In Northern Europe, classical music abounds

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Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig form a neat triangle in the middle of what was once the German Democratic Republic, now a thriving composite venue for some of the best classical music to be heard anywhere. While the classical music scene relaxes for summer in the United States, American music lovers, among them many Pittsburghers, are visible in Europe’s concerts halls and opera houses. For this listener, a May-June journey through Scandinavia and Germany provided multiple events to choose from in every city on the itinerary.

More specifically, my partner and I wanted to minimize the hassles of present–day air travel, so we opted for a cruise from Miami to Copenhagen on the Norwegian Star, and returned from Hamburg to New York on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. In between Copenhagen and Hamburg, we fitted in a two-week tour during which we attended seven operas, each in a different house. We also heard some of the world’s great orchestras and conductors and visited the shrines of Bach, Schuetz and Richard Strauss.

It happens that 2014 is Strauss’s 150th birthday year, and although the timing did not allow us to hear any festival performances, we were aware of Strauss’ presence in the houses where his works were first performed.

Some generalities about the classical music scene in Northern Europe: Opera houses and concert halls are smaller than in the United States. Most of the theaters are easy to reach by public transportation or via walking streets downtown. Government subsidies have been reduced with the recession but are still enormous compared with arts funding in America. Not every performance is a good one, but day-to-day standards are quite high. A city’s major orchestra (and conductor) is often the pit component in that city’s opera house as well.

One caveat: It’s hard to find a traditional staging of a standard opera in Germany these days. Just about every libretto is updated and rethought, with plot modifications, abstract sets, violence, overt sexuality and frontal nudity the norm. It’s great in terms of artistic freedom, but sometimes disturbing, not for the shock or salacious elements, but that the original work may be hard to recognize.

First stop: Copenhagen: The star of Copenhagen’s musical scene is the new (completed 2004) opera house itself, called Operaen, architect Henning Larsen’s spectacular modern edifice on the city’s inner harbor. It seats 1,800 and has all the latest stage equipment. We caught a double bill of Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci,” both reset to post-World War II towns, with tattered American flags all over the stage. “Cavalleria,” as rethought by filmmaker Kasper Holten, was edgier, harsher and more feminist in its treatment of the pregnant Santuzza. Both operas featured excellent dramatic tenors in lead roles: Niels Jorgen Riis as Turiddu, Stig Fogh Anderson as Canio. During the intermission, young artists performed Pergolesi’s “La serva Padrona” in the lobby, much as might have been done in the 18th century.

The following night we heard “Don Giovanni” at the smaller Royal Theater --- an exquisite and funny rococo rendering with the superb period orchestra, Concerto Copenhagen. An interesting sidelight was that sets and props were taken from past productions in this historic house.

On to Berlin: There’s more classical music per square inch here than anywhere else I know, with three opera houses and several symphony orchestras, including the magnificent Berlin Philharmonic. Musically, the highlight was Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Donald Runnicles at Deutsche Oper, with as fine a cast as might be assembled today. In an era when great Wagnerian voices are not plentiful, Virginia native Stephen Gould proved himself a genuine Heldentenor, while Nina Stemme impersonated Isolde with a voice comparable in size to that of the late great Birgit Nilsson, only more plush and more expressive. The concept behind Graham Vick’s staging, however –- some sort of 21st-century parable of human mortality -– was incomprehensible even to a seasoned Wagnerian.

We had to forgo “Billy Budd” at Deutsche Oper to attend Staatsoper’s “Don Carlo” in the Schiller Theater (while that company’s Unter den Linden home is under renovation). With the magnificent basso Rene Pape as King Philip, and Pittsburgh favorite Anna Samuil as his queen, this was a production full of vocal glories, along with a visual concept that emphasized the cold cruelty of church and state.

Leipzig: An easy day trip from Berlin (70 minutes by fast train), this city affords the visitor another of the world’s great orchestras, the Gewandhausorchester, as well as St. Thomas Church, where Bach worked for the last 23 years of his life. The church’s boys choir goes back beyond Bach’s time, while one of several organs has been rebuilt in the style of an instrument Bach might have played. After visiting Bach’s grave (inside the church), we listened to a young organist practicing on this majestic instrument. The nearby Bach Museum was disappointing, as there were few historic artifacts -– mostly biographical information illustrated with modern-day commercial recordings.

Dresden: Buildings destroyed during the firebombing by Allied Forces in 1945 were reconstructed largely as they had been before the war, giving the Old City section a Disneyland quality that has made it a mecca for tourists. The elegant Semperoper building houses the Saxon Staatsoper and the Staatskapelle (Dresden’s orchestra), both currently under the aegis of the eminent Christian Thielemann, who is leading an ongoing Strauss festival here. He conducted a splendid new production of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” — with first-rate singers and a production that added levels of interpretation to the original libretto.

Away from the center of town, in a plain, modern building created for the people of the former German Democratic Republic, Dresden’s Staatsoperette offers lighter fare. We caught Lehar’s “Giuditta,” a delicious treat whose hit song, “Meine Lippen sie Kuessen so heiss,” is often inserted into “The Merry Widow.”

Hamburg, our last stop: Unfortunately, Strauss’ “Arabella” was playing at the Staatsoper the night before we arrived. We opted for Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” which turned out to be an off night for this excellent company. The originally announced cast included Leo Nucci in the title role, along with opera’s current glamorous married couple — Stephen Costello and Ailyn Perez — as the romantic leads. All three stars, however, canceled, and their replacements were barely adequate. The city of Hamburg, which has three major orchestras, is building a spectacular new concert hall, the Elbephilharmonie, on the waterfront. Although the hall is still under construction, it was possible to get a peek. A full schedule of events has been announced for 2014-15.



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