Mark my Words

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Mark my Words

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, libretto and score by Richard Wagner, Royal Opera House, 13th March 2017, directed by Kasper Holten, orchestra conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano, reviewed by Leslie Jones

This new production of Meistersinger, by departing director Kasper Holten, has all of the characteristics that one has come to expect from Royal Opera. As a spectacle, it makes a lasting impression. Mia Stensgaard’s high tech, at times revolving sets are visually arresting. And the medieval costumes of the guild members during the song competition (Johannistfest), likewise, are lavish, although somewhat at odds with the cast’s otherwise modern attire. We have a full scale riot, dancing girls, a tailor in a goat’s skin and men astride a giant revolving wheel, in a nightmare tableau reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch. In the final act, trumpets, strategically placed at the back of the amphitheatre, herald the beginning of the song contest.

Although, in Oper und Drama, 1850-1851, Wagner envisaged a reformed opera devoid of what he considered the more mindless, crowd pleasing elements (arias, choruses, quintets etc.), in the event Meistersinger incorporated all these aspects.

In this production, the singing of the leading members of the cast and of the chorus is of a consistently high standard. Bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel, as Hans Sachs, gives a master (or meister) class in what is doubtless a physically demanding role. At times, he is alone on the stage, as at the beginning of Act 111, when he sings Wahn, Wahn, überall Wahn (Madness! Madness! Everywhere Madness). Terfel has a quite remarkable range and he appears to effortlessly interact with the orchestra.

In Meistersinger, Wagner anticipated many of the emotionally affecting elements of The Ring Cycle and Parsifal, notably, the evocation of the beauty of nature (the scent of lilac,  birdsong – “I hear a blissful nightingale…”, and the passage of the seasons). And there are telling references to Christ and to John the Baptist, in the Choral of the Congregation (Act 1, scene 1) and in David’s poem, commencing “On Jordan’s bank St John did stand…” (Act 111, scene 1).

At the end of the opening performance, which was rapturously received, a colleague sounded a somewhat discordant note, reminding us that Wagner was Hitler’s favourite composer. Indeed, in Meistersinger, he (Wagner) distinguishes between a stagnant culture constrained by convention and formalism, as represented by the pedantry of the Marker, Sixtus Beckmesser, brilliantly depicted by Johannes Martin Kränzle, and a living, Germanic Kultur, or “holy German art”, untainted by supposedly malignant, alien influences. In “Walther, Poetry and Pedantry”, in the official programme, Hugo Shirley points out that Wagner’s Das Judenthum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music), first published in 1850, was re-published in 1869, soon after Meistersinger’s premier.

Clearly, the aspiring Meistersinger Walther von Stolzing, played by tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones, and Sachs himself, “are Wagner’s alter egos” (Chris Walton, “Being Beckmesser”, official programme). And although the goldsmith, Veit Pogner, performed by bass Stephen Milling, represents materialism, he redeems himself by supporting genuine German culture, offering all his worldly goods and chattels, plus his daughter in marriage, to the winner of the song competition. Sachs considers him “A master, rich and high-minded…” He implores Walther to join the guild and to thereby “honour your German masters”.

Michael White attended this performance. Now there is a music critic, whose “shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose”.

Bryn Terfel and Rachel Willis-Sørensen

Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs and Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Eva, photo by Clive Barda

Dr LESLIE JONES is the Editor of QR

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