Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, 2018

Wahnfried, credit Wikipedia

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, 2018

Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Bayreuth Festival Germany, Saturday 11th August 2018, directed by Barrie Kosky, conducted by Philippe Jordan,reviewed by TONY COOPER

An innovative, flamboyant and quirky director, Barrie Kosky (artistic director of Komische Oper Berlin) delivered a brilliant and entertaining production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, first seen at last year’s Bayreuth Festival.

Born in Melbourne in the late 1960s, the grandson of Jewish emigrants from Europe, his name in now indelibly linked to Bayreuth’s glorious history as he is the first Jewish director in its illustrious 142-year-old history. He is also the first person outside of the Wagner family to direct Meistersinger at Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus, built to stage Wagner’s mighty canon of Teutonic works, especially Der Ring des Nibelungen.

That constitutes a significant step by Katharina Wagner – artistic director of the Bayreuth Festival and daughter of Wolfgang Wagner and the great-grand daughter of Richard Wagner – in acknowledging Wagner’s anti-Semitic stance and his family’s later association with Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. Ditto, the revamped exhibition focusing on the Bayreuth Festival housed in the newly-restored Villa Wahnfried, complete with a new extension, where Wagner lived with his wife Cosima and their children from 1874 to 1882. A museum since 1976 (it reopened to the public just over three years ago) this is the first time that the era of the Third Reich has found a place in the exhibition.

In Kosky’s riveting production of Die Meistersinger – a work that is essentially a hymn to the supremacy of German art – Wahnfried takes centre stage and 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 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 and final work, Parsifal, in July 1882 – is portrayed (and humiliated) as Sixtus Beckmesser.

The pivotal role of Walther von Stolzing, portrayed as Young Wagner, was sung by a ‘favourite’ of the Green Hill, Klaus Florian Vogt. His entrance into Wahnfried’s elegantly-furnished drawing-room was unorthodox as he came by a precarious route tumbling from a model of Wagner’s Steinway Grand. Waiting for him at the other end was Eva (portrayed as Cosima) eloquently sung by American soprano, Emily Magee.

The Master Singers arrive by the same precarious route with the chains of office denoting their trade dangling from their necks, and robed in traditional processional gowns, inspired, perhaps, by the Nuremberg painter/printmaker Albrecht Dürer.

Rebecca Ringst’s sets captured the correct scale and detail of the opera’s respective scenes. For instance, Wahnfried – created as a doll’s-house box set – was as accurate as one could possibly get. So, too, was room 600 used for the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46, while costume designer, Klaus Bruns, was just as thoughtful in his ideas and produced a good wardrobe.

Kosky gave a dramatic and stylish ending to act one as Wahnfried slowly retracted to reveal room 600 with a single GI on duty. The same set was cleverly adapted for the second act but the courtroom floor, free of furniture and completely grassed over, found Wagner and Cosima enjoying an al fresco lunch.

One of the highlights of this act was the formidable tête-à-tête between Hans Sachs (Old Wagner) – sung and brilliantly acted by Michael Volle – and Sixtus Beckmesser – sung by Johannes Martin Kränzle, whose performance was imbued with humour, trepidation and uncertainty. The scene was well executed with Sachs as always interrupting proceedings and greatly upsetting Beckmesser in the process by bumbling away with his old cobbler’s song while hammering the soles of Eva’s half-made shoes with Eva (in fact, her maid Magdalena in disguise) looking completely disinterested from the first-floor window. That inspiring Austrian bass, Günter Groissböck, stamped his authority on the role of Veit Pogner, Eva’s wealthy (and dominant) father.

When David, sung by Daniel Behle, sees Beckmesser – who in Kosky’s thinking is an epitome of everything that Wagner hated – serenading his girlfriend Magdalena (Wiebke Lehmkuhl) all hell breaks loose.

And with Kosky portraying Levi as Beckmesser, a disturbing scene brought act two to an unsettling close as Beckmesser became the target of a pogrom-style attack. The townsfolk flared up in arms egging on the forces of evil and the Bayreuth stage  was dominated by an inflatable caricature of a Jew, reminiscent of Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer. Only the lone figure of The Nightwatchman (Tobias Kehrer), calling out the hour, restored peace and tranquillity to the neighbourhood.

The Morgentraum Quintet, arguably the composer’s greatest ensemble piece, celebrates the radiance of love and art. It was beautifully 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 and lining the back of the court.

Another great moment in the opera’s scenario was Hans Sachs’ ‘Wahn Monologue’ – a tribute to Holy German Art – also 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 seemed appropriate within Kosky’s staging.

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. Mr Kosky sprang a huge surprise here that had the audience mesmerised when an entire symphony orchestra (and chorus) – an ending of Wagnerite proportions – arrived on a slowly-moving platform to the front of the stage. The ‘musicians’ were acted but it was hard to define and became a talking-point. However, as they came into view, the walls of the courtroom slowly vanished out of sight reminiscent of the retraction of Wahnfried in the first act with room 600 slowly coming into view.

Mr Kosky has produced a Meistersinger to be proud of, which puts Richard Wagner – who considered Jews as enemies not only of German culture but of humanity – firmly in his place. But whatever brickbats you throw at him, he left a great musical legacy.

The man in charge of the pit, Swiss-born Philippe Jordan, who takes over as music director of the Vienna State Opera in 2020, made his Bayreuth début with this production last year. He kept the right 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 enough to capture the essence, richness and beauty of Wagner’s wonderful score.

The chorus director, Eberhard Friedrich, came up trumps, too. His choral forces enjoyed their own curtain-call. The audience roared their approval for several minutes and then carried on for another 25 minutes in true Bayreuth style for the main curtain-call.

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Tony Cooper is QR’s Opera Critic

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