Saturday 15 October 2016

Wagner - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Munich, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016

Kirill Petrenko, David Bösch, Wolfgang Koch, Martin Gantner, Robert Künzli, Benjamin Bruns, Emma Bell, Claudia Mahnke, Georg Zeppenfeld, Eike Wilm Schulte, Dietmar Kerschbaum, Christian Rieger, Ulrich Reß, Stefan Heibach, Thorsten Scharnke, Friedemann Röhlig, Peter Lobert, Dennis Wilgenhof, Goran Jurić 

Staatsoper.TV - 8 October 2016

I wouldn't say that Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is an underrated work, but it's easier to come up with explanations why Tristan und Isolde or Parsifal might be considered above it as the supreme examples of Richard Wagner's craft and arguably even the apex of opera as an art form. Sometimes you just have to trust the evidence of what you are hearing however, particularly when this wondrous piece is played with as great sensitivity and attention to detail as it is here in the Bavarian State Opera's 2016 production in Munich under the direction of Kirill Petrenko.

What is great about the other two works lies primarily in their ambiguity and mystique, elusive qualities which of course are wholly within the intent and craft of the composer. Tristan and Parsifal are works that encompass human potential beyond the common experience, and as such they are works that are endlessly capable of being explored, adapted, reinterpreted and reimagined for new meaning as we continue to attempt to define and understand the conflicts between the physical, the divine and the spiritual aspects of what it means to be human and to aspire to something greater.

Set alongside those mythical works, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg's historical setting and concerns seem rather mundane, its message abundantly clear in a late opera from Wagner that actually has a story and dramatic interaction rather than long philosophical monologues. On the surface, it's a simple enough story of a young man's who attempts to win over the influential elders of a town so that he can marry the daughter of one of Nuremberg most influential citizens, Veit Pogner. He does this of course by winning a singing contest and becoming a Mastersinger with the help of the town shoemaker, Hans Sachs. It seems a simple enough story of respecting German Art and tradition, of impetuous youth learning from the crafts of their elders before embarking boldly on their own course in life.

There are however many different facets to the work, much more than the relatively singular themes of Tristan und Isolde or Parsifal. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is richer in melody and ideas, it has moments of warmth and humour, melancholy and joy, it has a generosity of spirit and reveals a side to the composer that you won't find in any of his other great works. It has something profound to say about love, music, society, art, tradition and people as a nation in the past and going into the future, and how all these things come together to define who we are. Most importantly, for a work about art and the human spirit, it exhibits all these qualities itself; the music, the drama, the sophisticated human observations and characteristics displayed in the opera themselves testament of the highest achievements of art and humanity.

Although its qualities and the subject it deals with are as relevant now as in the 16th century setting of the work, Meistersinger is not a work one would feel needs any distinctive interpretation by a director, but it's a complex work of interweaving personalities and themes with specific tones in its musical arrangements, and it certainly needs strong controlled direction. It's hard therefore to see much of the hand of David Bösch in the Bayerische Staatsoper production, but it's to the credit of the director that all those elements of the work come across in a way that doesn't feel the need to create shock effects or strive to impress an unwelcome character on a work that largely - I'll come to the tricky bit later - doesn't court controversy or seek to impress. The director nonetheless still manages to find a setting that embodies the essential quality of the work and touches on its deeper meaning in a basic and modern context.

Bösch's production does start out however looking a little like Katharina Wagner's controversial Bayreuth production, with the leather jacket and t-shirt wearing Walther von Stolzing looking like the punk upstart who is going to shake up the deeply reactionary Nuremberg establishment. He even smashes up a bust of the eminent 'master' himself after his first failed effort at mastersinging. While Katharina Wagner perhaps over-emphasised the point that a certain amount of irreverence and healthy disrespect can play, total anarchy is not the answer and not within the better nature of art as an expression of the human spirit. David Bösch's production strikes a much better balance in tone, particularly in how von Stolzing's character is measured against this production's Sixtus Beckmesser and Hans Sachs, whose position is equally as important to the tone of the work as a whole.

