Barrie Kosky Puts Wagner’s Die Meistersinger on Trial Again at Bayreuth

03/08/2018

Bayreuth

Bayreuth Festival 2018 [3] – Wagner, Die Meistersinger von NürnbergSoloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival / Philippe Jordan (conductor), Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, 28.7.2018. (JPr)

Cast:

Hans Sachs – Michael Volle
Veit Pogner – Günther Groissböck
Kunz Vogelgesang – Tansel Akzeybek
Konrad Nachtigal – 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
Magdalene – Wiebke Lehmkuhl
Nightwatchman – Tobias Kehrer

Production:

Director – Barrie Kosky
Sets – Rebecca Ringst
Costumes – Klaus Bruns
Lighting – Franck Evin
Dramaturgy – Ulrich Lenz
Chorus director – Eberhard Friedrich

As I began my notes about this performance of Barry Kosky’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg my thoughts turned to waiting for the shuttlebus to the Festspielhaus and listening to a pianist in the foyer of my hotel playing ‘My Way’. It reminded me – more than ever – that when in Bayreuth you realise Wagner did indeed do everything his way and no one else’s!

Die Meistersinger is a deeply autobiographical opera: Richard Wagner knew Cosima was his Eva and unlike Sachs with whom he identified he got to marry her. A detailed programme essay from Kosky’s dramaturg Ulrich Lenz reminds us ‘That Wagner identified to a great degree with the male heroes of his operas is widely known. The fact that he had the relationship between Sachs and Eva mirror his own romantic relationship to Cosima is an instance of that mixture of art and life so typical of Wagner […] Wagner sees himself just as much in the wise, forbearing Sachs as he does in the young Walther von Stolzing, vying for Eva’s hand (and probably also in the all-too-cheeky, know it all apprentice lad David) […] Walter was the Wagner of the middle creative period […] Sachs is the more mature Wagner […] (And in this mind game, then, David would be the early, immature Wagner still finding his way […])’.

I wrote last year how in one of my earliest writings on Wagner (Opera October 1995) I was responding to the discussion at the time about how the composer’s music – and especially Die Meistersinger – self-evidently contains some hidden ‘subtext’ of anti-Semitism. A proponent of this was Barry Millington (distinguished music critic and founding editor of The Wagner Journal) who coincidently I had the pleasure of sitting together with at this performance. My view was that because Wagner ‘was unashamedly anti-Semitic (and nationalistic) in some of his writings so there would be no need for him to hide, as a subtext, this anti-Semitism (or nationalism) in his operas or their performance. An artist can have extreme views on many issues without it having any effect on his work.’ Also, because in the nineteenth-century anti-Semitism was rife in Europe – it did not start or stop at the German border – nothing would need to be hidden.

The significance of this is that the spotlight is on Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger as a potential Jewish caricature. He is obviously so highly regarded within the Nuremberg community – of the original sixteenth-century setting – that he becomes town clerk and the Marker – why then would Wagner make him a Jew? He judges newcomers – like the plot’s young aspirant, Walther – who claim nobility and the musical gifts to be declared suitable to join the Mastersingers and gain entry to an elite organisation of occupational guilds who are the heirs of a long tradition. Kosky is the first Jewish stage director to work at Bayreuth and also argues Beckmesser is not Jewish and states in the programme: ‘He is a Frankenstein creature sewn together from all the bits and pieces that Wagner hated: the French, the Italians, the critics, the Jews. You name it, Wagner hated it and it all ends up in Beckmesser. His skin may be that of a sixteenth century town clerk, but his soul and character are marinated in every anti-Semitic prejudice that emanated from the blood libels of medieval Europe: he is a thief, he is greedy, he can’t love, he can’t understand true art, he steals German women, he steals German culture, he steals German music.’ So, Wagner uses Die Meistersinger to expose all the vices, foibles and frailties of the human species in his ‘comedy of manners’. It also allows him to put forward his ideas about the place of music in society through the opera’s true ‘hero’ the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, a real historical figure. He hears Walther sing and reacts as many do when hearing Wagner’s music for the first time: ‘I feel it, and cannot understand it; I cannot hold on to it, nor yet forget it; and if I grasp it wholly, I cannot measure it!’ He realises – as Wagner did – how the future belongs to that (his!) music and to its young lovers, not to the Beckmessers of this world.

