Wagner Notes

[The following review is excerpted from the October 2017 issue of Wagner Notes, the bimonthly publication of the Wagner Society of New York; it is sent free of charge to all Society members. ©2017. All rights reserved.]

Nuremberg Trial: Meistersinger Comes Home
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Principals: M. Volle, K. Vogt, A. Schwanewilms, J. Kränzle, D. Behle, G. Groissböck; Bayreuth Festspielorchester & Festspielchor, cond. P. Jordan, production: B. Kosky, scenery: R. Ringst, dramaturg: U. Lenz, costumes: K. Bruns. Performance of 31 July 2017.

Meistersinger, Act I, Bayreuth, 2017
photo: Enrico Nawrath

Barrie Kosky’s new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg began its life, I have a feeling, with the closing scene of the opera: Hans Sachs’s perennially problematic oration to the glories of German art which can only remain “deutsch und echt,” (German and true) if it is protected from foreign influences, an oration greeted by the enthusiastic chants of “Heil, Heil” by the assembled Volk of Nuremberg. Since World War II, this has been an impossible scene to stage, the only solution being to take cover in the original conception as Otto Schenk did so memorably at the Met. But this is 2017, and there can only be so many “traditional” productions in the world at any one time, and probably not at Bayreuth, where “traditional” itself carries political baggage that is not unproblematic.
   Kosky’s closing moment is one of sheer brilliance: he has not Sachs, but Richard Wagner himself delivering the closing monolog directly to the audience. Once he has finished singing, he turns to conduct an orchestra and chorus all dressed in black, which has just appeared from the back of the stage. We are neither in the 16th century, nor are we specifically in the 19th. It’s Wagner all right, but he is talking to us in 2017. As though this were not even an opera anymore, but an oratorio, a hymn to the glories of German art which, in this case, means a hymn to none other than Wagner himself.

   Kosky’s problem was, then, how to stage the preceding 4.5 hours of the opera, so that we could arrive at this scene in a credible way. His solution is lively, often truly witty, occasionally bordering on the infantile; there are stretches of intense calm and reflection, ideas that made me angry, and moments when I began to weep uncontrollably.

   If you are hoping that Kosky’s solution is coherent, you will be disappointed and ultimately frustrated. His Meistersinger is not a neat interpretation, nor does it aspire to be. It takes place on three different planes that often meet and intermingle playfully: there is the costume drama of the 16th century, meaning Die Meistersinger in its original conception. Then there is the play within the play, with Richard Wagner in his Wahnfried living room, putting on a private performance of Die Meistersinger for and with his inner circle. Then there is the famous courtroom of the Nuremberg Trials which appears for the first time at the very end of Act One and then becomes the frame for the remainder of the evening. We might be expecting one of the scenes to actually be a re-enactment of the Nuremberg Trials but that never happens. Instead, that courtroom serves as a reminder only, a historical frame that will forever be a part of this work. In this sense, the Nuremberg Courtroom does not even stand for the actual events of 1946, but rather for the ongoing trial of Wagner, a trial Wagner precipitated, starting with his 1849 flight from an arrest warrant for which he was never captured. But accusation and trial have been a fixture of the Wagner phenomenon and continue to this day, whether for his personal or his artistic or his ideological transgressions. The list of “crimes” is long and the jury will never reach unanimity.

   The first act introduces all three planes. Before the Prelude starts, a text written on an old typewriter is projected onto the scrim: 13 August 1875, Villa Wahnfried, 23 degrees Celsius outside temp, Franz Liszt has announced his arrival, Hermann Levi is also on his way to visit, Richard is out walking his dogs, Cosima is lying down with a migraine. It all sounds so plausible. But it’s a fiction. It never happened quite like that and certainly not on that day. But all the elements are true nevertheless. That is the Kosky production in a nutshell. It’s completely fictitious, but all of it is also true, and terrifyingly so.

