Opera Today, 28 May 2016
Mark Berry
Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Bayerische Staatsoper, 22. Mai 2016
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Munich
Die Meistersinger at the theatre in which it was premiered, on Wagner’s birthday: an inviting prospect by any standards, still more so given the director, conductor, and cast, still more so given the opportunity to see three different productions within little more than a couple of months).
Glyndebourne would come only four days later; my principal point of — inevitable — comparison would therefore be with Stefan Herheim’s staging, first seen in Salzburg, but later (this March) in Paris. Herheim’s production is, unsurprisingly, one for the ages. I have no doubt that it will reveal more upon every subsequent encounter. It comes, perhaps, closer to Wagner’s reconciliations. However, any good Adornian — is there such a thing? Are we not, necessarily, all at best bad Adornians? — will warn you of the dangers of such positive Hegelianisms. David Bösch’s staging gradually reveals itself to be quite the necessary negative indictment, with respect above all to two particular (related) aspects of the work: violence and gender. If less all-encompassing than Herheim’s staging — what is not? — then it lays claim to be the first Meistersinger production in my experience to address the work from a feminist standpoint. It also arguably offers the most intriguing treatment — I shall not say ‘solution’, for surely there is none — to the ‘Beckmesser problem’. Katharina Wagner’s notorious Bayreuth staging might have given it a run for its money, had only the competence of her craft matched the provocative thinking of her dramaturge, Robert Sollich. Above all, though, this proved to be great musical drama: everyone committed to something far greater than the sum of its parts, and that includes ‘parts’ such as Jonas Kaufmann and Kirill Petrenko.

Let us start, however, with Bösch’s staging, with excellent designs by Patrick Bannwart and Meentje Nielsen. We are in the 1950s. What could be more apt? And no, I am not being sarcastic. This is a work concerned with reconstruction, set in a city which, more than most, has had to be concerned with reconstruction. Wagner, I suppose I should reiterate for the nth time, was in no sense concerned to present a historical Nuremberg; the ever-present — well, nearly — spirit of Bach makes that abundantly clear. And did not the 1950s see ‘New Bayreuth’, in particularly Wieland Wagner’s Meistersinger ohne Nürnberg? As John Deathridge once acidly commented, when Wieland spoke of “the clearing away of old lumber” (Entrümpelung), … [he produced] stage pictures bereft of their “reactionary” ethos — and, as sceptics were prone to add, most of their content as well.’ Indeed, and if many in the audience had more to hide even than Wieland, he had his own reasons too. The relationship between provincialism and the dreadful reconstructionalism of the 1950s is complicated yet undeniable. Lest we forget, 1955 was the year in which the West German Army was (re)founded, denying its origins in what had gone before; this was also the period of increasingly prevalent terraced dynamics and sewing-machine geometries of Bach performances by minor German chamber orchestras, performances that would soon metamorphose into ‘authenticke’ claims, deluded and cynically deluding, to ‘restore’ Baroque practice. ‘They say Bach, [but] mean Telemann,’ as Adorno unforgettably put it. Wagner meant — and means Bach, and vice versa. There is nastiness as well as homeliness in provincialism; Bösch draws out the former, in a useful corrective to the norm.

What might seem a nostalgia for the period and its ‘popular culture’ — similarly in Bösch’s Munich L’Orfeo — is revealed to be far more complicated than that. For one thing, what does ‘popular culture’ mean? Such is a problem at the heart of the opera, at the heart of relationships between the Masters and the populace, and Sachs’s suggestion of testing the rules. And such has arguably become still more so given the rise of what some of us are old-fashioned enough still to regard with, the Frankfurt School, as the Culture Industry. If resistance is to come, it will be more likely to come from Helmut Lachenmann than from the world of commercial music, successfully masquerading as ‘of the people’. And so, when microphones and various other paraphernalia of the recording industry — ‘Classical’ in the deadly marketing-speak of that world, then as well as now — are put in place, we sense, amongst many other things, an act of domination such has been inflicted upon works by Bach, now more or less unperformable, and upon every other aspect of our ‘administered’ world and lives. Although the Personenregie of Bösch’s staging is always detailed, interesting, telling, it is only — as in the work itself — towards the end of the third act, in the Singschule, that things come closer into conceptual focus. It is, as always in the bourgeois state, with violence that that is accomplished. David has already, most intriguingly, seemed a nastier, vainer, and yes, more interesting character than usual, with the strong implication that his penchant for small-scale violent behaviour is owed in part not only to his provincialism but also to his inability truly to create. Walther has tried to defend David when the apprentices, at the beginning of the scene, attacked him, but he will have none of it; outsiders are not to be welcomed, perhaps not even for Magdalene’s sake. Will David prove a second Beckmesser? We shall see; it is, at least at this stage, the first Beckmesser who provides the shock — literally.

