Barrie Kosky’s busy production meets Philippe Jordan’s meticulous conducting: Bayreuth’s current Die Meistersinger

GermanyGermany Wagner, Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival / Philippe Jordan (conductor). 2017 performance from the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and reviewed as a live stream on DG Stage, 19.8.2020. (CC)

Barrie Kosky’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Act I © Enrico Nawrath

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

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

A rather nice commentary prefaces this Bayreuth Die Meistersinger. Barrie Kosky speaks candidly about the problems this ‘conversational’ opera poses at Bayreuth; this, on top of the work’s intrinsic challenges to any director. But Kosky accepted Katharina Wagner’s invitation, and early on they lit on the idea of putting Wagner on trial. This, plus an examination of art itself, and a meditation on the idea of who is it that judges other people, forms the basis of this Meistersinger. This is all done with the intent that the production is funny, but should also make people feel uncomfortable: one of the settings in the production is the courtroom of the Nürnberg trials (Hitler, remember, was a keen Wagnerian). It was important to Kosky also that the comedy element of the staging – and it is, at times, very funny – did not undermine the underlying thought of putting Wagner himself on trial.

Two more interviews are included: conductor Philippe Jordan and the Hans Sachs, Michael Volle (he refers to having sung the role some 30 or 40 times, and the journey to learning how to pace himself). Jordan sees Meistersinger as ‘Wagner’s Falstaff’. Also, we hear about how long Volle and Jordan have known each other; and it shows in the music. This is the finest conducting I have heard from Jordan (including both his recent Beethoven and Brahms Vienna Symphony cycles), and if the orchestra is not quite as on fire as it was for the Marek Janowski/Frank Castorf Ring cycle I reviewed recently for this site, it still retains a greatness few orchestras achieve. And Jordan’s ear for detail is superb – just listen to the fizzing string trills of the Overture – and talking of trills, tuba players must be clogging up the roads to Bayreuth en route to try out the tuba being used there.

Act I begins in Wahnfried, Wagner’s residence, in a beautifully ornate simulation, walls lined with books, a grand piano to the side. The exactitude is mirrored by a projection of details onto gauze: the time is 12:45, the outside temperature 23℃. Figures familiar from Wagner’s life are there: Liszt (Pogner), Hermann Levi (who conducted the premiere of Parsifal on 26 July 1882, here Beckmesser), Cosima Wagner (Eva); later, several will make their entrances from within Wagner’s piano. There’s even Wagner’s dogs, Marke and Molly, and a portrait of Cosima that will, later, find its way into the witness box at the trials. But there is also the issue of Wagner himself – or, as is the case here, Wagners himselves, as Sachs and Walther are both dressed as the Master (plus, there is a child version for good measure). This is a highly civil gathering, with hot drinks handed out by servants. Cosima rubs her temples because of a migraine. At the end of the Overture, the chairs line up to face the audience in the manner of a congregation, and we hear the famous chorale in a beautiful performance (the way the oboe offers its melodic garland is pure magic). The kneeling is appropriately enough – given his pious later years – led by ‘Liszt’.

As the first act unfolds, we get to acquaint ourselves with the voices of the day: a fabulously vocally free Walther from Klaus Florian Vogt, an equally fine David from Daniel Behle (and how on the ball the orchestra is for his contributions in the second scene). Anne Schwanewilms starts strongly as Eva, but as the evening moves forwards, she sounds increasingly harsh-toned and uncomfortable (the Bayreuth audience reception seems a little harsh even so, but then again this is an audience famed for expressing its disapproval). Not her finest moment.

Perhaps the most fascinating character aside from Sachs here is Beckmesser. Johannes Martin Kränzle’s assumption of the role is a world away from the usual caricature, while still conveying great character. This means the Sachs/Beckmesser scene in the second act can take on a more profound aspect, an added examination of the dynamic between the two men that is further explored in the final act. And our Sachs here, Michael Volle, offers one of the finest readings of the role. From the first syllable to the last (several hours later), everything is in place vocally and musically. This is a very human Sachs, his place as outsider from the cosy connections of the Guild confirmed visually at the end of the first act, where he is shown outside of Wahnfried. At the end of the piece, he is shown alone onstage, the very incarnation of Wagner himself, in the witness box (the concluding paean, in contrast, features the chorus miming an orchestra – quite a feat, as the bow actions are together) and singing their hearts out as Wagner/Sachs/Volle conducts. After the final words of the chorus and in the orchestra’s final bars, they recede once more, leaving Wagner/Sachs, alone – or, if you will, Sachs alone, mirroring the end of Act I. Volle’s miracle is not just making every word count but making the big monologues (Wahn– and Flieder-) times of absolute wonder.

A couple of the singers were encountered in the Castorf Ring: Wiebke Lehmkuhl (here an excellent Magdalene) and Günther Groissböck, who at times threatens to steal the show with his authoritative Pogner. The Kothner of Daniel Schmutzhard is another notable assumption.

To be frank, the staging is infinitely clever, perhaps too much so. A rather nice conceit is when we see Wagner’s characters emerge from within Wagner’s own piano – where he would have ‘birthed’ them, given them sound and therefore, a voice. This is a Meistersinger that would repay a multitude of viewings, but whether it is as rich and deep as the Castorf Ring is another argument. The perfumes that are handed out and smelled in the Overture all have different colours and seem later to be linked to the different ‘tones’ of the Mastersingers’ Art; the clock in the courtroom doubles as the moon in the second act (in fact the grassy setting is well achieved). In the final big choral scene of the second act, a portrait of Wagner is brought onstage – Beckmesser is buried under it and then hoisted up to wear a Wagner mask in which he then dances in the spotlight. But this is a Jewish Wagner with a hook nose and a hexagrammed cap. Kosky’s method of stirring the emotions, by plugging into both Wagner himself and the reception history timeline with its uncomfortable overtones, is certainly involving and stirring on this first viewing. That it is less satisfying than the Castorf Ring is possibly part of the deal – racial bias remains an undeniable part of our world today, and we should feel somewhat marred by the experience. It is all very busy: and therefore stands in direct opposition to Kosky’s Carmen, which is dominated by a single set of stairs (review click here).

Keeping all this together is Philippe Jordan, for whom I have almost nothing but praise. The only caveat is his rather superficial and rushed way with the Nightwatchman contributions. Poor old Karl-Heinz Lehner must have felt short-changed, surely? But Wagner must run in the family for Jordan – remember the Hans-Jürgen Syberberg 1982 film of Parsifal (notable for Robert Lloyd’s Gurnemanz), conducted by Philippe’s father, Armin Jordan? From marshalling the vast choral forces to the on-point tempo change that moves us from Sachs’s pensive state during the third act Prelude to the beginning of that act’s action, he seems in total control.

This production is – unlike the Castorf Ring – available on DVD/Bluray on DG, and so one can savour Michael Volle’s Sachs at leisure (as well as obsess over Kosky’s production, perhaps?).

Colin Clarke

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