All the wealth of characterisation and mood that is inherent within Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (just listen to the music - hear the evidence of your own ears) is all there in this production. Any uncertainty about the direction it might have taken in Act I is banished by the almost overwhelming riches that are revealed in Act II. The set might be more modern - Hans Sachs working out of a mobile workshop in a dark rundown backstreet of a modern German city - but the arrangement is the familiar one and all the playful, romantic episodes and complications play out wonderfully. The graffiti on Sachs' van and street thugs wielding baseball bats only emphasise that this is a town that has stagnated and seen better days, one that is in need of spiritual renewal as much as urban renewal. Beckmesser's mugging is not a racial or antisemetic attack as much as him being a victim of the society that he and his like have fostered, ignoring the people, refusing to hear what they really need, holding on to outdated ideas.

Beckmesser is nicely characterised in this way. He's not overbearing and he's not weak either; he's not a caricature, but just a boring old man who is a bit full of himself and refuses to budge. He's the Marker who is keen to record the faults of others but not recognise them in himself, although his lack of self-confidence is evident and it betrays his true nature in the end. All this is vitally important in the light of how a director approaches the rather more problematic conclusion of this opera, and what one makes of Hans Sachs' 'Honour your German masters' closing speech. One of Wagner's most controversial moments, its tone can strike a wrong note after all that has come before it and remind one a little too much of the sentiments expressed in Wagner's work that would appeal to Hitler and the Nazis. It has to be handled right, and it has to be in the spirit it was intended, seen in the light of the time it was written, but still be acceptable and work - as it essentially must - in a modern context.

If there's truth in the characterisation and adherence to the nature of all that has come before it, it can be made to work. David Bösch's direction of the final act shows the inner meaning of Hans Sachs' speech and its dedication to art. All the solemnity and respect for art is there, there's humour and tolerance and recognition of all the love of beauty and expression of man's finer nature that is in Walther's Prize song. It is about glorifying art, of the supremacy of art as the highest expression of what it means to be human; a creative endeavour that works for the betterment of community. Wagner's great work generously expresses all these qualities and the work itself expresses everything that is wondrous about art and humanity. But it's also important to make the point that it's not for the old to sing the words of the new, as Beckmesser attempts. The old must make way for the new, and that is recognised with a violent conclusion that makes all the necessary impact. 

It's a joyous production then, one which fully embraces the richness and the true intent of this great work. The evidence of your own ears should also tell you this and dispel any prejudices you might have held against the work or misjudgements that it might not be as sophisticated and beautiful as some of Wagner's other mature operas, because Kirill Petrenko's conducting of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester is just phenomenal. The music sparkles with little flourishes and nuances, all of the detail brought out of the characterisation, mood and situation. There's no overemphasis on the Romantic, the melancholic or the dramatic - it merely gives voice to the complexity of those sentiments in relation to one another, with surges of emotion, the little hesitations, self-denials, holding back and letting go to revel in moments of joy and beauty which are often contained within all in those situations that generate contradictory feelings. This opera more than any other Wagner work anticipates Richard Strauss at his finest.

The singing is mostly wonderful, but even where it is lacking the full ability to tackle the demanding roles, the characterisation is strong enough to compensate. It's the opposite though for Wolfgang Koch as Hans Sachs. There's not a great deal of character detail in Koch's interaction with the others, but the role is sung well with a natural warmth in his voice. Martin Gantner likewise gives an unexpected warmth and lightness to Beckmesser without any sense of caricature or over-playing. His fate in the very last scene of this production does give you pause to think about his role in this society. Robert Künzli is a wonderfully lyrical Walther, but rather rushes the Prize song and fails to give it due feeling. Benjamin Bruns gives us a fine lyrical David and consequently brings rather more out of the role than is usually the case. Emma Bell struggled as Eva, I thought, in characterisation and in voice, but there were some good moments there. Claudia Mahnke's Lena and Georg Zeppenfeld's Pogner were noteworthy, as was Eike Wilm Schulte's Fritz Kothner.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV