Barrie Kosky Brings Typical Madcap Mayhem to his Thought-Provoking Bayreuth Meistersinger


GermanyGermany Bayreuth Festival 2017 [2] – Wagner, Die Meistersinger von NürnbergSoloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival / Philippe Jordan (conductor), Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, 15.8.2017. (JPr)

Act I of Barrie Kosky’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
(c) Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath


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 – Anne Schwanewilms
Magdalene – Wiebke Lehmkuhl
Nightwatchman – Karl-Heinz Lehner


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

There are many more who are more familiar with Barrie Kosky than I am, because all I have seen that he has directed was Shostakovich’s The Nose at Covent Garden last October. The heading of the review (click here) referred to ‘Madcap Mayhem’ and how Kosky took ‘the surreal, even Kafkaesque, world of Gogol’s story at face value without looking for any hidden meaning’. I also wondered what his Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Bayreuth would ‘have in store for us’ …and now I know!

In one of my earliest writings on the subject (Opera October 1995) I responded to the discussion at the time about how Wagner’s music – and especially Die Meistersinger – self-evidently contains some hidden ‘subtext’ of anti-Semitism by explaining how 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 how because the works should be viewed ‘In the context of nineteenth-century European anti-Semitism (anti-Semitism did not start or stop at the German border) there would be no need for anything to be hidden.’

Why is any of this significant? Well it is because the spotlight has always fallen on the character of 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 …so why 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. Walther is also trying to win the hand of Eva Pogner who he has fallen in love with. He needs to write and perform a song adhering to an almost ludicrous list of rules concerning stanzas, rhymes and rhythms. In Act I we discover what Walther is up against and it is clear that much of the ‘fun’ derives from watching people taking themselves too seriously. Also, because this opera – unlike nearly all of the composer’s mature works – is not about a ring, mystical or mythical heroes, gods, grails, or potions, but real flesh-and-blood human beings. Wagner sets out to expose all the vices, foibles and frailties of our species in his ‘comedy of manners’. It also allows Wagner to put forward his ideas on the place of music in society …and more about this later.

Returning to Beckmesser, Kosky – the first Jewish stage director to work at Bayreuth – propounds he is not Jewish and writes 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.’

If there is a ‘hero’ in this opera it is probably the cobbler-poet, Hans Sachs, who was a real a historical figure. He hears Walther sing and reacts as many probably 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 such (his!) music and to its young lovers, not to the Beckmessers of this world.

It’s a mad, mad, mad, Wagner world that Kosky brings us at the start of Act I and we begin in Wahnfried, his Bayreuth home. Remarkably recreated by Rebecca Ringst’s sets and Klaus Bruns’s costumes we join a fictional gathering there on 13 August 1875, exactly a year before the first public performance at the Festspielhaus. We are 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 populated. Amongst others we see Franz Liszt, his daughter Cosima, and the conductor Hermann Levi, whom Wagner regards as an artist and insults as a man because he is a Jew. Wagner ‘mini-mes’ climb out of the piano on which Wagner bangs away introducing the private performance of his new work Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. We know the egotistical Wagner loved these performances and here distributes the roles: Liszt turns into Pogner, Cosima is Eva and Levi is Beckmesser. Wagner himself is often on the stage: as a younger man he is David and Walther, but mostly we recognise him in the older Sachs. The narcissistic side of Wagner’s character is not ignored as – wearing his familiar black beret – he luxuriates in the presents he gets of boots, a silk shawl and perfumes.

For the opening chorus as the mass ends in what is supposed to be St. Catherine’s Church everyone is on their knees except Levi who Wagner forces down. This is perhaps the only indication we see that he is the ‘outsider’. David explains the Mastersingers’ rules based on Wagner’s perfume box. These Mastersingers also arrive on stage via the piano and their Renaissance garb seems inspired by Albrecht Dürer. Are they meant to represent reactionaries? We begin to understand that Kosky is presenting us with a fairly ‘traditional’ Die Meistersinger but using his own exclamation marks to bring the opera’s ‘issues’ to our attention and make us – the audience – think.

