“Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg” by R. Wagner
Bavarian State Opera Festival on July 31st, 2016
By Opera Views, September 2016
The landmark of the Capital of the Bavarian State, the National Theatre in Munich hosts its annual summer opera festival from the end of June until the end of July, wrapping up the Houses main season and preceding festivals in Bayreuth, Salzburg and Bregenz. The performance of Richard Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger of Nurnberg” on the July 31st presented the dernière of seven shows and marked the twelfth of the House´s own productions.The only one comic opera composed by R. Wagner is a result of his struggle to recover from the “Tannhäuser” fiasco at the Paris Opera and an attempt to distance himself from his idea of the musical drama. Finished in 1861 “Meistersinger” does not deal with some divine power or royal affairs, but with the life of the citizens of medieval Nurnberg and has a happy end.
Contrary to his own, not very flattering opinion about the art of traditional opera, “Meistersinger´s” score nevertheless features aria-like solo scenes, polyphony in composition, German church chorales, and folk songs. The last one effectively misused by the Nazi propaganda of Third Reich and for decades made Wagner a banned composer.
Attending Richard Wagner’s operas is always a task, bearing in mind an extreme length of more than five hours, a challenging language, and often complex ideological, religious and political context. Thus, one was pleasantly surprised to experience a highly entertaining, light performance nonetheless musically as well as artistically of an extraordinary artistic level.
Stage director David Bösch tells us a comprehensible story based on the love triangle between rich bride-to-be Eva, a daughter of wealthy goldsmith Veit Pogner, local shoemaker and respected Meistersinger Hans Sachs and run-away noble offspring Walter von Stolzing. Amidst the sober everyday life of the community of hard-working people and surrounded by the atmosphere of hopelessness, the rules possessed Meistersingers are confronted with a group of young men acting both as dutiful apprentices and as Hitler Jugend aggressive gang. The daily church services, Saint Johann Fest (there is a lot of beer drinking and fighting is going on) and Meistersinger singing contest are the only events that bring some colours in their lives.
Enforced by the sober stage settings of construction scaffolds and grey apartment buildings with chipped plaster (Patrik Bannwart) the action is placed in the fifties of last century. One cannot let go an impression of being suddenly transferred into some kind of Wagner’s “West Side Story” with moving cars, delivery vans and girls in petticoats (flattering costumes by Meentje Nielsen). The Meistersinger competition resembles “The Voice” or “Super Star” show, taking place in the boxing ring, with pouring down confetti, absolutely hilarious boys cheerleaders and accompanied by Hollywood-like video slogan projections (Falko Herold).
Dressed in the leather jacket, with large earphones and strumming on his guitar Wolfram von Stolzing looks like Bernstein’s Tony. Jonas Kaufmann gives his Stolzing debut and portrays a naive, warm-hearted, unconscious of his talents young men. Rejecting a Meistersinger title and getting Eva for his wife, Stolzing consequently breaks centuries-long traditions reflecting Wagner´s own revolutionary spirit and ambitions. Kaufmann acts and sings naturally, thus remaining authentic and approachable. Sadly, his impressive stage presence often overwhelms his presence as a singer. Musically he struggles with high notes and from time to time has difficulties to overcome the orchestra. Nonetheless, his final song “At the bright morning”, was sung with exquisite musicality, touching Piano and marked one of the musical highlights of this evening.
Hans Sachs, a widower, poet, composer and philosopher recognises Stolzing´s talent. He steps back, to make the happiness of the young couple possible and is deeply hurt by Stolzing’s denial of Meistersinger title. Wolfgang Koch has sung with well-balanced, soft sounding baritone voice, which, in the monologues in the second and third acts, found to its best form. His famous “Despise me, not the Master” scene at the end of the opera presented another musical highlight achieving an enormous impact, with the silence in the audience being almost physically perceptive.
The strongest performance on this evening should be attributed to Bariton Martin Gantner in the role of rules possessed and pedantic Sixtus Beckmesser. Deeply in love with Eva and lacking any talent or creativity, he is genuinely convinced in winning the contest by simply stealing Stolzings song. Endlessly making fool of himself ( a hilarious serenade scene with the ukulele in the second act and ridiculous glittery disco outfit in the third act) Gantner´s authentic portrayal of this unfortunate character deserves our sympathy and compassion. Vocally he impressed with young sounding, clear voice, smooth top, well-balanced middle voice and excellent diction.
Christof Fischesser in the role of Veit Pogner offers a pleasant baritone voice and a great diction. He gives a dutiful, somehow a distant father, who doesn´t hesitate to offer his daughter Eva as a trophy for the winner of the upcoming singing contest. Soprano Sara Jakubiak plays a courageous, independent young woman who wants to break free. Resembling the character of Maria from “West Side Story” and deceptive in her elf-like appearance, she is firmly determined to achieve her goals. Her resolute, but a sweet voice can nevertheless develop an impressive dynamic power and expression.
Tenor Benjamin Bruns in the role of David and mezzo-soprano Okka von der Damerau in the role of Magdalene, give an admirable buffo couple. Bruns enjoys a lovely tenor that sure has enough power and expression for the role of Stolzing in the future. Okka von der Damerau is pleasant to look at and to listen to. With her rich, supple voice she gave a convincing performance of a worldly-wise and gracious young woman.
The rest of the cast is perfectly fitted together and includes singers with throughout good voices for all Meistersingers and City keeper (Tareq Nazmi with warm bass sound). Together with the excellently prepared choir (Sören Eckhoff), we are invited to dive into an atmosphere of the beautiful midsummer night.
The real star of this evening is the Bavarian State Orchestra and its leader, Kirill Petrenko. Completing his third season as a general music director, Petrenko is the Master of orchestral sound and power. There is love in the air between him and his orchestra. Hardly at the pit, he begins straightway to conduct as if he could not wait to start to make music. From the very first minute and throughout the performance one is overwhelmed by his musicality and his knowledge of Wagner’s score. With each instrument group, perceptible en détail and yet sounding like unique entity, Petrenko’s temperament and endurance seemed to have no limits of never decreasing high emotional level. We witness precise, accurate, yet relaxed, energetic and dynamically powerful conducting in the prelude to the first act; The sensitive, thoughtful, reflective, almost impressionistic prelude to the third act and melancholic, romantic feeling in dynamically perfectly balanced “Johannisnacht” choir in the second act.
At the end the happy young couple is about to enter their new life together, the unfortunate Beckmesser commits a suicide, drunk David vomits in the trophy cup and disappointed Hans Sachs reflect upon the future of Meister singing. Not digging too deep into Wagner´s social and political views and his ideas about the role of the art and the artist, David Bösch nevertheless succeeds in emphasizing the unique relevancy and modern spirit of this great piece of music theatre. The production will return to the National Theatre on Max-Joseph-Square next season 2016-2017 with performances on September 30th, as well as on October 3rd and 8th 2016.