Who are the true German Masters?
By Opera Views, 27th, July 2017
Production Fotos by Enrico Nawrath
“I have now made the mistake of confusing my art with my life.”
This citation from Wagner’s book “On State and Religion”, written in 1864 describes at its best composers emotional and personal situation during the creation time of the “Meistersinger von Nurnberg”. No other composer ever has confused his art and life the way Richard Wagner did. Even more, his life was like a theatre: always a stage-ready performance, a one-person show of an egomaniac, who saw in all and everything his own reflection.
Wagner´s significance is determined by his continuous dealing with the question: “What is true German”. In his numerous publication, books and writings, he obstinately talks about true, pure German nature, society and traditions. He describes it as a nation faithful to its homeland and language, calling to protect it against impure foreign influences. Despite this firm homeland devotion, Wagner had to spend a big part of his life in continues search for a home: a homegrown paradise. After years of nomadic life, he finally settled down in the Villa Wahnfried in April 28th, 1874; Here he could live a perfect life with his beloved wife Cosima and their children, welcoming friends and making music. Should we be able to encounter such a personality nowadays, we would talk about a superstar, a great entertainer and a talented self-made promoter, bestowed with childlike playfulness, obsessive passion for music, theatre and everything beautiful. The one-to-one reflection of this is presented to us already at the very beginning of this new “Meistersinger” production by Regisseur Berrie Kosky.
Greatly anticipated years ahead, it consequently received the major attention by professionals, audience and press. Royals, VIP politicians, stars, those who idolise Wagner and who wish to become one, performing artists and students gathered in the hallways of the opera house and around highly security-protected Festival Hill, hiding from the pouring rain ruining their shoes and paying exorbitant prices for food and drink. Those who did not or couldn’t come to Bayreuth, as well as the vast Wagnerian community around the world had a unique opportunity to experience the live transmission of the opening night in the cinemas. The result cannot be considered a positive one, as it confirms and demonstrates the theses that a theatre performance should be experienced in live only and in no other way. The enormous impact of Kosky´s staging and Wagner´s music cannot be fully appreciated in zoomed in and out pictures and by digitally amplified sound.
Australian-born stage director and the intendant of the Comic Opera House (Komische Oper) in Berlin, Kosky is perfectly aware of Wagner’s musical, political and personal impact upon the history of worlds music and theatre. For him, this production is an individual confrontation with one of the most controversial composer’s figures of the 19th century.
The first ever Jewish-born stage director in the history of Bayreuth Kosky gives a subtle interpretation of Wagner´s chauvinistic ideas and resentments without bold displaying of Nazi symbols or directly talking about the Third Reich. With great wit, master craftsmanship and expert knowledge, he confronts us with four distinct aspects of Wagner´s complex personality: A composer, theatre maker, revolutionary and an individual. As a composer, according to Kosky, Wagner should be “praised for his breathtakingly gorgeous music […] and authentic expression of life, joy and happiness.” As manipulative and full of contradictions human being, Wagner enjoyed the life full of love and passion having a significant impact on his personal life and influenced his compositions. The manipulative side of Wagner personality allowed him to shrewdly use current political and social developments in Germany at that time, successfully pushing his artistic and career ambitions. His unconditional aversion towards Jews is held down in his anti-Jewish scripts and publications. According to Cosima´s diaries, Wagner’s manifestations have “ignited the beginning of anti-Jewish fight” and prepared a fruitful soil for the perverse ideology of the functionaries and leaders of Third Reich.
Story – The story revolves around love-triangle between Stolzing, Eva and Hans Sachs. The first one is in love with Eva and wants to marry her. To achieve it, he must win the Meistersinger´s annual song contest, since Eva´s father promises her as a trophy. Being an absolute beginner, Stolzing it taught by Hans Sachs´s apprentice David how to compose and write the text. Refusing all the rules he sings his version of the winning song in front of the testosterone, beer empowered and a strictly male organised crowd of hectic and joyful Meistersingers. Being judged by picky Sixtus Beckmesser, whom himself wishes Eva for a wife, Stolzing fails dramatically. Hans Sachs, as the only one, is nevertheless impressed with Stolzing´s talent and offers him his help. Together they composed a winning song which Beckmesser later steals to perform as his own. Unable to correctly reproduce the text and melody Beckmesser loses his turn, is beaten up by cheerful listeners and banished from the city. Stolzing wins the contest and is united with Eva, refusing the Meistersinger title. Disappointed Hans Sachs pledges not to forget the real value of German masters being completely ignored by the young, happy couple.
Staging – Wagner´s choice of location in “Meistersinger” is a significant one. Nurnberg, which from the 15th to the 18th century experienced its economic and artistic heyday, was known for its excellent craftsmanship, trade and was one of the largest cities of the Holy Roman Empire. Hans Sachs and world-famous painter Albrecht Dürer, the known citizen of Nurnberg from this era, fully enjoyed the results of this prosperity. For Wagner, this prosperous Nurnberg symbolised a true paradise of pure German culture and society with self-determined citizens. Thy democratically decide about their own lives, are artfully gifted and make their own politics. The bloodthirsty 30-year-old war has sealed cities prosperity, demanding from generations of artists, philosophers and politicians to recreate this lost paradise. In his “Meistersinger” Wagner makes such an attempt and gives his version of this paradise.
