Financial Times, May 18, 2016
Shirley Apthorp
Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Bayerische Staatsoper, 16. Mai 2016
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Nationaltheater, Munich — ‘Musically striking’
You can bring on swastikas or jackbooted Nazis. You can say it with punks or banners, or even stop the music entirely. But you cannot ignore it.
Even if Hitler had not so explicitly misused Wagner’s Meistersinger for propaganda purposes, German stage directors would struggle with Hans Sachs’s final monologue. Now that every possible form of directional subversion has been applied to the problematic passage, in which Sachs urges his listeners to preserve the purity of German culture, how do you approach it without lapsing into empty cliché?

By the time the offending moment came around in the Bavarian State Opera’s new production, David Bösch had already let a leather-jacketed Stolzing smash a plaster bust of Wagner. He had brought David onstage astride a moped, Pogner in a car, and he had permitted mask-wearing youths with baseball bats to beat up Beckmesser in the second act finale. Bösch clearly has no fear of clichés. Like many stage directors who come to opera from spoken theatre, Bösch applies a veneer of updating (in this case, small-town West Germany in the 1950s or ’60s, more or less) to a production that is as conservative as it gets. Big-name stars bring the same standard gestures they have used in every other production to a staging that fails to bring any new ideas to the work.

So the surprise was even greater when the fateful moment came. The change in climate was as instant and savage as if thunderclouds had burst inside the theatre. It came from the orchestra pit. On the podium, Kirill Petrenko turned the sound into something horribly sinister, the instruments applying an edge so dark, so biting, so brutal that every hair in the house must have been on end.

What was happening on stage no longer mattered. Which is just as well, because Bösch had long since run out of steam. Petrenko’s conducting was as striking and original as the production was forgettable. He brought a clear intensity, a tender attention to detail, an absolute respect for the singers, and a refreshing lack of self-indulgence to the task. And the outcome was a Meistersinger more liberated from its dodgy past than any onstage gimmick could ever have made it.

That Jonas Kaufmann can sing Stolzing with ease and grace we already knew, just as we knew that Wolfgang Koch is the definitive Hans Sachs. The evening’s most agreeable vocal surprise was Benjamin Bruns’s lush, musically intelligent David, with Sara Jakubiak’s Eva ensuring further musical pleasure.

Bavarian State Opera’s new Meistersinger is absolutely worth hearing. What a pity that Petrenko’s capacity for originality and urgency was not shared by the stage director.

 back top