The electric shocks administered to Walther, forcibly restrained in his chair, by the Marker are the work of what Gudrun Esslin would soon call the Auschwitz generation; and as Ennslin went on, there is of course no arguing with them. That, despite, or perhaps because, of Beckmesser’s — and Pogner’s — relative attractiveness (relative to how we usually see them, and indeed to the definitely older-school Kothner). Who, after all, has not occasionally found something of attraction in the discipline of fascism, especially when (s)he has been emboldened by readily available bottles of Meisterbräu? Guilds had never been as stable as nostalgia suggested; that is surely part of Wagner’s meaning here. But Bösch brings already-existing divisions to the foreground. Some Masters look — costumes crucial here — and act with greater modernity, or at least in greater fashion than others. If the Guild is keeping things together — and such, of course, was the crux of nineteenth-century Romantic and Hegelian defences in the face of liberal attacks upon them — then it is not clear whether it will succeed for much longer. ‘Reconstruction’ tends to incite — as any Stolzing, Ensslin, or Lachenmann would tell you.

Sachs’s van — ‘Sachs’ says the neon, definitely not of Fifth Avenue — captures our attention at the beginning of the second act. There is no doubt that the mise-en-scene is of a grimmer 1950s: doubtless necessary in some ways given the cost of war, but this is not a suburb of joy. It is not the Munich we see in the second Heimat; nor is it the Nuremberg the tourist will see. But it is there. Beckmesser’s virtuosity comes to the fore. He is not a fraud, although he may be unimaginative; he has craft, even if he does not have art; he is, moreover, certainly not a mere figure of fun. His piccolo guitar to Walther’s full-size version invites a number of reflections. Yet his song works, in its way: perhaps of another age, another age that most likely never was, but such is reconstruction. Eva seems even more girlish than usual, almost Barbie-like; I asked myself whether we should ever see a feminist production that would address the monstrous nature of her treatment. The violence of the Prügel-Fuge’s staging eclipses any I have seen. Too often, we forget that there is real violence involved. (Perhaps Wagner did so too; if so, he stands as much in need of correction as anyone else.) Here, David’s deeds with baseball bat mark him out as every inch the neo-fascist; Pegida would welcome him with open arms. We then begin to wonder: what will the guild become in the hands of his generation. Is Sachs the last hope, rather than the harbinger? Likewise, how will Walther turn out? For ever Tariq Ali, think how many Blairs, or would-be-Blairs there have been. At the close, the Night Watchman (in modern policeman’s garb) is dealt with by the remaining small gang of young townsfolk. They take him back to his car and send him on his way, but it is made clear that he has no choice; this is their manor. Crossing themselves beforehand, they have mimicked the (deliberately?) incongruous procession at the opening; they know how to use traditional forms when it serves their purpose. The final punishment beating takes place as the curtain — and one of the thugs’ baseball bats — falls.

‘Sachs’ has lost its first and almost its second ‘s’ when we catch up, the morning after the night before. Make of that what you will. Walther has spent his night in the van. Beckmesser, when he hobbles back, is suicidal — quite understandably. It is discovery of the poem that turns his mood (just enough) around. Sachs is not the only one so to suffer, although Beckmesser would never have the imagination, nor the understanding, to come up with the Wahn monologue. Still, the ubiquity of Wahn is more than usually, atmospherically present. Yes, as Michael Tanner has pointed out, the work is about ‘coping’; and coping is difficult in a world such as this, which is one reason why we indulge in deluded and deluding reconstruction in the first place. Walther is too young, too callow really to understand; he and Eva are unable to keep their hands off each other, on top of the van, as Sachs confronts a further bout of depression. The violence of Wolfgang Koch’s — and the Bavarian State Orchestra’s — outburst here, the former occasionally edging towards Sprechgesang, even towards Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder , was especially telling, and complemented, extended the production memorably, indeed frighteningly. But Walther eventually appreciates his selfishness, and comes down to help: a touching moment, especially in light of such darkness all around.

Let us leave the staging as some would doubtless like the work to be left, before the Festwiese. Unlike them, those who misunderstand the Quintet and do not appreciate that its moment of ‘beauty’ is quite deliberately foreshortened, we shall return, but I should rather deal with Bösch’s final scene at the end. (Think of this, perhaps, as a rupture to the account of the staging, just as Peter Konwitschny once ruptured the aura of this allegedly problematical scene, in order, controversially, to put it mildly, to deal with the allegations, most of them unfounded.)

I have never heard the work conducted better ‘live’ than by Kirill Petrenko. I was less convinced by his Bayreuth Ring performances than many were; perhaps I did not hear him at his best. This, however, was Wagner conducting — in a work in which I have heard evenDaniel Barenboim and Daniele Gatti struggle to reach their highest standards — to speak of in the same breath as that of Bernard Haitink (my first). Petrenko’s command of the Wagnerian melos, assisted by, indeed expressed in, the outstanding playing of the Bavarian State Orchestra, was outstanding at every level. There was no doubting the overall structure, but that structure was formed by the needs of the moment, by the Schoenbergian working-out of the material, rather than imposed, Alfred Lorenz-like, upon it. This was not a David; this was a young Sachs. He could, indeed, hold back or press on when the singer seemed to be suggesting it, playing the orchestra like his own piano, albeit without the slightest hint of shallow virtuosity, for this was no Beckmesser either. But it would not jar; indeed, performance and work seemed to form one another, which, in this of all works, is surely the point. The orchestra had nothing to fear from the most exalted of comparisons; rather, those with whom it might have been compared, should fear them. Likewise the chorus, whether in terms of vocal heft and colour, of clarity of line, or of stage movement. The dialectic between individual and society (and changing conceptions thereof) was brought vividly to life here and elsewhere.

I took a little while to settle down to Koch’s Hans Sachs. That is partly personal, I think; to my ears — and indeed to my eyes — he somehow seems more to be an Alberich. That I found disconcerting, but it was my problem, really. There was no doubting the intelligence of his portrayal, and in the third act, my reservations evaporated. Here, there seemed to be a perfect marriage of Wort and Ton, of Oper and Drama. (And yes, I know that is not quite what Wagner meant in the latter case, but it is considerably closer than it might initially seem.) He took us through Sachs’s struggles, and took us through some more. There was no false reconciliation of ‘mere’ geniality, although manipulation of Wahn might prescribe it, successfully or otherwise, if as a palliative rather than as a cure.

Kaufmann’s Walther avoided the drawback of his first performance in the role (I think), in concert at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival. There, it was an astonishing performance, in which Kaufmann tired a little towards the end. Here, he was perhaps less golden of vocal tone, more baritonal, but that is an observation rather than an æsthetic judgement. There was no problem whatsoever with his pacing. And my goodness, he could act! The puppyish enthusiasm of the first acts, the inspiration Walther drew from Eva, whilst showing off to her, not unlike a tennis player at Wimbledon with his girlfriend in the crowd, the mixture of enforced, societal chivalry and the arousal of deeper, or at least more primal, urges: those and many more acutely observed moments denied the manufactured boundary between ‘musical performance’ and ‘acting’. If we are to talk of ‘Wagner’s intentions’, let it be in that manner.

Benjamin Bruns had a difficult time of it. This, after all, was anything but the typical David, but Bruns had us believe in the ‘new’ — or should that be ‘restored’ — character, his impotent (often, at least) rage as chilling as the ‘purely’ vocal delivery was thoughtful and indeed often beautiful. Sara Jakubiak really took to the demands of her role (on which more below). Visually and vocally striking, this was an Eva both at home in and estranged from her Nuremberg. Okka von der Damerau’s Magdalene brought a deeper, luxuriant vocal colour to the stage, again with clear ‘dramatic’ as well as vocal commitment. Tareq Nazmi’s Night Watchman was deep and dark of tone: just what the doctor has always ordered.

Of the other Masters, Christof Fischesser was definitely first among equals: handsomely, even suavely sung, a Pogner of ambition in which he was likely to succeed, rather than someone entering his twilight years. Kothner was played movingly by Eike Wilm Schulte, with the relative stiffness of his delivery, particularly striking in the first act, a move to distinguish this ‘old-school’ Master from the next generation(s). Markus Eiche’s Beckmesser was of the first class: more plausible a suitor than most, intelligently, often beautifully, sung, with a fine marriage of dignity and, increasingly, desperation.

Back, then, to the Festwiese. Who owns the guild, or at least its products? A corporation, albeit in the modern rather than the archaic sense: Pognervision. Privilege, be it of class, of gender, of other varieties, is always likely to emerge victorious. The early televisual variety show we see might seem ‘popular’ but it is deeply — and indeed shallowly — manipulative. (Admittedly, Bösch has nothing on ‘real life’, in this country at least, Tory Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt appointing his friend, the creator of Big Brother, Peter Bazalgette, to chair the Arts Council, etc.) Falko Herold’s video work provides ‘titles’ for each Master (‘individual’ or styled to be corporate?) as he enters the scene, just ‘like on the television’. There is, of course, something for all the family — within strict limits. David and his camp dancers suggest what the real view of ‘deviance’ is: perhaps it will be tolerated as a harmless joke, but as for any serious attack on patriarchy… David is not in on the joke, anyway, and his humiliated by them: again, a proto-Beckmesser. When forced (‘peer pressure’ is like that) to drink too many shots, to prove his ‘real’ masculinity, he falls paralytic, unable to perform his functions (doubtless in any sense).

The cruelty meted out to Beckmesser will be even worse - although we should remember, and we are reminded, that he too would essentially buy Eva, our bartered bride, and he makes clear his desire to possess her, even against her will, so is no 'victim' at all in that crucial sense. Bedecked in gaudy ‘variety’ gold, in which he is clearly anything but comfortable, Beckmesser has been set up to fail. ‘Entertainment’ is the name of the game, and we are reminded of the cruelty of a work in which the comedy, in the common sense at least, is within, is of characters laughing at another; it is comedy, then, at which we should feel uncomfortable, and we do. Eva, who has learned a great deal during the course of the work, is increasingly disgusted by what she sees. Kothner is ‘marketed’ as celebrating his fiftieth year in office; even a ‘tribute’, indeed perhaps especially a tribute, must bear the ‘ratings’ in mind. (The relative stiffness of his delivery in the first act, via-à-vis that of Pogner and Beckmesser, thus falls into greater relief.) When Eva thinks that Sachs has fallen in with her father’s sell-off — for surely this ‘show’, with related ‘philanthropy’, is as much for business as anything else — she cannot bear to look at him any more. Whilst the crowd, manipulated by the ‘event’, sings his praises, she not only turns away; from her balcony, she haplessly throws the contents of her glass in his direction. No one notices; on stage, that is, for we do.

Yet Sachs is wiser than most, as we have always known. He realises that all has gone awry at the moment when most — whether on stage or in the typical audience — think it has been resolved. Has Walther joined the guild? It is not clear (deliberately so, I presume). In a more fundamental sense, however, Sachs is deeply troubled rather than triumphant. Beckmesser returns. Out of desperation, he tries to shoot dead the presumed author of his misfortunes, but falls before being able to carry out his punishment. The idea, we presume, was to let the poison, or whatever it was, do its work following the shooting. That may or may not be metaphorical. Of course, it does not work out as intended. It never did for Beckmesser; it never does for reconstruction. Well, not unless you are Wagner — or Herheim, and then you acknowledge that it is not what most people think it is. And even then…

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