Tuesday 14 August 2018

Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuth Festival

Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuth Festival - Photo Enrico Nawrath
Richard Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg;Daniel Behle, Günther Groissböck, Johannes Martin Krenzler, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Emily Magee, Klaus Florian Vogt, Michael Volle, dir: Barrie Kosky, cond: Philippe Jordan; Bayreuth Festival, Germany
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 14 August 2018
Star rating: (★★★★★) 5.0

Bayreuth Festival’s production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg offered a strong message on anti-Semitism

An innovative, flamboyant and at times a wonderfully-quirky director, Barrie Kosky (artistic director of Komische Oper Berlin) delivered a brilliant and entertaining production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg first seen at last year’s Bayreuth Festival [see Tony's review from the 2017]. This year (seen on 14 August 2018) conducted by Philippe Jordan with Michael Volle, Klaus Florian Vogt, Daniel Behle and Emily Magee.

Born in Melbourne in the late 1960s, the grandson of Jewish emigrants from Europe, his name in now indelibly linked to Bayreuth’s glorious history as he has become the first Jewish director to hold court at Bayreuth over its illustrious 142-year-old history. He’s also the first person outside of the Wagner family to direct Meistersinger at Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus built specifically to stage Wagner’s mighty canon of Teutonic works especially Der Ring des Nibelungen.

That’s quite an honour and I think, too, an important and significant step by Katharina Wagner - artistic director of the Bayreuth Festival and daughter of Wolfgang Wagner and great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner - of appointing Kosky as it supports her strong 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 over three years ago) 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.

Therefore, in Mr Kosky’s riveting and exciting production of Die Meistersinger - a work that’s essentially a hymn to the supremacy of German art - Wahnfried takes centre stage and 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 friends in the book-lined drawing-room 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.

Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuth Festival (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
And Franz Liszt (Wagner’s father-in-law) also turns up and pokes his nose into things, too, offering a tune on the piano from Meistersinger in a way that irritates the composer no end that he pushes him off the piano-stool, takes over the keyboard and shows the ‘youngster’ how to do it. A nice quirky touch, eh!

However, the pivotal role of Walther von Stolzing (portrayed as Young Wagner) and sung by a big ‘favourite’ of the Green Hill, Klaus Florian Vogt, delivered a performance that was well portrayed and, indeed, well-received at curtain-call. His entrance into Wahnfried’s elegantly-furnished drawing-room was very unorthodox as he came by a precarious route tumbling from a model of Wagner’s Steinway Grand. Waiting for him at the other end was, of course, Eva (portrayed as Cosima) eloquently sung by American soprano, Emily Magee.

The Master Singers arrive 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’s Men from the pantomime, Dick Whittington.

But Rebecca Ringst’s sets were far from pantomime and carefully designed to capture the correct scale and detail of the opera’s respective scenes. For instance, Wahnfried - created as a doll’s-house box set - was as accurate, I should imagine, as one could possibly get of Wahnfried in Wagner’s day and in this respect so, too, was room 600 used for the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46 while costume designer, Klaus Bruns, was just as thoughtful in his ideas and produced a good wardrobe.

Mr Kosky always seem to have plenty of tricks up his sleeve and gave a dramatic and stylish ending to act one as members of the audience seemed transfixed witnessing Wahnfried slowly retracting to reveal room 600 with a single GI on duty warning of things to come. The same set was cleverly adapted for the second act but the courtroom floor, free of furniture and completely grassed over, found Wagner and Cosima tucked up one corner enjoying an al fresco lunch.

One of the highlights of this act was the formidable tête-à-tête between Hans Sachs (Old Wagner) - sung and brilliantly acted by Michael Volle - and Sixtus Beckmesser - sung by Johannes Martin Kränzle whose performance was riddled with humour, trepidation and uncertainty. The scene was well executed with Sachs as always interrupting proceedings and greatly upsetting Beckmesser in the process by bumbling away with his old cobbler’s song while hammering the soles of Eva’s half-made shoes with Eva (in fact, her maid Magdalena in disguise) looking completely disinterested from the first-floor window. And that inspiring Austrian bass, Günter Groissböck, stamped his authority on the role of Veit Pogner, Eva’s wealthy (and dominant) father.

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 (Wiebke Lehmkuhl) all hell broke loose.

And with Kosky portraying Levi as Beckmesser a nasty and disturbing scene brought act two to an unsettling 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 dominated 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 black 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. The lone figure of The Nightwatchman (Tobias Kehrer) calling out the hour brought peace and tranquillity to the neighbourhood.

There’s so much good stuff in 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.

Another great moment in the opera’s scenario unfolded 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 seemed appropriate within Kosky’s staging.

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. Mr Kosky sprang a huge surprise here that had the audience mesmerised when an entire symphony orchestra (and chorus) - an ending of Wagnerite proportions - arrived on a slowly-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?

Mr Kosky has most certainly delivered Bayreuth a production of Meistersinger to be proud of, one to chalk up and, indeed, one that puts 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 just the one that will help to separate Wagner’s operas from their dark, distant and murky past. But whatever brickbats you throw at him - and there are many - he left the world a great musical legacy.

The man in charge of the pit, Swiss-born, Philippe Jordan (who takes over as music director of the Vienna State Opera in 2020) made his Bayreuth début with this production last year and did a sterling 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 to capture the essence, richness and beauty of Wagner’s wonderful score.

Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuth Festival (Photo 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-call - 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 made 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.

Philippe Jordan: conductor
Barrie Kosky: director
Rebecca Ringst: set designer
Klaus Bruns: costume designer
Franck Evin: lighting designer
Regine Freise: video technology
Ulrich Lenz: dramaturg
Bayreuth Festival Chorus (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Hans Sachs: Michael Volle
Veit Pogner: Günther Groissböck
Kunz Vogelgsang: Tansel Akzeybek
Konrad Nachtigall: Armin Kolarczyk
Sixtus Beckmesser: Johannes Martin Kränzle
Fritz Kothner: Daniel Schmutzhard
Balthasar Zorn: Paul Kaufmann
Ulrich Eißlinger: Christopher Kaplan
Augustin Moser: Stefan Heibach
Hermann Ortel: Raimund Nolte
Hans Schwarz: Andreas Hörl
Hans Foltz: Timo Riihonen
Walther von Stolzing: Klaus Florian Vogt
David: Daniel Behle
Eva: Emily Magee
Magdalena: Wiebke Lehmkuhl
Night-watchman: Tobias Kehrer
Helga Beckmesser (harp): Ruth-Alice Marino

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Edward Lambert's new Lorca-inspired chamber opera at Tête à Tête (★★½)  - Opera review
  • Still relevant & still controversial: Alex Mills' Dear Marie Stopes at the Wellcome Collection (★★★★½)  - Opera review
  • Politics, music and tonality: Keith Burstein and The Prometheus Revolution - interview
  • Small scale challenge: studio performance of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor from Fulham Opera (★★★½)  - opera review
  • Calen-O: songs from the North of Ireland from Carolyn Dobbin & Iain Burnside (★★★★½) - CD review
  • Prom 34: rare Barber & Copland in Juanjo Mena's leave-taking at the BBC Proms (★★★★) - concert review
  • Musical memoir: Tom Smail's Blue Electric at Tête à Tête  (★★★) - opera review
  • An uneasy mix: politics, spirituality and melody in Keith Burstein's new opera at Grimeborn  (★★★) - opera review
  • Jonas Kaufmann as Wagner’s Parsifal at the Munich Opera Festival (★★★★) - opera review
  • Piecing together the new opera Dear Marie Stopes  - guest post from composer Alex Mills
  • The classical saxophone: Huw Wiggin's Reflections (★★★★★) - CD review
  • New production of Shakespeare's Othello at the Globe Theatre - Theatre review
  • Home

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