At the beginning of Act I we are looking at the grand salon at Wahnfried, Wagner’s Bayreuth refuge. Thanks to Rebecca Ringst’s amazing set and Klaus Bruns’s superb costumes we join a fictional gathering there on August 13th, 1875, exactly a year before the first public performance at the Festspielhaus. We’re told it is 12.45pm, outside it is 25ºC, Cosima lies in bed with a migraine and Wagner is out with his Newfoundland dogs, Molly and Marke! Already during the overture the room is over-populated and as this continues it becomes somewhat like the crowded stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. This is to be a private performance of his new work Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and we know the egotistical Wagner loved doing these and soon he distributes the roles. Those present include Franz Liszt (later Pogner), his daughter Cosima (Eva), and the conductor Hermann Levi whom Wagner regards as an artist yet insults as a man because he is a Jew. Levi will of course ‘become’ Beckmesser. Wagner ‘mini-mes’ arrive climbing from the piano on which Wagner bangs away. During Kosky’s staging Wagner himself will now be almost ever-present and – according to Ulrich Lenz above – as a younger man he is David and Walther, but mostly we recognise him as the older Sachs. Kosky delights in showing us the narcissistic side of Wagner’s character as – with his familiar black velvet beret firmly on his head – he luxuriates in some presents he receives of new boots, a silk shawl and perfumes.

For the opening ‘Da zu dir der Heiland kam’ (When the Saviour came to thee) chorale at St. Catherine’s Church we are still in Wahnfried with everyone on their knees except Levi who must be forced down by Wagner. This is just one of a few subtle indications Kosky gives us that he is the ‘outsider’. Beckmesser/Levi often seems almost as egocentric as Sachs/Wagner and his separation from the others is mainly because he sees himself as the only genuine candidate who has a chance of winning the ‘prize’ which is Eva’s hand in marriage. David explains the Mastersingers’ rules to Walther using Wagner’s newly-arrived perfume box. These Mastersingers also come tumbling out of the piano and their elaborate Renaissance clothing seems inspired by Albrecht Dürer. Are they the reactionaries? With their spoons the Mastersingers hit their coffee cups synchronously as their names are called and headbang during the reading of the tablature. It is soon clear that nobody stands still for any great length of time and all the gesticulating characters (a Barrie Kosky trope) – Mastersingers and apprentices – more often than not exhibit restless, almost frenetic Monty Pythonesque behaviour. A highlight always is Hans Foltz (Timo Riihonen) taking a particular ‘shine’ to Walther as soon as he sets eyes on him. Was the comedy broader this year – I certainly found myself laughing more than in 2107.

The final moments of Act I are very powerful because as the Mastersingers bicker Wahnfried retreats into the distance and we see the walls of Court Room 600 at the Nuremberg Palace of Justice where the International Military Tribunal was held after WWII and – not for the last time – Sachs stands in a dock. The final two acts will also be played out here. We begin to understand that all Kosky is presenting us with is a fairly ‘traditional’ Die Meistersinger but using his own punctuation marks to bring the opera’s ‘issues’ – as he sees them – to the audience’s attention and make us think.

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Last year Act II began with Cosima and Richard picnicking in a grassy meadow filling the floor of the stage. That has been ditched in this second year in favour of a fairly bare space apart from the contents of Wahnfried’s salon piled higgledy-piggledy stage right. Sachs finds a lute for Beckmesser to serenade Eva and he quickly leaves. Everything is again fairly ‘traditional’, but with a lot of toing and froing as if the audience always need to be engaged by something happening. There is the dock into which nearly all the principal characters will step at one time or another, and Eva and Walther alternately hide behind a curtain or a copy of the Franz von Lenbach portrait of Cosima we saw presented to Wagner in Act I. During the final riot Beckmesser is beaten below a Caesar Willich’s portrait of a young Wagner. He will do a grotesque dance with the head of a Jewish caricature from Der Stürmer (the Nazi newspaper) as a much larger one inflates – air balloon-like – to fill part of the stage before deflating. Until this ending Beckmesser has not been overtly Jewish and just undergoes the ritual humiliations we always see his character subjected to.