With their spoons the Mastersingers hit their Dresden porcelain(?) coffee cups synchronously as their names are called. It is soon clear that nobody stands still for any great length of time and all the characters – more often than not – exhibit restless, almost frenetic behaviour. There is more ‘madcap mayhem’ from the apprentices who rush on and off the stage. This, combined with the endless fascination Hans Foltz (Timo Riihonen) has for Walther, reminded me of Monty Python’s Spamalot musical, though I was surprised I was not laughing more. Beckmesser seems almost as egocentric as Wagner and is separated from the others just because he sees himself as the only genuine candidate who has a chance of winning the ‘prize’ which is Eva’s hand in marriage. The final picture of this act is a very powerful one: as the Mastersingers bicker Wahnfried retreats into the distance and we see the walls of the Nuremberg court where the International Military Tribunal was held after WWII and – not for the last time – Sachs/Wagner stands in the dock. The final two acts will also be played out here.

Act II begins with Cosima and Richard picnicking in a grassy meadow that we subsequently see filling the floor of the stage for some reason. Wagner hands Beckmesser/Levi his lute to serenade Eva and he quickly leaves. Setting and lack of props notwithstanding, everything is again staged fairly traditionally, but with a lot of toing and froing as if the audience always need to be engaged by something happening. There is the now ever-present dock (which nearly all the principal characters will step into at one time or another), an armchair for Sachs, and Eva and Walther alternately hide behind a curtain or a copy of the Lenbach portrait of Cosima we saw presented to Wagner in Act I. Walther’s rant about ‘Ha! diese Meister!’ results in an hallucination straight out of a Brueghel painting, as is the final riot when Beckmesser is beaten below a 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 to fill part of the stage before deflating. Until this ending Beckmesser/Levi has not been any more overtly Jewish than usual and undergoes the ritual humiliation 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 at the front and what we still see is a fairly straightforward Die Meistersinger production. Returning to the action 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 and more Bruegelesque shenanigans. 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 amazing 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 on the stage. At Walther’s ‘Will ohne Meister selig sein’, everyone vanishes and Sachs/Wagner remains alone in the dock to plea to us that he should be acquitted of his perceived ‘crimes’ with his ‘Verachtet mir die Meister nicht’, his (Wagner’s) infamous speech about what is ‘real’ German art. At ‘die heil’ge deutsche Kunst!’ a fake orchestra and real chorus slide forward as a backdrop lifts and Wagner conducts the final bars. In the end Kosky is leaving it to those watching to decide whether to convict or exonerate the composer, but if controversy is set aside it is the music which has been found not guilty!

Musically it was a wonderful performance. With so much going on it was often difficult to concentrate on the typically virtuosic performance from the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra. Philippe Jordan – the newly appointed music director of the Vienna State Opera – generally shaped each paragraph expressively and never neglected passing detail or the dramatic point of each scene. Despite some daring pauses there was little of the grand spaciousness that some conductors bring to the score, but a seeming desire to get on with things that was perfectly ‘at one’ with Kosky’s vision for the opera. When the orchestra came into its own during the meditative Act III orchestral prelude it came as something of a relief to just be able to listen to the music.

Jordan was supported by a solid cast; Daniel Behle’s enthusiastic David, Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s faithful Magdalene and Günther Groissböck’s stoic Pogner were performance of distinction; and the rest of the Mastersingers brought their characters to vivid life, singing collectively very well. Anne Schwanewilms’s did not have a good night as an excitable Eva/Cosima and this did not seem the part for her and her tone was rather shrill at times. Walther von Stolzing was the always reliable Klaus Florian Vogt who imbued ‘Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein’ with a transcendental quality; his stamina and purity of voice seemingly as good as ever. Johannes Martin Kränzle gave a surprisingly nuanced and understated performance as Beckmesser and eschewed any undue exaggeration. His voice seemed darker than before and I just wondered – fleetingly – whether he was using this timbre to try and mimic cantorial singing.

His Sachs (Michael Volle) was a former Beckmesser and possibly it is the role Kränzle might aspire to in the future. Volle’s baritone is – to my ears – unusually light for Sachs but there is no doubting he has fully embraced his ‘dual role’ as Hans Sachs and Richard Wagner. He was rarely offstage and revealed a full gamut of ambivalent emotions from madness and anger, to tolerance and compassion. Volle’s is a very conversational Sachs and you hear every word he sings and Barrie Kosky wants us to register their meaning. This Sachs is constantly soliloquising in the manner of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and with all his constant gesticulating was – for me – more a potentially Jewish character than Beckmesser!

Jim Pritchard

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