Friday 25 August 2017

A riveting and exciting production: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Bayreuth Festival - Anne Schwanewilms, Klaus Florian Vogt, Michael Volle (Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Bayreuth Festival - Anne Schwanewilms, Klaus Florian Vogt, Michael Volle
(Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner Die Meistersinger; Daniel Behle, Günter Groissböck, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Anne Schwanewilms, Klaus Florian Vogt, Michael Volle, dir: Barrie Kosky, cond: Philippe Jordan; Bayreuth Festival
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on Aug 19 2017 Star rating: 5.0
A new production of Wagner's comedy which imaginatively weaves in the work's history

Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Bayreuth Festival - Daniel Behle (Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Daniel Behle
(Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Barrie Kosky's production of Die Meistersinger at the Bayreuth Festival, new this year (seen 19 August 2017) featured Michael Volle as Hans Sachs, Anne Schwanewilms as Eva, Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther, Johannes Martin Kränzle, as Beckmesser, Daniel Behle as David, Günter Groissböck as Pogner and Wiebke Lehmkuhl, conducted by Philippe Jordan.

Barrie Kosky - artistic director of Komische Oper Berlin who depicts himself as a ‘gay Jewish kangaroo’, whom I find an innovative, flamboyant and at times a wonderfully-quirky director - was born in Melbourne in the late 1960s, the grandson of Jewish emigrants from Europe. A successful opera director, he will, no doubt, go down in history as the first Jewish director to hold court in Bayreuth Festival’s illustrious 141-year-old history and also the first person outside of the Wagner family to direct Die Meistersinger at Bayreuth.

That’s quite an honour and I think, too, a significant step and a mighty big gesture by Katharina Wagner - artistic director of the Bayreuth Festival, daughter of Wolfgang Wagner and great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner - of appointing Kosky as it backs up her viewpoint of bringing to the fore Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitic stance and his family’s later association with Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. This vision is also reflected in the revamped exhibition focusing on the Bayreuth Festival housed in the newly-restored Villa Wahnfried (complete with a swishy new extension) where Wagner lived with his wife Cosima and their children from 1874 to 1882.

Although a museum since 1976 (it reopened to the public just before last year’s festival) this is the first time that the era of the Third Reich has found its place in the exhibition. Most certainly, the last piece of the jigsaw. You cannot erase history and neither should you. But at the same time the sins of the father cannot be brought upon the children.
And in Kosky’s riveting and exciting production of Die Meistersinger - a work that’s essentially a hymn to the supremacy of German art - Wahnfried features prominently in the first act replacing the traditional setting of St Catherine’s Church.
Here we meet Herr Wagner and his wife Cosima entertaining their friends in the book-lined drawing-room of Wahnfried engaged in a ‘read-through’ of Meistersinger in which the Jewish conductor, Hermann Levi - who conducted the first performance of Wagner’s Christian-based (and final) work, Parsifal, in July 1882 - is portrayed (and humiliated) as Sixtus Beckmesser, the role so admirably (and amusingly) sung by Johannes Martin Kränzle. His performance would be hard to beat.

Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Bayreuth Festival - Johannes Martin Kränzle (Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Johannes Martin Kränzle (Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Franz Liszt (Wagner’s father-in-law) also turns up and pokes his nose into things offering a tune on the piano from Meistersinger in a way that irritates Wagner. He boldly takes over the keyboard, pushes him off the piano-stool and shows him how to do it.

In fact, a model of Wagner’s Steinway Grand produced a good prop especially when the ‘favourite’ of the Green Hill, Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther von Stolzing but portrayed as Young Wagner, is seen tumbling from it to woo and court Eva (Anne Schwanewilms) as Cosima.

The master singers arrive on the scene by the same precarious route with the chains of office denoting their trade dangling heavily from their necks. And robed in traditional processional gowns (inspired, perhaps, by the Nuremberg Renaissance painter/printmaker, Albrecht Dürer), they could easily have passed off as the Lord Chamberlain from the pantomime, Dick Whittington.

As the final bars of the first act slowly died away, the doll’s-house-type box set of Wahnfried retracted to reveal room 600 used for the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46 (used in act three) with a single GI on duty warning of things to come. However, the set was cleverly adapted for the second act but the courtroom floor, free of furniture and completely grassed over, found Wagner and Cosima enjoying an al fresco lunch.

Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Bayreuth Festival - Günter Groissböck (Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Günter Groissböck (Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
One of the highlights of this act, the tête-à-tête between Hans Sachs (Old Wagner) and Beckmesser, was well executed with Sachs as always interrupting proceedings and greatly upsetting Beckmesser in the process bumbling away singing his old cobbler’s song and hammering the soles of Eva’s half-made shoes with Eva (Magdalena in disguise) looking on from the first-floor window.

The moment David (sung by Daniel Behle) confusingly sees Beckmesser - whom in Kosky’s thinking is a Frankenstein-type creation of everything Wagner hated not only Jews but the French, Italians and critics alike and, no doubt, the tax man - serenading his girlfriend, Magdalena, all hell is let loose.

And with Kosky portraying Levi as Beckmesser a nasty and disturbing scene brought act two to a dramatic close as Beckmesser became the target of a brutal pogrom-style attack. The townsfolk flared up in arms egging on the forces of evil and, disturbingly, the Bayreuth stage became cloaked (and choked) by an inflatable caricature of a Jew, a copy of such Jewish characters that were regularly published in the Nazi weekly tabloid, Der Stürmer, by Julius Streicher - a prominent official in the Nazi party - from 1923 to the end of the Second World War. And when deflated, the only evidence remaining of the inflatable was the skull-cap heavily embossed with the Star of David. The scene was so powerful that it left me thinking (and I should imagine, others too) long after the final curtain.

Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Bayreuth Festival - Günter Groissböck (Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
 Günter Groissböck
(Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
The lone figure of The Nightwatchman (Karl-Heinz Lehner) calling out the hour brought peace and quiet to the neighbourhood.

There’s so much good stuff in Der Meistersinger but none comes better than the Morgentraum quintet. Arguably, the composer’s greatest ensemble piece celebrating the radiance of love and art. It was superbly (and beautifully) sung by the opera’s five main characters in the confines of the empty Nuremberg courtroom with the flags of the four occupying nations - the Soviet Union, Great Britain, the USA and France - unfurled and lining the back of the court.

The splendid and well-disciplined cast also included the Austrian bass, Günter Groissböck, who stamped his authority on the role of Veit Pogner, Eva’s wealthy (and dominant) father. Another great moment came with Hans Sachs’ Wahn monologue - a tribute to Holy German art - also sung on a bare stage with no pageantry and colour whatsoever. It would have been different, of course, in Wagner’s day. But, nonetheless, it was appropriate within the style of Kosky’s production.

And later in the same act, Sachs, in the guise of his mentor and creator, Richard Wagner, finds himself in the witness-box of courtroom 600 facing the music in more ways than one. Kosky sprang a big surprise that the audience lapped up when an entire symphony orchestra (and chorus) - an ending of Wagnerite proportions - arrived on a slow-moving platform to the front of stage. The ‘musicians’ were acted but it was hard to define and became a talking-point. However, as they came into view the walls of the courtroom slowly vanished out of sight reminiscent of the retraction of Wahnfried in the first act with room 600 slowly coming into view. Music, I guess, wins over politics in the end?

Kosky has most certainly delivered Bayreuth a production of Der Meistersinger to be proud of - one to chalk up, that’s for sure - and one that has put Richard Wagner - who described Jews as enemies not only of German culture but also of humanity as a whole - firmly in his place. In fact, this production might be the one that will help to separate Wagner’s operas from their dark, distant and murky past. But whatever brickbats you throw at Wagner - and there are many - he left the world a great musical legacy.

The man in charge of the pit, Philippe Jordan - recently appointed music director of the Vienna State Opera and making his Bayreuth début - did a fine job keeping the balance between the pit and the stage just right. In the famous C major overture he let rip but in the rich and tender opening bars of act three he reigned in the orchestra enough capturing the essence and richness of Wagner’s wonderful score.

Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Bayreuth Festival - (Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Bayreuth Festival - (Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
The chorus director, Eberhard Friedrich, came up trumps, too. His choral forces were certainly out in force as the work demanded a large chorus. They had (and enjoyed) their own curtain-call. The audience roared their approval for several minutes and then carried on for another 25 in true Bayreuth style for the main curtain - an act all of its own. Believe me!

Historical note: Die Meistersinger was frequently used as part of Nazi propaganda. For instance, the founding of the Third Reich on 21st March 1933 was marked by a performance of the opera in Berlin in the presence of Hitler while excerpts from the opera were played over scenes highlighting old Nuremberg at the beginning of Triumph of the Will, the 1935 documentary by Leni Riefenstahl depicting the Nazi party congress of 1934. And during the Second World War, Die Meistersinger was the only opera presented at the so-called Bayreuth war festivals of 1943 and 1944.
Reviewed by Tony Cooper

Conductor - Philippe Jordan
Director - Barrie Kosky
Stage design - Rebecca Ringst
Costumes - Klaus Bruns
Choral Conducting - Eberhard Friedrich
Dramaturgy - Ulrich Lenz
Lighting - Franck Evin

Hans Sachs, Schuster - Michael Volle
Veit Pogner, Goldschmied - Günther Groissböck
Kunz Vogelgesang, Kürschner - Tansel Akzeybek
Konrad Nachtigal, Spengler - Armin Kolarczyk
Sixtus Beckmesser, Stadtschreiber - Johannes Martin Kränzle
Fritz Kothner, Bäcker - Daniel Schmutzhard
Balthasar Zorn, Zinngießer - Paul Kaufmann
Ulrich Eisslinger, Würzkrämer - Christopher Kaplan
Augustin Moser, Schneider - Stefan Heibach
Hermann Ortel, Seifensieder - Raimund Nolte
Hans Schwarz, Strumpfwirker - Andreas Hörl
Hans Foltz, Kupferschmied - Timo Riihonen
Walther von Stolzing - Klaus Florian Vogt
David, Sachsens Lehrbube - Daniel Behle
Eva, Pogners Tochter - Anne Schwanewilms
Magdalene, Evas Amme - Wiebke Lehmkuhl
Ein Nachtwächter - Karl-Heinz Lehner

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