weight of orchestral sound was astonishing almost forcing this listener back into his seat. It was soon evident that a world class orchestra was playing as clearly as Wagner could depict in music a storm at sea. The sense of drama and a substantial degree of fear was present with the music ending in a beautiful calm. Equally exceptional was the revised version of the Faust concert overture with a mood that varied between disquiet and anticipation. In the Rienzi overture the orchestral weight behind the memorable main melody was a stunning experience and in the Lohengrin prelude the opening on the high strings contained a celestial glow. Exquisitely pairs of horns, bassoons and clarinets opened the Tannhauser overture with Thielemann ratcheting up the tension, creating the perfect blend of assurance and sheer drama. Gloriously unified with a luscious timbre there was an object lesson in horn playing; an instrument so difficult to master.

The only non-Wagner work on the programme was Hans Werner Henze’s Fraternité for large orchestra that the composer described as an ‘air’. I guess that the composer’s death in October 2012 was the reason for altering the planned performance of the orchestral score Isolde’s Tod. I’m glad I had the opportunity of hearing Fraternité played by such a wonderful orchestra. Taking around twelve minutes to perform this is a bold work with writing as dense as a Richard Strauss tone poem, and with little in the way of dissonance, and easily accessible. Creating a sense of dark menace I loved the trombone part with the timpani and the relative peace created by the cor anglais solo was only short-lived as the threatening mood returned with a vengeance.

Never one to hang about taking curtain calls as soon as Thielemann left the stage after the Faust overture he returned immediately with Kaufmann to burst headlong into Rienzi’s Prayer. With passion and poise Kaufmann sang Allmächt’ger Vater (Almighty Father!) a heartfelt proclamation of Rienzi’s confidence in the Roman people. In the Gralserzählung (Grail narration) from Lohengrin, In fernem land (In a far off land) the dramatic tenor was, with evident ease, able to supply full meaning to the text. Kaufmann’s final aria was Romerzählung (Rome narration) from Act 3 of Tannhauser, Inbrunst im Herzen (With such devotion) with its striking brass laden climaxes. Looking strangely boyish in demeanor Kaufmann sang with real intensity, modulating confidently through his range, revealing his dark lower register and a deceptive power. Noticeable was the refined quality of the Bavarian tenor’s diction together with a riveting delivery of the text. Such was the elevated quality of both singing and orchestral playing I couldn’t help wondering if these tenor scenes have ever been performed better. I expected Kaufmann to provide his enthralled audience with an encore but time didn’t allow. It turned out that immediately after the concert both he and Maestro Thielemann had an arranged spot on a live television broadcast from the Theaterplatz just outside the opera house.

Listed in the programme was a pre-arranged encore Einzug der Gäste auf Wartburg (Entrance of the guests at the Wartburg) from Tannhauser Freudig begrüßen wir die edle Halle (Joyfully we hail the noble hall). For this three trumpeters decamped to one of the forward-most boxes for the opening fanfare and the men and women of the Staatsopernchor Dresden were divided on each side of the side gangway of the stalls. Adding variety to the programme this beautifully sung and performed score had a most uplifting effect providing a highly satisfactory conclusion to a wonderful evening at the Semper Oper.

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