"Struck by History in Dresden and Prague"
by Alex Ross
New York Times, June 6, 1995
Dresden is famous as the city that was destroyed. Arriving for the Dresden Music Festival recently, a first-time visitor had the well-known catastrophic pictures in mind: the landscape photographed from above, obscured by firestorms and the lowering hulks of Allied bombers. It is staggering now to walk through the city center and see the old buildings restored to former glory, as if the smoke had cleared and left everything unharmed. The handsome sprawl of the Semper Opera conjures very different images, of turn-of-the-century Dresden, when Strauss's operas had triumphant premieres and special "Rosenkavalier" trains arrived from Berlin. Dresden is a life-size replica of itself, eerily perfect. One can forget that the original is gone.
Prague, 75 miles to the south and west, has famously survived. All the detritus of foreign invasion has been cunningly absorbed into an omnivorous cultural fabric. Even the hideous monuments of Communism have somehow become part of the city's stylistic crazy quilt. General dilapidation adds authenticity. The continuities are tremendous, in music as well as architecture: "Don Giovanni" is performed in the theater where Mozart first conducted it in 1787, and a memorial to the composer Josef Suk is presided over by his grandson, who bears his name.
In recent weeks, these two great cities offered strikingly like-minded music festivals, testifying to the resilience of tradition and also to the terrible vulnerability of individual creative personalities. Dresden commemorated the 50th anniversary of the bombing of February 1945; Prague marked its 50th Prague Spring, a festival that originated as a celebration of German withdrawal.
In his third year heading the Dresden festival, Michael Hampe, the longtime manager of the Cologne Opera, emblazoned the festival programs with the stark word "Apocalypse" and commemorated World War II with an intriguing array of 20th-century programming: Britten's "War Requiem," Strauss's "Friedenstag," Schoenberg's "Survivor From Warsaw" and Bernd Alois Zimmermann's scorchingly anti-militaristic "Soldaten," among other works. Mr. Hampe's introductory essay in the program led off with Thomas Mann's vision of a defeated Germany, "Ringed round by demons, a hand over one eye, the other staring into horror."
Zimmermann was a composer who typified Germany's agonized post-war self-examination, collecting horrors in a chaos of styles before killing himself in 1970. Willy Decker's brilliant production of "Die Soldaten" at the Semper Opera was a brightly colored and almost playfully cartoonish treatment of an opera that can easily wear out audiences with its relentless pessimism. Where a production at the New York City Opera made its greatest impact in the onslaught of the opening, Mr. Decker saved his masterstroke, a vertiginous tilting of the boxlike set, for the end. Just as revealing was an excellent chamber concert the following night at the Dresden Center for Contemporary Music in which Zimmermann's sober, modernist craftsmanship came to the fore.
"Die Soldaten" met with a certain amount of bafflement, but long ovations greeted Marco Marelli's new staging of "Tristan und Isolde," with Deborah Polaski and Wolfgang Schmidt in the leads. The production was less than ideal: Ms. Polaski's huge tone lacked lyric breadth, Mr. Schmidt bleated pathetically and Mr. Marelli filled the stage with pulsating translucent cubes and psychedelic coloration redolent of the seedier side of late-night German television. But Christof Prick and the Staatskapelle Orchestra counterbalanced these shortcomings with a subtle, intimate, expressive account of the score. Even greater splendors followed a few nights later, when Claudio Abbado led the Berlin Philharmonic in searching interpretations of Beethoven's heroic Third and anti-heroic Eighth Symphonies.
Whether resounding to Zimmermann or Beethoven, the restored Semper Opera is a fabulous, ennobling presence. Even the all-conquering Berliners looked around a few times in awe. An accident of ideological good works has given the city an astonishing collection of musical venues. Future festivals will reunite them with works from Dresden's glorious Baroque heydey, including unknown scores from the libraries of Elector Augustus the Strong.
The Prague Spring Festival, which ended Saturday, drew upon a similar 20th-century legacy, including the inevitable "War Requiem." Both festivals turned attention on music of Jewish composers persecuted by the Nazis, but where Dresden offered the work of survivors -- Schoenberg's "Survivor of Warsaw" and Korngold's Symphony in F sharp -- Prague explored works of Czech composers interned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp and then killed at Auschwitz.
These concerts were promising on paper but disappointing in fact. The Czech Philharmonic, once a magnificent ensemble under the direction of the Theresienstadt survivor Karel Ancerl, has passed into the hands of the workmanlike Gerd Albrecht and no longer plays with savage brilliance. Mr. Albrecht selects interesting repertory, but his program of Viktor Ullmann's "Cornet Christoph Rilke" and a suite of arias and interludes from Zemlinsky's opera "Traumgorge" did not represent the best of either composer.
A further drawback was the lack of recent music by Czech composers. The chief contemporary music presence was American: Peter Kotik's S.E.M. Ensemble, playing Varese, Cage and Feldman in Spanish Hall on Thursday. Mr. Kotik, who left Czechoslovakia in 1969, told me that many younger Czech composers were dutifully following prevalent trends but failing to fashion distinct identities. The Communist regime seems to have sapped musical spirit. Miloslav Kabelac, a composer touted as the Czech Shostakovich, did not make a strong impression here in concert or on several CD's obtained from Czech stores.
One can find more delight in Prague's musical byways, the myriad concerts advertised in flyers handed out on street corners. There was, for example, a program devoted to the Czech Baroque master Jan Dismas Zelenka, who, as it happens, worked most of his life in Dresden and was also heard in the neighboring city. This modest effort by the Myslivecek Chamber Orchestra took place in St. Nicholas Church, a gaudy and frightening edifice raised by the Jesuits. Zelenka was himself Jesuit-trained, and the errant, darksome splendors of his music resonated uncannily with the surroundings.
Listening to music in American concert halls, one is always prepared for the great comedown: the final, ecstatic world-denying sigh of "Tristan und Isolde," then the taxis and the crowds and the subway. This does not happen so much in Prague and Dresden. Out in the old theater square after the Dresden "Tristan," it seemed for a moment that the 20th century had never existed. Another night, after a concert high above the Elbe, musicians glided past on old bicycles, violas strapped to their backs. Down the hill was the Friedrich Schiller House, and a light went on upstairs. Whether anyone was actually home, it was hard to tell.