Natalie Wheen

Hovering between fact and fantasy

Natalie Wheen is thrilled by the sights and sounds of a largely reconstructed Dresden

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I had the strangest experience at the ballet in Dresden: all perfectly pretty onstage, the company well schooled but I couldn't believe the orchestra. I've never heard a ballet orchestra playing with such love for the music - beautiful phrasing, elegantly balanced winds, seamless ensemble, the right notes all the time, in tune...I had to pinch myself.

Of course, this was no ordinary ballet band; at the Semper Oper in Dresden, the Staatskapelle, with a 455-year-old reputation to guard, has the longest record of continuous work of any bunch of musicians. The orchestra did first performances for Wagner and Weber, nine premieres for Richard Strauss, his dream team. It was Beethoven's super band. No wonder it has this rich sound, the depth to it from years of fine polishing the ensemble - and not least from working every day with singers for something like 300 years. Heinrich Schutz, who arrived in Dresden in 1612, made the court music the most famous in Germany by bringing in the rich sounds of Monteverdi and writing the first German opera. And Gottfried Semper's late 19th-century building for the Saxon State Opera is the eighth theatre on the site.

Being in Dresden brings an unnerving sensation that the city is hovering in some middle ground between fact and fantasy. Come out of the Semper opera building and you step into a painting, one of those 1750s cityscapes by Bellotto: the Zwinger to the right, once pleasure gardens designed as a Baroque setting for sensational parties for Elector Augustus the Strong, and now home to his and his son's art collections, the cultural heartbeat of Dresden today. Across the square is the Catholic Hofkirche, with the Residenzschloss just behind, with its famous tiled frieze showing the stately progress of the Saxon rulers over 800 years. You know that further on is Br