Act III shows the full setting of the Nuremberg Trials with the Soviet, British, American, and French flags hanging behind the unoccupied judges’ bench. Sachs is having supper – Scarpia-like – at the front and what we still see is straightforward and almost like a semi-staging as characters rarely leave the very front of the stage for quite a long while. Beckmesser is haunted by five mini Jewish caricatures, but Sachs is never shown to treat Beckmesser particularly badly. (At the very end of the opera Sachs will even be seen trying to calm the crowd ridiculing him.) It is still not entirely clear what Kosky is saying history is here to tell us. Everyone is still rushing about in period costume and the guilds enter to lots of banner waving, Bruegelesque shenanigans and other moments when they freeze. The girls from Fürth fail to appear and instead David leads a veneration of Cosima’s portrait. Even though it was given a typically rousing rendition by the magnificent Bayreuth chorus, ‘Wach’ auf’ – using words written by the historical Sachs himself – seemed incongruous in this context.

Beckmesser arrives with his arm in a sling and cannot play his instrument so leaves this to a harpist (Ruth-Alice Marino) playing nearby given the name Helga Beckmesser! Walther sings the song properly meanwhile managing to resist more of Hans Foltz’s close attention. His ‘Will ohne Meister selig sein’ triggers everyone to leave the stage and Sachs is alone in the dock to plea that he (Wagner?) should be acquitted of his perceived ‘crimes’ with his ‘Verachtet mir die Meister nicht’, the infamous speech about ‘real’ German art. At ‘die heil’ge deutsche Kunst!’ Kosky brings us his final coup de théâtre as a fake orchestra and real chorus slide forward as a backdrop lifts allowing Wagner the last word – or rather notes – as he conducts the final bars. In the end Kosky is leaving it to those watching to decide whether to convict or exonerate the composer, but he makes it clear he find the case against the music not proven!

Musically it was another fine performance, although with so much going on it was often difficult to concentrate on the virtuosity – the rule and not the exception – of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra. Philippe Jordan – from 2020-2021 music director of the Vienna State Opera – conducts impeccably with a fairly light touch to present a fairly lyrical Die Meistersinger where no detail was neglected. He held together well the huge cast and the orchestra – which because of all Kosky’s mayhem – threatened to escape from his control. Jordan also handled the dynamics faultlessly to bring out the best from soloists, chorus and orchestra. Despite some daring pauses there was a seeming desire to get on with things that was perfectly ‘at one’ with Kosky’s vision. Nevertheless, during the meditative Prelude to Act III it came as something of a relief to just be able to listen to the music.

Nearly all the cast were repeating their roles again: Daniel Behle was an enthusiastic David but sang as if he was auditioning for Walther. Though Wagner does not give them much to sing Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s loyal Magdalene and Günther Groissböck’s paternalistic Pogner were notable performances; and each and every one of the of the other Mastersingers brought their character to vivid life, collectively singing splendidly.

The role of Eva always seems to cause a problem at Bayreuth and Anne Schwanewilms did not fare too well last year and neither now did Emily Magee. She first sang Eva at Bayreuth in 1997, yet ‘O Sachs! Mein Freund!’ defeated her and I was surprised to see she is singing Sieglinde soon at Covent Garden. Magee sounded rather mature and she could also sometimes be too shrill. Walther von Stolzing was again the Bayreuth favourite Klaus Florian Vogt who first sang Walther here in 2007. Perhaps he has been singing too much lately (after his Lohengrins recently in London) because his tone seemed more bleached than usual and towards the end of an otherwise radiant ‘Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein’ he was singing on fumes alone. Johannes Martin Kränzle gave another wonderfully nuanced and understated performance as the officious Beckmesser eschewing any undue exaggeration and garnering, I suspect, the audience’s sympathy. Like many of the other experienced performers of their roles with him onstage Kränzle gave a masterclass in how to communicate the meaning of Wagner’s words that – I would imagine – Barrie Kosky wanted the audience to fully appreciate.

Michael Volle (Hans Sachs) sang Beckmesser himself at Bayreuth for two years (2007 and 2008) and his baritone voice continues to be – to my ears – rather light for Sachs a role that was written for a bass-baritone. There is no doubting he fully embraces his ‘dual role’ as Hans Sachs and Richard Wagner. Volle’s Sachs is a very conversational one and he is another from whom you can hear every word he sings. Once again, the way his Sachs constantly soliloquises is very much in the manner of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and sometimes with all his constant gesticulating he appeared more of a potentially Jewish character than Beckmesser! He is given only a couple of fleeting moments of anger otherwise his Sachs/Wagner remains a surprisingly genial character throughout. Volle’s vocal stamina seems peerless and at the end of his Act III ‘big sing’ he sounded as fresh as at the beginning of the opera nearly 4½ hours (of music) earlier!

Jim Pritchard

For more about the Bayreuth Festival click here.

For more reviews from the 2018 Bayreuth Festival click here.

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