Sated on excess, passion and Wagner

Alexandra Coghlan reviews the Dresden Festival's celebration on the eve of Wagner’s 200th birthday.

2013 might be a big year for classical anniversaries, but celebrations of Gesualdo, Britten and even Verdi have all been dwarfed by the biggest of them all: Richard Wagner’s 200th birthday. This year’s Proms feature no fewer than seven of his operas, Welsh National Opera are currently staging a new Lohengrin while the Royal Opera House’s Parsifal will follow in November. But if it’s authenticity you’re after then it would be hard to improve on a concert on the eve of Wagner’s birthday in the composer’s home town of Dresden, directed by Bayreuth’s unofficial musical director and Wagner-authority Christian Thielemann.

Rienzi, Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser all had their premiere in the gilded baroque splendour of Dresden’s Semperoper, which is among the most spectacular of the annual Dresden Festival’s venues – a secular foil and companion to the famous Frauenkirche, and another reminder of the city’s palimpsest-history of destruction and rebuilding. The Semperoper’s resident orchestra, the Staateskapelle Dresden, also has its historical ghosts. Nicknamed the “wonder-harp” by Wagner himself, some claim that the influence of the composer’s direction can still be felt in the ensemble’s sound today.

Whether that’s true or not, under their new conductor the Staatskapelle certainly have one of the most gilded of brass tones in Europe (only appropriate in so baroque a city), showcased beautifully here in the Overture to Rienzi. The roundness of the sound catches the opera house’s acoustic without undue force or edge, and timbrally they have a very similar quality to the concert’s soloist – superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann. In this intimate space both were able to give a dazzlingly subtle range of muted colours without any fear of the detail being missed.

Thielemann is a conductor of certainties, but what keeps him from inflexibility is the mutable, organic quality of these convictions. The result, in some of Wagner’s most familiar opera overtures, was curiously energised – music poised always on the edge of a change of heart, but driving passionately forwards regardless. Impulsion and propulsion are dominant characteristics, lending force to the storm that thrashes through Wagner’s overture to Der fliegende Holländer (a startling and vivid opener), conjuring Heine’s North Sea verses and Casper David Friedrich’s landscapes with every musical gust.

The Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin saw the strings at the fore, violins dissolving into a glowing pianissimo mist. Exquisite though their blend was however, Thielemann’s forces were at no point less – or, crucially – more than lovely. There was an absence of urgency here, a void where the Romantic sturm should be, that was never quite filled until Kaufmann joined the ensemble. Both Kaufmann and Thielemann are masters of the long game, withholding until the absolute last moment before releasing to shattering effect. Lohengrin’s Gralserzählung grew from barely-breath to full textural heroics, with the orchestra matching their soloist’s every flicker and surge of growth. Pacing was swift, but the smooth transitions suppressed any sense of rush.

Kaufmann’s Wagner brings the directness of Schubert lieder to the opera house, and this gorgeous simplicity was most evident in “Inbrunst im Herzen” from Tannhäuser, another slow-build that allowed Kaufmann the space to develop the psychological detail that is so much a part of his operatic performances, and could easily have been lost in this concert of excerpts.

The concert’s sole deviation from Wagner, Hens Werner Henze’s Fraternite, was both contrast and continuation, tracing the line of textural influence from the earlier composer but stripping some of the richer textures back to an altogether more bracing, percussive orchestral core. This work from 1999 sees the composer as his most lyric, glancing frequently towards melody before turning determinedly away. It was a welcome opportunity to see the orchestra and their new conductor in a different mode, and one that bodes well for regular Dresden audiences.

Sated on excess and passion, it only took the arrival of the men and women of Dresden’s opera chorus, to propel us to truly Wagnerian levels of indulgence with the “Einzug der Gäste” from Tannhäuser by way of encore. Gathering round us in the stalls they embraced us into the sound, invited us into the celebrations that spilled out onto the Theaterplatz where hundreds more watched the concert on giant screens. Dresden and its annual music festival certainly know how to throw a birthday party. You might be waiting a while for Wagner’s next big anniversary but with Schumann, Weber, Schumann and Strauss all having significant associations with the city, it’s safe to say that the festivities are likely to continue. And with Dresden’s democratic, free-thinking spirit, you certainly don’t need to wait for an invitation.
 

Dresden's Semperoper. Photograph: Sascha D E via WikiCommons
ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories