Germany Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin / Ulf Schirmer (conductor). Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 3.12.2023. (MB)
Staging – Jossi Wieler, Anna Viebrock, Sergio Morabito
Co-Set designer – Torsten Köpf
Co-Costume designer – Charlotte Pistorius
Lighting – Olaf Freese
Chorus director – Jeremy Bines
Hans Sachs – Johan Reuter
Veit Pogner – Albert Pesendorfer
Kunz Vogelgesang – Gideon Poppe
Konrad Nachtigall – Marek Reichert
Sixtus Beckmesser – Philipp Jekal
Fritz Kothner – Thomas Lehman
Balthasar Zorn – Jörg Schörner
Ulrich Eißlinger – Patrick Vogel
Augustin Moser – Paul Kaufmann
Hermann Ortel – Stephen Bronk
Hans Schwarz – Tobias Kehrer
Hans Foltz – Byung Gil Kim
Walther von Stolzing – Magnus Vigilius
David – Ya-Chung Huang
Eva – Elena Tsallagova
Magdalena – Kathrin Göring
Night Watchman – Tobias Kehrer
Apprentices – Agata Kornaga, Freya Müller, Kangyoon Shine Lee, Yehui Jeong, Oleksandra Diachenko, Natalie Jurk, Jongwoo Hong, Thoma Jaron-Wutz, Leon Juurlink, Kyoungloul Kim, Sotiris Charalampous, Simon Grindberg
In the depths of the coronavirus Great Silence, I mused that its horror would be over, musically speaking, when I had once again heard live three works: Gurrelieder, a large scale work by Richard Strauss, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Why not, say, Les Troyens, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony or Moses und Aron, I am unsure, though the difficulty of hearing Moses anywhere at any time presents its own challenge. It was not so much about individual as representative works, though, so as to be indicative of some sort of resumption of ‘normal’ musical life, rather than tailoring performances to pandemic circumstances. Strauss’s Alpine Symphony I heard surprisingly early on, though I am tempted to say I should still wait for a Die Frau ohne Schatten (all being well, next year); Gurrelieder came a little over a year ago. Alas, neither was a very good performance, though I felt relief and gratitude nevertheless. Now, at last, came Die Meistersinger, my first opportunity to see the Deutsche Oper’s current production, new last year, from Jossi Wieler, Anna Viebrock, and Sergio Morabito.
There are good ideas, here: often, if not always, well achieved. That the most overt and complex instance of cultural nationalism in Wagner’s dramatic œuvre should, in the wake of subsequent German history, be a site of controversy, even of discomfort, should not itself be controversial. It is the least of the debts we must continually settle in the wake of Friedrich Meinecke’s ‘German catastrophe’. That this might yet be controversial in ultra-reactionary circles need not detain us. No, of course, Meister does not mean Herr, and anyone claiming Hans Sachs’s call to honour your German masters is concerned with political domination should be taken no more seriously than the Nazis on this; nonetheless, rightly or wrongly – for me, it would be some of the former, and considerably more of the latter – Die Meistersinger has, like so much else, been tarnished by the ‘catastrophe’ and we cannot simply pretend it has not happened. And so, to frame the action with the wood-panelling of a music school that more than hints at a certain conservatoire on Munich’s Arcisstrasse, reminds us, for the most part beneficially, of our historical and cultural duty.
The Hochschule für Musik and Theater – if that be what it is – is as prestigious a school of advanced musical instruction as can be found. The building in which it now stands was built between 1933 and 1937 as the Führerbau; if you walk past today, you will see a plaque acknowledging the Munich Agreement, signed there in 1938. What you will not see inside are the Stolpersteine laid down earlier this century; the city of Munich removed them as an alleged fire hazard. The interior may also be familiar – again, I suspect far from coincidentally – to those who have watched Edgar Reitz’s Heimat 2. This is where Hermann and others received their musical instruction and gave many of their performances. Encircling 1968, the hopes it engendered and its bitter aftermath, Reitz’s films inhabit a similar world to that shown here, fashions suggesting (to me) the later 60s or early 70s. Hans Sachs is, of course, in some ways a harbinger of les évènements, though with a healthy does of Schopenhauerian reflection and interpretation that might have given them greater staying power. The hand of historical discomfort is present, then, though it is really up to us, for most of the performance, how much we feel that.
There are shades of Katharina Wagner’s 2008 Bayreuth Meistersinger. Not only is this set in a music school and hers in an art school; there is some throwing around of shoes, if not so much as at Bayreuth. In this case, that seems, somewhat awkwardly, to be consequent to a realisation that the new setting does not readily permit Sachs to be a cobbler too, yet something at some point must be done with shoes. There are a few other cases where what we see sits awkwardly with what we hear, without proving a productive contradiction. It seems strange, for instance, to have Walther and Eva copulate in two corners of the hall during the chorale, only for him immediately after to apologise, seemingly without irony, ‘Fraulein! Verzeiht der Sitte Bruch!’ Sachs running off with Eva a little while afterwards, having creepily approached her from behind, is at best a bit silly, more Carry On Nuremberg than anything else. The point of gender imbalance and, frankly, violence inherent in the work is better made elsewhere, with female students/apprentices having to resist or endure Magisterial advances, often in full view. Alas, we know only too well now the wrong sort of ‘permissive’ culture that has been nurtured and protected in conservatoire education.
The position of the apprentices and chorus deserves further attention. Since there is no town of Nuremberg here – a different sort of Meistersinger ohne Nürnberg from that of Wieland Wagner – some other solution for the latter needs to be presented. At the close, this, reasonably enough, is the audience for what appear to be final recitals of sharply contrasting quality from Beckmesser and Walther. Earlier on, in place of the guilds, we have what seems to be David’s nightmare, in which the clock (a little too crassly) goes back to 19:33, whose horror is inadequately characterised by ghostly dancing. Likewise, the orgy (free love?) in which the apprentices indulge at the beginning of the second act, though to begin with intriguingly balletic, goes on a bit so as to become frankly tedious. No wonder they slope off in dribs and drabs. Perhaps that is the point, though I am not sure I believe that. More disturbingly, Sachs’s final peroration oscillates between one-sided condemnation and further silliness. His transformation into threatening, at least proto- (or post-)fascist mob leader receives little or no adequate preparation, unless that is why the ceiling lights having been moving around for the entire scene. (It suggests sea-sickness, but I do not think we have moved to the Titanic.) A recurrence of still greater ill-matched dancing may suggest the crowd having fallen under his sway, a warning, but it seems more suggestive of an inability to conclude. This, for me, would benefit from rethinking, as would some loose ends elsewhere.
For the nationalist underpinning and final turn are only one aspect of a multivalent work, whose humanity – yes, one can hear it, and should be unashamed of saying so – ultimately exceeds however one wishes to characterise the above. The idea that a father should seek to award his daughter as a prize in a song contest, even if she may refuse, is of course monstrous, even when we allow for historical difference. But the point, ultimately, is that he does not, and that is Wagner’s doing. We can dispute many issues of gender here; with which nineteenth-century artwork can we not? Yet the pain Sachs and, to an extent, Eva must suffer, and the joy of requited love between Eva and Walther are real and of dramatic consequence. Both, whatever my misgivings concerning surrounding details, are present here. I am not sure the unmistakable sexual element of the former relationship is especially helpful, since its dramatic import is blurred by warnings of abuse elsewhere, but the chemistry between Magnus Vigilius’s Walther and Elena Tsallagova’s Eva is stronger, more all-enveloping, and in its way victorious. That the two elope and do not take part in the concluding minutes, whatever it might mean, seems to me important. Beckmesser does not return either: a relief, for it has surely become too much of a cliché and would have been out of place here.
Vigilius and Tsallagova both gave strong performances throughout. The former, new to me, is shaping up to be a fine Heldentenor indeed. Golden yet far from unvarying of tone, he also displayed verbal sensitivity and stage presence in equal measure. Tsallagova, whom I cannot recall hearing in Wagner before, proved similarly spirited and adaptable. If there were, understandably, times when Johan Reuter tired a little as Sachs, he soon recovered, and offered a properly complex reading of the character, both for work and production. Philipp Jekal trod the difficult lines of Beckmesserian performance, neither too absurd, nor too dignified, with aplomb: another reading with acute attention to the alchemy of words, music, and gesture. Albert Pesendorfer rarely, if ever, disappoints, and certainly did not here in a big-hearted (bartering the bride notwithstanding) Pogner of great presence. Ya-Chung Huang’s David made much of the uncomfortable bullying and bashfulness his character suffered in this reading, offering fine musical virtues too. Kathrin Göring’s Magdalena was well sung and characterised, as were all of the smaller roles, this group of Masters no mere collective, but rather replete with individual voices and temperaments.
After an underwhelming overture, thin and dragging, with odd balances, the orchestra under Ulf Schirmer soon got into its swing, all the more impressive in the second and third acts. Without wishing to make any obvious points, Schirmer directed the players (and, more generally, the singers on stage) with inobtrusive understanding and wisdom. If there were inevitably, in a performance of this length, occasional cases of stage and pit falling apart – one unfortunately so in the Quintet – they were soon remedied. Far more noteworthy were a lack of awkward corners and an abundance of musical continuity, very much in the spirit of the work. The chorus was excellent throughout.
A qualified welcome, then, to the first revival of this Meistersinger. Its predecessor was, I think, the last of Götz Friedrich’s Wagner productions to be replaced here in Charlottenburg. I saw it in 2010 and recognise both loss and gain in its replacement. As the work reminds us, though, nothing is for ever and certainly not in art. There was enough here, not least in fine sung performances, to remind me of my love for Die Meistersinger – I shall admit to having shed the odd tear, in the Quintet and in both the Trial Song and Prize Song – and quite how much I have missed it. Work, production, and performances invited us to reflect that we never simply return; nor can or should we ever shed our past. The myth of a Year Zero is as unwelcome as it is chimerical.