   On the opening chords of the Prelude, in bursts Richard Wagner wearing his black velvet jacket and his beret, pulled into the main room of Wahnfried by two gorgeous black dogs. In quick succession come Liszt, Levi, and Cosima with maids scurrying hither and thither, bringing Richard one package after the other: fine silks, a portrait of Cosima dressed in white, a wooden box filled with expensive perfumes. It’s totally hectic and a bit unnerving. There is so much activity that it becomes impossible to concentrate on the music. This is Kosky at his best and worst. Of course Wagner was a bundle of energy, a choreographer of his domestic sphere, always needing to control. But do we have to see it and be confronted with it all? At the climax of the Prelude, Liszt sits down to play the piano, joined moments later by Wagner. They pretend to play the contrapuntal section four-handed as the piano lid opens and out come a series of Wagners at different ages, and we begin to see Kosky’s concept come to life.

   In the course of the first act, Wagner begins to stage Meistersinger in his living room and so we see him taking on the role of Hans Sachs, the younger Wagner into Walther, Cosima into Eva, Franz Liszt into Veit Pogner, and, most painful of all, Hermann Levi into Beckmesser, despite all his attempts to say no. It is of course so brilliant. Veit Pogner is rich and his daughter marries Walther but is also in love with Sachs… Franz Liszt was rich and his daughter married Wagner. Beckmesser woos Eva, and Levi was accused of having an affair with Cosima. This all worked really quite well as these people slipped in and out of their roles.

   Without a doubt, the evening belonged to Michael Volle as Wagner/Hans Sachs. At the end, his voice was as controlled, smooth and powerful as at the beginning. His performance of the text was eye-opening. Every word was clear and delivered to underscore its meaning, revealing just how wonderful the Wagner libretto is. The third act duet with Walther, sung by Klaus Florian Vogt, was a high point, and Kosky should be lauded for not interfering, but just letting the two men talk about art with a minimum of staging. But the moment that stood out was the midpoint of the “Wahn” monologue. Sachs becomes increasingly agitated as he recalls the events of the previous evening, culminating with “Gott weiß, wie das geschah,” (God knows how that happened) which Volle did not sing but literally cried out. This shocking moment was followed by an exponential extension of the G.P. (General Pause). In the complete silence that lasted an eternity, we could do nothing but be confronted with our own thoughts. This was no longer just a reference to the violence at the end of the second act, but rather a question of how on earth it was possible for the Germans to sink into the abyss of the 1930s and 40s.

   For me, more powerful still was Johannes Martin Kränzle as Levi/Beckmesser. I have never been so moved by a Beckmesser, perhaps because this was now an actual real life human being. Watching him being forced into a role he did not want to play, systematically humiliated and tortured, excluded by the very guild that was his home and that he was so committed to supporting and defending, all the while continuing to sing as beautifully and musically as he could, maintaining his poise and posture throughout: I cannot recall anything so painful to experience in all my years going to the opera.

   Kosky has also done his Wagner research and knows the staging history. Citations from previous Meistersinger and Bayreuth productions abound: Wieland Wagner’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” staging from 1963, Katharina Wagner’s masks from 2007, Stefan Herheim’s Wahnfried-based Bayreuth Parsifal from 2008, and his Salzburg Meistersinger from 2013. The whole production is supported perfectly by Philippe Jordan, who conducts with an almost Mendelssohnian lightness of touch. The music flows airily and gently and you can feel the warm summer breeze. This is maybe Wagner as he should sound, a little more Mediterranean and a little less Teutonic.

   The weak link of the evening, both vocally and dramatically, was Anne Schwanewilms who was cast as a middle-aged Cosima rather than a youthful Eva, even though Cosima herself would not yet have been all that old in 1875. Schwanewilms’s voice was often strained, her phrasing clipped, and she had the annoying habit of constantly bobbing up and down on her heels. Rather than being graceful as Eva would surely be, and Cosima definitely was, she fidgeted around the stage like a bundle of nervous teenage energy albeit in a matronly body.

   Given the importance of Eva, this marred what would have been pretty close to a perfect performance musically. And, if one can let go of Schenk and the desire to see a straight-forward rendition of this immense and breathtaking opera, what Kosky offers us is a moving and thought-provoking evening at the theater that enriches the interpretation history of Die Meistersinger immeasurably.

Nicholas Vazsonyi       

Nicholas Vazsonyi is Professor and Chair, Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, University of South Carolina; and editor of the Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia.

Sachs (Michael Volle) and Beckmesser (Johannes Martin Kränzle), Act II.
Bayreuth Meistersinger photo: Enrico Nawrath


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