The developments in this production do not always appear to be logical and often are subject to numerous time-shifts keeping listeners alert and attentive. In the first act, the stage designer Rebecca Ringst invites us to peek in the detail-true version of Wagner´s living room of dollhouse-like Villa Wahnfried full of joyful tumble-rumble.
We whiteness a hectic bourgeois life of a genius, where the dogs feel at home, the lady of the house is suffering a headache. Where gifts arrive per post, one enjoys home-style music making and receives friends. Supported by witty hints projected on the curtain Kosky makes the audience to laugh just after few minutes after the beginning immediately implementing Wagner´s obsession with the performance and performing. Creating a theatre-in-the-theatre atmosphere, he precisely points out every single character and their different moods. We encounter Ferenc Liszt, who later will become Veit Pogner or conductor Levi who would be constrained to undertake a role of Sixtus Beckmesser. Wagner’s wife, Cosima must play Eva and Wagner itself undertake the role of Hans Sachs. No later when numerous “Wagner” figures of different age and height pop out of the grand piano and mix up with personae on stage, we get the message: Wagner is omnipresent, and all of them represent a part of him. The lively Meistersingers dressed in rich and well-made historical costumes (Klaus Bruns) bring in the first time-shift.
The idea is then augmented by quite unexpected transforming of cosy bourgeois room to a plane and strict courtroom N. 600 of Nurnberg trial hall. The show is now over, and the earns of storytelling begin. Wagner/Sachs remains standing alone in the middle of an empty stage as if expecting his (eternal) trial.
The second act takes place during a sunny Saint John´s Day-Idyll with a picnic on the green grass covering courtroom floor. It does not take long till this idyll results in a pogrom-like scene, where Beckmesser is beaten up and expelled by historically dressed mob caring a Jewish cardboard mask on his head.
At the end of the act, the huge balloon head of an evil-looking Jewish face resembling the one from the Nazi magazine “Der Stürmer” (The Striker) fills up space. It then gradually shrinks and transforms into the full of pain and suffering face. The oversized Kippa dominates the stage hiding underneath the fear-shaking Beckmesser. Sudden knowledge strikes like lightning and makes one freeze: all this Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda was built on nothing but the air! A frightening realisation, considering its high human cost. At such a moment one can physically feel and realise a power of the theatre.
In the third act, we are once more relocated to the courtroom N. 600 of the Nuremberg Court of Justice again with mute GIs and a female harp player in a BND uniform reminiscent of a court stenographer. Gradually filled with the flag-waving choir crowd, the courtroom turns into a festivity place resembling the paintings of the old German masters. The clock runs backwards. Past and present are mingled in such a way, that the whole scene is perceived as a new artistic and visual entity. The Tribune in the middle is modified to a contest stage where we experience Olympic singing games à la Wagner. In the end, the disappointed Hans Sachs conducts the finale à la Beethoven in front of an actors´- orchestra and professional choir while pleading to do not forget true German masters.
Singers and orchestra – Besides a precise characteristic painting of every character, this evening can be considered a true celebration of music and singing, pointing out Johannes Martin Kränzle as Sixtus Beckmesser and Michael Volle as Hans Sachs.
Apart from their awesome performing, they both seemed to greatly enjoy each other’s company acting at times splendidly funny and without being ridiculous or exaggerating. Michael Volle dominates the production vocally and artistically giving incredibly human Hans Sachs. Noble in the sound and excellent in diction, he is also fully in charge of timing and the dramatic pauses. His touchingly sung “Do not despise the masters” monologued at the end marked a musical culmination of the evening. Johannes Martin Kränzle perfectly fits the role of Beckmesser. Well, he is the Beckmesser. With very individual sound and excellent acting skills, Kränzle created already from the very beginning a memorable and touching character making him dramaturgically a centre of the performance. Klaus Florian Vogt as Stolzing seemed to step out of 1930th. His diction is implacable, and his voice, however small is of very individual timbre and projects well. Making more agreeable impression live than on the screen, he sometimes had difficulties to overcome loud and dramatic orchestra passages. as Eva sang with beautiful, lyrical voice, gorgeously hovering in the quintet, but often singing with overcovered sound thus sacrificing the text understanding.
Bass Günther Groissböck as Veit Pogner had a striking stage presence, singing with a noble-sounding voice and clear pronunciation. Daniel Behle as David has the most beautiful tenor, with excellent diction and impressive acting skills. Wiebke Lehmkuhl as Magdalene built vocally with her warm mezzo and her energetic acting a perfect companion for Behle.
The rest of the cast including all Meistersingers confirmed the high singer’s level in Bayreuth making the performance a fête for voices lovers. The festivals choir (Eberhard Friedrich) is another star of the evening singing and acting with expected greatness in sound and dedication in play. Under the button of Phillip Jordan, the festival orchestra presented youthful – energetic and fresh sound, though sometimes covering singers and in few cases being reduced to an accompaniment. In the prelude to act three Jordan elicited from the orchestra this thoughtful, profound and rich Wagner-sound, that we so much adore and love, marking another musical highlight of the evening. This great production will return to Bayreuth next season and is an absolute must not only for a devote Wagner fan but for everyone who appreciates mastery staging, great singers, excellent choir and a great orchestra. https://www.bayreuther-festspiele.de/programm/auffuehrungen/die-meistersinger-von-nuernberg/