In Review > International

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

BAYREUTH
Bayreuth Festival
7/31/17

In Review Bayureth Meistersinger hdl 1017
Act III festival scene in Bayreuth’s new Meistersinger
© Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

BARRIE KOSKY'S NEW Bayreuth Meistersinger (seen July 31) is a production of enormous insight and great quality—a tricky, intricate staging that plumbs the depths of both the opera and its composer, albeit with moments of overkill. Kosky’s staging shows the egomaniacal personality, in all its negative aspects, of Wagner himself. Kosky sets out to prove that Wagner’s music cannot be separated from Wagner’s character, particularly in this work, and he demonstrates, through the figure of Sixtus Beckmesser, the manner in which Wagner’s vitriolic anti-Semitic ravings were worked into the opera. Given the fact that this festival was so tarnished because of the Wagner family’s relationship with Adolf Hitler, it is significant and justifiable that Kosky, Bayreuth’s first-ever Jewish stage director and an artist well versed in the festival’s production history, has chosen to interpret Meistersinger in this way. 

The pantomime during the entire prelude to Act I is set in a soirée at Wagner’s Bayreuth home of Wahnfried, with the Master himself; his wife, Cosima; Cosima’s father, Franz Liszt; and the Jewish conductor Hermann Levi in attendance. Everyone at the party is assigned a Meistersinger role: Liszt becomes Veit Pogner, Cosima becomes Eva; and Levi is coerced into becoming Beckmesser; a youth in attendance takes on Walther von Stolzing and one of the servants becomes Magdalene. Wagner, of course, becomes Hans Sachs. The entire first act is set in the library of Wahnfried, with the wonderful costumes by Klaus Bruns now in Renaissance style. Beckmesser is portrayed as a fully assimilated Jew but still an outsider. It was the assimilated Jews that Wagner especially hated, and in this production, Beckmesser’s humiliation is turned into brutal degradation that approaches annihilation. The orchestral postlude to Act I sees Wahnfried disappear into the distance, replaced by set designer Rebecca Ringst’s replica of the empty courtroom of the Nuremberg War Crime Trials with Sachs/Wagner alone on the witness stand. 

Kosky uses Sach’s Act III text “Ich bin verklagt und muss bestehn” (“I have been accused and I must justify myself”) as a leitmotif: Sachs/Wagner must answer for that which he has done and is going to do. Walther von Stolzing sings his prize song, costumed in black with a Wagner-style black beret, as the composer’s vision of himself in the German future. For his own final monologue, Sachs is left alone onstage, once again in the witness box of the Nuremberg courtroom, for a moment that Kosky represents as Wagner’s own thoughts on the corruption of German art through the influence of those without pure German pedigree. This is all strong stuff but occasionally smacks of misrepresentation and makes it difficult to sympathize with any of the characters as they switch back and forth from story to “reality.”

Kosky’s most brilliant achievement is his direction of interpersonal relationships. The Act III scenes in Sachs’s workshop seemed absolutely spontaneous, as if the action were happening for the first time. However, scenes and moments in which Kosky aimed at farce, or even at screwball comedy, did not work well. (If everyone onstage behaves like an idiot, the audience starts to feel toyed with.) 

Michael Volle, a superb singing actor, sang Hans Sachs, Wagner’s longest role, with lusciously full tone, realizing every possible nuance in both music and text; he sounded tired only at the very end. Johannes Martin Kränzle showed incredible vocal resources as Sixtus Beckmesser and invested the character with both humanity and humility: his degradation made one heartsick. Günther Groissböck sang and acted a noble, imposing Veit Pogner, Daniel Schmutzhard a youthfully lustrous Fritz Kothner. Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s dark-hued, even contralto made her an impressive Magdalene; Daniel Behle sang David with more vocal substance than is usually heard in this role.

The casting of the two lovers was a bit more problematic. Klaus Florian Vogt has the looks, voice and range for Walther von Stolzing, but at this performance he sang at half-throttle, only occasionally conjuring up a ringing top note or two. Anne Schwanewilms, his Eva, came to grief in “O Sachs, mein Freund!” Her bell-like tone was adequate for the first acts, but Schwanewilms sounded strained in Act III; her well-focused voice was too small to stand up to Volle’s Sachs. 

Conductor Philippe Jordan not only understands how to use the difficult Bayreuth acoustics but continually chose the right tempo at the right time and was always on the same wavelength as his singers. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra rewarded him with extraordinary playing, and the Bayreuth Festival Chorus (under director Eberhard Friedrich) was as awe-inspiring as ever. Aside from a few isolated boos, the reception at the end was wildly enthusiastic.  —Jeffrey A. Leipsic 



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