Monday, 21 August 2017

Wagner - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Bayreuth, 2017)

Richard Wagner - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Bayreuther Festspiele, 2017

Philippe Jordan, Barrie Kosky, Michael Volle, Klaus Florian Vogt, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Daniel Behle, Anne Schwanewilms, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Georg Zeppenfeld, Günther Groissböck, Tansel Akzeybek, Armin Kolarczyk, Daniel Schmutzhard, Paul Kaufmann, Christopher Kaplan, Stefan Heibach, Raimund Nolte, Andreas Hörl, Timo Riihonen

BR-Klassik - 25th July 2017

Barrie Kosky tones down his usual visual extravagances for his Bayreuth debut, but there's no shortage of spectacle, imagination and controversy in his production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg premiered at the 2017 festival. The reason for the taking a little more of a low-key approach is that Kosky, as a Jewish director, has decided to tackle a rather difficult subject, and that's the longstanding question of Wagner's antisemitism and the alleged expression of it in this opera. You can hardly accuse Kosky then of reigning in his excesses out of reverence for the composer on his home turf, so to speak.

There's a case for challenging Wagner's beliefs around the questions of art, race and nationalism in his works, and certainly over the last decade Bayreuth has been at the forefront in addressing the difficult and troubling nationalistic elements in his works, particularly in Lohengrin and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Effectively putting the composer's great late masterpiece on trial for alleged antisemitism, there are initially some doubts about whether such an emphasis should be allowed to dominate over the whole of a work that has considerably more warmth, humanity and humour to it.

It certainly looks like Kosky is about to over-complicate and muddy the waters by inserting Wagner directly into the production, creating a tangled web around the work's composition, history, tradition and legacy. Act I recreates Wagner's Bayreuth mansion Haus Wahnfried, where the composer is showing off his latest creation to his family and friends. Franz Lizst, who evolves into Pogner, is there with his daughter Cosima, Wagner's wife, who in turn will transform into Eva in the opera. Wagner himself will of course transform into the wise Hans Sachs, but he also models a youthful version of himself as the spirit of Walther von Stolzing.

Perhaps most controversially, Hermann Levi, the Jewish conductor of the first performance of Parsifal, transforms into Beckmesser, who it has been said (but hardly definitively) is a Jewish caricature in the opera. In the traditional German craft of the Meistersingers, Beckmesser is the one who might aspire to compose great art, but he can never be truly German, and in the end is shown to imitate and steal the ideas of others to little authentic effect from one who is in closer contact with the nature of the land and has noble pure German blood running through his veins. And, of course, the people rise up and reject Beckmesser's poor and inauthentic efforts at German art, giving him a good kicking for his troubles in Act II.

Is this all that Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is about? It is really an antisemitic work? The question is one worth addressing, particularly by the time you come to Act III and IV of the work, with its problematic concluding speech. Barrie Kosky fortunately proves to be more than capable of tackling some of those more troubling questions without neglecting all the other essential elements of the work. It might appear to be somewhat provocatively over-emphasising the matter, not to mention making a lazy reference to the Nuremberg by placing the medieval citizens in a courtroom during war crime trials that took place in the city in 1945, but the validity of exploring the legacy of Meistersinger far beyond its own time is borne out by the almost prophetic words of Wagner's libretto.

"How peacefully with its staunch customs, contented in deed and work, lies in the middle of Germany my dear Nuremberg", sings Hans Sachs about a place that embodies the spiritual heartland of Germany. And yet Wagner recognises that the same essential German qualities also contain within them an element of old madness that could come under the thrall of "a goblin" who could unravel the thread of madness that lies within it, and it's the role of a Hans Sachs "to guide the madness so as to perform a nobler work"; towards art. The Nuremberg trials setting is not arbitrary or gratuitous then, but it gives real meaning and force to Wagner's words and to the sentiments at the heart of Meistersinger.

Whether you agree with the premise and is execution, Kosky at least makes a meaningful connection between life and art by looking at the work through the prism of Wagner's own life and composition, a much more meaningful exploration than Stefan Herheim's half-hearted placement of Wagner into the opera in his 2013 Salzburg production of the same work. At the very least, Kosky keeps the stage interesting, full of movement, ideas and occasional eccentric little touches (the little phials of colour representing the chemistry of composition), but never going in the direction of campness or irreverence which this director is capable of but clearly finds inappropriate for this major work.

Thanks to Philippe Jordan's conducting and supporting the idea from the orchestra pit - the performance filled with warmth and a complementary of blending of the complex moods and colours of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - it's possible to enjoy the production without having to grasp all the historical references and controversies that have dogged the work throughout its lifetime. The singing, from an absolute A-list of Wagnerian singers, also truly brings out all the musical qualities of the work. It's a sheer delight to see them all combining to such remarkable effect on this great work.

The singing is exemplary, but it's more than just technical prowess being exhibited here. There's evidently a strong directorial hand in the characterisation which brings in full individual engagement and collaborative interaction between the performers. I don't think I've ever seen Klaus Florian Vogt perform better anywhere than he does with this Walther von Stolzing. His distinctive light youthfully lyrical tone is perfectly suited to the role, but in performance too he seems totally involved with the character, the drama, and in reaction to the figures around him. Judging by the mixed reception at the curtain call, the casting of Anne Schwanewilms as Eva was a little more divisive, but personally I thought her performance was exceptionally good, her voice as distinctive as Vogt's, full of character and with extraordinary swoops and expressive detail.

Michael Volle and Johannes Martin Kränzle of course have a well-honed double act as Sachs and Beckmesser, but they adapt that well to the requirements of the production bringing even more depth to the interpretation and the characterisation. There is never a moment when they don't have you entirely in their spell, bringing nuance and complexity to the soul-searching explorations. Volle in particular gives a mighty performance, again the best I've ever seen from him or indeed from anyone in this role. When his Wagner/Sachs addresses the charges laid against him and fervently pleads his case from the Nuremberg witness stand asking "how can the art be unworthy which embraces such prizes?", there's not a jury in the land that would convict him.

Links: Bayreuther Festspiele, BR-Klassik