Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Bayreuth Festival, Germany, August 19th 2017, director Barrie Kosky, conducted by Philippe Jordan, reviewed by Tony Cooper
Barrie Kosky – artistic director of Komische Oper Berlin – was born in Melbourne in the late 1960s, the grandson of Jewish emigrants from Europe. He describes himself as a ‘gay Jewish kangaroo’. This innovative, flamboyant and wonderfully-quirky character will go down in history as the first Jewish director to hold court in Bayreuth Festival’s illustrious 141-year-old history. And also as the first person outside of the Wagner family to direct Die Meistersinger at Bayreuth.
Appointing Kosky is a big gesture by Katharina Wagner, the artistic director of the Bayreuth Festival, and the daughter of Wolfgang Wagner and the great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner. For it acknowleges Wagner’s anti-Semitism and her family’s association with Adolf Hitler. In the revamped exhibition, housed in the newly-restored Villa Wahnfried, where Wagner lived with his wife Cosima and their children from 1874 to 1882, the Third Reich, likewise, finds its place.
And in Kosky’s riveting and exciting production of Die Meistersinger – a hymn to the supremacy of German art – Wahnfried features prominently in the first act, replacing the traditional setting of St Catherine’s Church. Here we meet Herr Wagner and his wife Cosima entertaining their friends in the book-lined drawing-room, engaged in a ‘read-through’ of Meistersinger in which the Jewish conductor, Hermann Levi – who conducted the first performance of Wagner’s Christian-based work, Parsifal, in July 1882 – is portrayed (and humiliated) as Sixtus Beckmesser, the role so admirably and amusingly sung by Johannes Martin Kränzle.
Franz Liszt, Wagner’s father-in-law, also turns up, offering a tune on the piano from Meistersinger that irritates Wagner. He boldly takes over the keyboard, pushes Liszt off the piano-stool and shows him how to do it. A model of Wagner’s Steinway Grand constituted a good prop when the ‘favourite’ of the Green Hill, Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther von Stolzing but portrayed as Young Wagner, woos Eva (Anne Schwanewilms) as Cosima.
As the final bars of the first act died away, the doll’s-house-type set of Wahnfried retracts to reveal room 600 used for the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46 (used in act three) with a single GI on duty warning of things to come. However, the set was cleverly adapted for the second act as what was hitherto the courtroom floor, now freed of furniture and completely grassed over, finds Wagner and Cosima enjoying an al fresco lunch.
A highlight of act two was the tête-à-tête between Hans Sachs (Old Wagner) and Beckmesser, with Sachs constantly interrupting proceedings and upsetting Beckmesser in the process by singing his old cobbler’s song and hammering the soles of Eva’s half-made shoes, with Eva (Magdalena in disguise) looking on from the first-floor window. When David, sung by Daniel Behle, sees Beckmesser serenading his girlfriend Magdalena, all hell breaks loose. For Kosky, Beckmesser is the epitome of everything that Wagner hated – the Jews, the French, the Italians and the critics alike.
Later in the same act, Sachs, in the guise of his mentor and creator, Richard Wagner, finds himself in the witness-box of courtroom 600 facing the music. Kosky sprang another coup de theatre here when an entire symphony orchestra (and chorus) – an ending of Wagnerite proportions – arrived on a slow-moving platform at the front of stage. However, as the ‘musicians’ come into view, the walls of the courtroom slowly vanish out of sight. Music, in the end, evidently wins over politics.
With Hermann Levi portraying Beckmesser, act two is brought to a dramatic close as Beckmesser became the target of a brutal pogrom-style attack. An inflatable caricature of a Jew emerges, reminiscent of the anti-Semitic cartoons that were published in the Nazi weekly tabloid Der Stürmer by Julius Streicher, a close friend of Hitler and the Gauleiter of Franconia. The lone figure of The Nightwatchman (Karl-Heinz Lehner), calling out the hour, finally brings peace to the neighbourhood.
There is a superabundance of musical material in Der Meistersinger, most notably the Morgentraum quintet. Arguably the composer’s greatest ensemble piece celebrating the radiance of love and art, it was superbly sung by the opera’s five main characters in the confines of the empty Nuremberg courtroom, with the flags of the four occupying nations – the Soviet Union, Great Britain, the USA and France – unfurled. Another highlight was Hans Sachs’ Wahn monologue – a tribute to Holy German art – sung on a bare stage with no pageantry and colour whatsoever. It would have been different, of course, in Wagner’s day. But, nonetheless, it was appropriate within the context of Kosky’s production. The Austrian bass, Günter Groissböck, stamped his authority on the role of Veit Pogner, Eva’s wealthy (and dominant) father.
Philippe Jordan – recently appointed music director of the Vienna State Opera and making his Bayreuth début – ably kept the balance between the pit and the stage. In the famous C major overture, he let rip but in the rich and tender opening bars of act three he reigned in the orchestra, capturing the essence and richness of Wagner’s wonderful score.
Kosky has delivered a production of Die Meistersinger to be proud of – one that puts Richard Wagner – who considered Jews the enemies not only of German culture but also of humanity – firmly in his place. Indeed, this production might well separate Wagner’s operas from their dark past. But whatever brickbats you may throw at Wagner – and there are many – he bequeathed the world a great musical legacy.
Historical note: Die Meistersinger was used as Nazi propaganda. The founding of the Third Reich on 21st March 1933 was marked by a performance of the opera in Berlin in the presence of Hitler, while excerpts from the opera were played over scenes highlighting old Nuremberg at the beginning of Triumph of the Will, the 1935 documentary by Leni Riefenstahl depicting the Nazi party congress of 1934. During the Second World War, Die Meistersinger was the only opera presented at the so-called Bayreuth war festivals of 1943 and 1944.
TONY COOPER is QR’s opera critic