Strong Cast and Magnificent Orchestral Playing in Paris Opéra’s Meistersinger
Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Soloists, Orchestra and Choruses (chorus master: José Luis Basso) of the Opéra National de Paris, Philippe Jordan (conductor). Opéra Bastille, Paris, 13.3.2016 (MB)
Hans Sachs – Gerald Finley
Veit Pogner – Günther Groissböck
Kunz Vogelgsang – Dietmar Kerschbaum
Konrad Nachtigall – Ralf Lukas
Sixtus Beckmesser – Bo Skovhus
Fritz Kothner – Michael Kraus
Balthasar Zorn – Martin Homrich
Ulrich Eißlinger – Stefan Heibach
Augustin Moser – Robert Wörle
Hermann Ortel – Miljenko Turk
Hans Schwarz – Panajotis Iconomou
Hans Foltz – Roman Astakhov
Walther von Stolzing – Brandon Jovanovich
David – Toby Spence
Eva – Julia Kleiter
Magdalena – Wiebke Lehmkuhl
Night-watchman – Andreas Bauer
Stefan Herheim (director)
Heike Scheele (set designs)
Gesine Völlm (costumes)
Olaf Freese (original lighting, realised by Phoenix (Andreas Hofer) and Stefan Herheim)
Martin Kern (video)
Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach (dramaturgy)
My experience in the theatre of Die Meistersinger has not always been happy. There are, of course, the great might-have-beens: Pierre Boulez, who expressed a desire on several occasions to conduct the work, a wish never granted, and what might have happened in Paris under Gerard Mortier, who, disappointed in the chorus at his disposal, felt it impossible to do so. Whatever the justice of Mortier’s judgement, the present-day strength of choral singing at Stéphane Lissner’s Paris Opéra, as heard first of all in Moses und Aron, means that is no longer a difficulty. José Luis Basso’s work as chorus master is clearly paying off; the chorus was outstanding throughout. Then there are the disappointing – or worse than that – productions and performances; let us pass over them here in silence, without so much as a link. Stefan Herheim’s production, first seen in Salzburg in 2013, was of course anything but a disappointment then; now, extensively rethought, it is, I think, better still. It is difficult in so busy a spectacle to know, at least in some cases, what has been changed and what one simply missed. I shall largely refrain, then, from comparisons with respect to staging and simply recount what I saw on this occasion. Comparisons with respect to performance largely favour Paris; I shall come to those later.
We begin in Hans Sachs’s nineteenth-century workshop. A key feature of Wagner’s Romantic conception of Sachs and indeed of Nuremberg relates to overcoming division of labour – or, the more cynical, perhaps Marxist, commentator might respond, never having reached it in the first place. Yet Marx and Engels too, had their poetic flight of fancy in a celebrated passage in The German Ideology: ‘in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, … it [is] possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.’ Wagner and Herheim portray Sachs in more post-Nazarene fashion. But he remains a polymath and, more than that, a rebuke to involuntary specialisation; he cobbles, he writes verse, he sings, he paints too, and so forth. Here, he also dreams, and with that Herheim reminds us of Schopenhauer, of Freud, of fairy tales, and of course of the centrality of dreams to the work ‘itself’. And when he dreams, objects in his workshop grow, Nutcracker-Christmas-Tree-style; or is it that he and the characters of his dreams shrink? There is certainly a strong sense in the Bastille amphitheatre, its scale perhaps more helpful visually than acoustically, of toy-town, even before the toys come out to play.
And so, the Prelude over, the curtain once again drawn back, the back of the writing desk – crucial, of course, to any poet, and what a gorgeous writing desk this is! – has become the church and indeed municipal organ. The green of the surface has become the arena for contest, never more so than in the remarkable agon – intensified, I think, from Salzburg, in very interesting ways – between Walther and Beckmesser. I thought there – but a personal train of thought, of course, yet the openness of Herheim’s approach permits such flights of association – of our own College Green in Westminster. Here, an undeniably charismatic Beckmesser – now that is a way to have him taken seriously, for which both Herheim and Bo Skovhus should take credit – had to fight for the backing of the Masters, initially enraptured by Walther’s song. They swayed, literally and metaphorically. Such seemed a contest as political as it was æsthetic, and we are of course very much in the realm of Walter Benjamin’s æstheticisation of politics, an idea which did not spring from nowhere but was very much rooted in ideas which, if not Wagner’s as such, were similar and historically related. We all know, sadly, where they could lead – and what role Nuremberg would come to play. It is up to us whether we dwell on that, but it would surely be wrong not even to think about it. (Memories of Herheim’s Berlin Lohengrin demand our attention; so do those of Peter Konwitschny’s darker staging of the same work.) Dancing in concentric circles around Walther, even after Beckmesser’s apparently successful intervention, the Masters and, in front of them, the Apprentices, might yet decide in either direction. They look outwards, though, not at Walther; are they looking at us? I think not, but perhaps they do. It is certainly not a benign seen, whatever its prettiness-on-steroids; the violence, just about sublimated, when Sachs comes close to striking Beckmesser is shocking.
What of the absorbing surface? My goodness, it is beautiful, at least in inverted commas, but that perhaps implies undue cynicism rather than multivalency and dialectics. The play-acting is unmistakeable. Let us remember that the nineteenth-century German monarchies as they stood were not ancient, far from it; they certainly laid no claim to Sachs’s Nuremberg. Nor, famously, does Wagner’s score, speaking of Bach: another century, another style, unless, perhaps, one counts Luther as a sublated participant too. Bavaria as it stood when Wagner wrote his work ‘for’ Munich had only been a kingdom since 1806; much of its territory was very newly acquired. Yet Maximilians and Ludwigs played alternating or rather intricately interconnected æsthetic games of modernisation and mediævalism. Franconia and Nuremberg were – and here are – some of the pieces involved. The post-1815 Restoration here seems extended, perhaps as far as the time of composition; there is both clarity and obscurity in the minutely observed designs (wonderful work by Herheim collaborators, Heike Scheele and Gesine Völlm). Walther in noble regalia and heightened blondness looks the part; Ludwig II would surely have swooned. He is a peacock, and he knows – or at least wants to suggest he knows – how to wield a sword.
Books feature heavily. In the first act, Des Knaben Wunderhorn proves our Romantic inspiration. Towering above the characters, the giant volume is opened, to reveal, as such volumes often do, pressed flowers. They come to life; they are visual instantiations of David’s tones. In the second act, it is the Brothers Grimm, and it is their ‘characters’ who come to life, incite and participate in the Prügelfuge. Red Riding Hood as you have never quite seen her – or maybe you have, in your imagination, perhaps earlier in your life than you would care to admit or even to remember – is perhaps first among equals here. There is madness, delusion, illusion – let us say Wahn aplenty – in this dream of Sachs. What, however, are we to make of the part of the original workshop set, stage left, which shrinks in none of the three acts? There is a painting on the wall – not to be identified with the painting of Eva at which he has been at work in the third act, when, in the cold light of day, normal ‘size’ is resumed – and we might speculate about the nature of its young woman (or Jungfrau?) Perhaps more intriguingly, though, there is a puppet theatre. When Eva and Walther take refuge, it is there. They are playing roles; and someone, of course, is the puppet-master. The theatre is luxurious, like what we can see of Pogner’s house and its decor; one can imagine it, them, in the Louvre’s nineteenth-century galleries, or indeed in a Wittelsbach or Hohenzollern Schloss. The damask luxury has a touch of the absurd, to it, though, not unlike Wagner’s fabled – too fabled – pink silk. Wagner’s bust at this point remains out of sight, although other old German masters may be seen, in different sizes, from time to time. The puppet play of Herheim’s Lohengrin may again be instructive here.
Meister Wagner comes into play properly in the third act, as does Sachs’s workshop in what seems now to be reality – although the conclusion will throw that all into disarray. Dreams, memories and interpretations of them, have a habit of doing so; the unconscious was not invented by Romanticism, but it was certainly placed centre stage, as it is by Herheim. So is Wagner, and in what is now surely an act of defiance against fashionable denigration or at least scepticism, all will bow before him in the final scene. (Again, though, I should remind you that Herheim has a final card up his sleeve, to which we shall come shortly.) There has, moreover, been no one single book in play here; rather, for the festivities, Sachs’s library, or part of it, has grown in size, so we may take our pick. Liberty or licence? There is danger in the very question, as the determinedly anti-liberal Wagner knew very well. Wagner’s work, even its stage directions, is acutely observed. The Master’s banners even have harps: resplendent, again a little too resplendent. Less trivially, although nothing in Wagner is really trivial, the moment of devastation earlier in the act, when the triangle between Sachs, Eva, and Walther is revealed has never moved, never wounded me so. Rent asunder, Sachs and Eva have never seemed so real a prospect; rarely, however, have Walther and Eva. One senses her plight as a plaything – however we try to dress it up, her father’s idea is monstrous; she is a bartered bride – but it is unclear whether Wagner or Herheim is actually indicting the situation. We must make up our own minds; there is something truly Shakespearean here about the lack of judgement being forced upon us.
All good, and bad, things must come to an end, however. Everything starts to unravel with Sachs’s shocking refusal to shake Beckmesser’s proffered hand. He has been humiliated, bruised in every sense, and yet seems willing to meet Sachs half way. No chance, it seems. Is Sachs actually the proto-fascist some have claimed him to be? Herheim remains a master of theatre, however, and not just in the echt-operatic spectacle to which Wagner and he have treated us. As the action freezes – I am sure you can guess when – the unravelling proper gathers pace. There is another awakening – was not the visible pain Sachs had suffered at ‘Wach auf!’ enough? – yet it is Beckmesser’s. Who has dreamed whom? It is not Sachs who, for the final time, draws the curtain. Or is it?
My review concentrates on the production not as an implicit denigration of the musical performances, but because not only was it really ‘the thing’ here, it was, almost as much as Wagner’s score, although of course springing in almost every respect from that score, the framework for the vocal performances. Concerning Philippe Jordan’s conducting, I wish that it had been more variegated, and thus more like the staging itself, but one cannot have everything all the time. It was generally light, sometimes too light, but it was more the lack of contrast that was a problem than the somewhat strange cross between Mendelssohn and Ravel we seemed to hear. There was no denying, however, Jordan’s fluency; again, I shall resist the temptation to draw contrasts with a number of other conductors. Nor was there any denying the magnificent playing of the orchestra itself. As with the Iolanta/Nutcracker double-bill two nights earlier, this spoke of one of the great opera house orchestras of the world. What we sometimes lacked was not only the last few ounces of grandeur, but also a real sense of the music growing upwards from the bass line; that, however, was clearly Jordan’s concept, which I found less than entirely convincing. Electrifying in Moses, and genuinely original in his conception, Jordan was perhaps too much the foil here; in Wagner, and in Herheim, the music enhances and is enhanced by the staging.
The cast was generally strong. If Daniele Gatti had convinced me more in Salzburg, the orchestra and singing were surely superior here in Paris. Gerald Finley’s Sachs was not a larger-than-life portrayal, and Michael Volle’s performance was unlikely to be bettered by anyone. Finley’s intelligence, vocally, verbally, and on stage, were in their very different way just as impressive, though; this was a Sachs who made one think. I can hardly say better than that. Brandon Jovanovich, as I have already said, looked the part as Walther; he sang it too, with the ease that the role requires yet does not always receive. Again, he had one believe in the part and think about it. So too did Skovhus’s Beckmesser, as provocative and intelligent a rethinking as I can recall. He must have been as exhausted as his character, yet it did not necessarily show. Julia Kleiter’s Eva was finely sung, often reaching the calculated radiance the production imparted to her appearance onstage. Toby Spence proved an eager David: a gift of a role, of course, but a demanding gift nevertheless, ably supported by Wiebke Lehmkul’s Magdalene. With a strong group of Masters, headed by Günther Groissböck and Michael Kraus, there could be no reasonable complaints concerning the singing. If it sometimes sounded a little distant, even small of scale, that was mostly, I think, to be attributed to the acoustic.
If any opera, or at least any nineteenth-century opera, is intended to have one reflect upon artistic creation, it is surely this one. That it did, and that it did in ways novel, remembered, and somehow both novel and remembered, even perhaps misremembered, stands in many ways testament to a successful staging and performance. I left the Bastille with a spring in my step, wishing only that I could see it all again, ‘so alt und … doch so neu’.