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
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era