Bayreuth 2017: An Unforgettable Experience

Review by Frances Henry
Pictures by Pierre Couture

Barrie Kosky, the director of Die Meistersinger, in Bayreuth.

The new production of Meistersinger at Bayreuth is a ‘Meisterwerk’ – a master piece! I haven’t the  words  to express how I felt about this production and so I have to resort to plain, simplistic gushing!    It was just unbelievably great; a combination of wonderfully played orchestral sound led by Phillipe Jordan; a superlative cast of first rate singers; and a most provocative and stunning staging by the man who calls himself “the Australian, Gay, Jewish Kangaroo”.  Kosky’s perspective is that the whole opera is seen through Wagner’s own fantasy world.  So Nurnberg in the 16th century was not the happy go lucky place usually depicted but rather part of the real world where not everything is sophomoric.  Framed by this idea, Hans Sachs is really Wagner himself.

Act 1 is set in the library of Wahnfried very convincingly reproduced on the stage. Following the entrance of two magnificent black Newfoundland dogs (Wagner’s, of course), the cast enters but as the real life people led by Wagner himself (Michael Volle, the Hans Sachs), Franz Liszt (Veit Pogner, played by Gunther Groissböck), Hermann Levi (Beckmesser- Johannes Martin Kränzle) and Cosima, played by Eva (Anne Schwanewilms).  Also included in the crowded room are a number of men who may, or may not, be Meistersingers and who enter by emerging from the grand piano. At one point, playing the church scene, the players line up rows of chairs and sit and kneel while praying.  Hemann Levi – Beckmesser, however, remains seated and does not kneel, only to be taunted by Wagner and Pogner to do so.  What Mr. Kosky has done in this clever staging is to bring us straight into the period of Wagner’s lifetime.  Each act opens on a scrim containing a written message.  For instance, Act 1 tells us that it is August 12, 1875, Liszt is on his way to visit his daughter Cosima and the son-in law, Richard Wagner,  Levi has come over to read some of Richard’s new music, Cosima is lying in bed with a migraine and Richard is out of the house walking his dogs Molly and Marke.

Michael Volle, who appeared as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger.

Act 2 is set in a grassy field with nothing more than a small platform. The dialogue between the characters goes on but the last scene, usually staged as an unruly riot of burghers of the town, has them instead leading a pogrom. The beaten up Beckmesser eventually slumps to the ground where he puts on a hideous mask of a stereotypic Jew as portrayed in Nazi propaganda, all the while performing a jerky uncontrolled dance. Meanwhile, a balloon large enough to cover at least one third of the stage is brought on.  As it slowly inflates, we see that it is the same stereotypic caricature of a Jew but as the music swells, it slowly deflates and what is left on the ground is only the top of the skullcap on his head on which glows in eerie yellow light a large Star of David.  The curtain falls to stunned silence.  Despite its horror, I understand this as a sign of hope; the symbol of Judaism will live forever.

Act 3 opens on a reconstruction of the Nurenburg Trial courtroom with rows of empty seats. Stage front, a visibly angry Hans Sachs demolishes the table in front of him and practically shouts his monologue. The act moves towards the end and after all the burghers and Meistersingers have crowded the stage and have  celebrated of Walther’s victory in claiming Eva, Sachs delivers his  final monologue alone on stage dressed again, as in Act 1, in Wagner clothes. He stands in the platform facing us, as if in judgement but pleading that we listen to the voice of art.  As he sings, the entire orchestra and the chorus standing and seated on a huge  wheeled platform rolls toward the front of the stage and as the orchestra and the enormous chorus sing the grand finale, it is the dominance of art that is represented.

The magic of this production lies in the directors ability to deal with the anti-Semitism head on. Beckmesser here is clearly an unwanted but -occasionally needed Jew ; however, director Kosky also thinks of him as a composite of everything Wagner hated – Jews, the French, music critics, etc.   Wagner relied on Levi’s musicianship as in Act 1 but nevertheless taunted him by trying to make him adhere to Christian symbols of prayer.  In Act 2 he is beaten and subjected to vile stereotyping and then is cast out. In the final scene the spectre of the Nurenburg trials hangs over the entire proceedings but the  musical artistic brilliance of the piece overshadows it in the staging as the courtroom disappears and the artists appear.

Although the anti-Semitism in other stagings of this great work has been recognized, it has never to my knowledge been so clearly and matter-of- factly brought out and acknowledged. I believe that only a Jewish director could have accomplished this and thus produced a masterwork of interpretation which makes the text of this opera so much easier to not only understand but to accept.  For, after all, anti-Semitism is a fact of historical and contemporary life so why not admit it?

In addition to this wonderfully evocative staging, the opera is also beautifully sung. I have never in all my years of opera going seen or heard a better  Hans Sachs than Michael Volle.  Nor have I ever heard  the level of dramatic vocalization that he attains.  His timbre and the colouring of the voice are incredible.  He sounds rough and ugly when angry, mellow and warm when he sings of love or art, intensely  urging and passionate when he wants to make his point.  Gone is the traditional kindly pensive philosopher poet.  Here he is a reflexive and passionate human being who reacts with strong emotion to what goes on about him.  The beauty of  this complex portrayal is that Volle expresses all of these emotions with his grand interpretative voice.  I’ve heard other fine singers who emote with their voices but never to this level of perfection.  Also very impressive is the singing and acting of Johannes Martin Kränzle whose Beckmesser is brilliant.  I also very much liked Klaus Florian Vogt’s Walther and believe that, as Vogt is now more mature, his voice has lost some of its eerie boyish quality and he now sings with a lovely full tenor sounding voice.  To have someone of Gunther Groissböck caliber singing the smaller role of Pogner showed the depth of Bayreuth’s casting, as did having the great George Zeppenfeld as the offstage voice of the Night Watchman!  In other roles, Daniel Beyle was a fine David and Wiebke Lehmkuhl a very large voiced and impressive Magdalena.  Anne  Schwanewilms was not quite up to this incredibly high vocal standard but she and the others still created a glorious Quintet.

The great orchestra of Bayreuth under the very skillful direction of Phillipe Jordan provided music to long remember.

I would urge anyone who loves Meistersinger and there are many Wagnerians who rank it their favourite, to do everything they can to get to Bayreuth to see this one of the very  best productions of the last fifty years. As for me, it ranks as one of three of the greatest productions of any opera that I’ve ever seen in my long opera going life!

Two other very good productions were featured this year. I had already seen the current production of Tristan and Isolde but this year there was a significant change in casting  and Petra Lang sang  a touching and beautiful Isolde while Rene Pape, whose voice now sounds a bit rough nevertheless gave us a very good King Marke.  Stephen Gould sang a splendid Tristan.  Petra Lang has a very good full ranged voice which sounded warm and embracing in the wonderful theatre acoustics and Gould, now somewhat mature, performed better than I had ever heard him.  The glory of the evening, of course, was Christian Thielemann in the pit, leading that great orchestra.  The musical sound was intense and provided the raging passion that the love duet requires and which was not seen in Katherina Wagner’s  dull and uninspiring staging of the second act. Thielemann’s conducting also brings out the smallest details in the music more so than any other Wagner conductor working today.  On the whole, a very good evening.

The Parsifal directed by Uwe Laufenberg and conducted by substitute Hartmut Haenchen, extracts of which we showed at a Toronto Wagner Society Meeting last year, was provocative but at times puzzling.  It is basically set in an Islamic country in which war rages; soldiers occasionally come on stage and Islamic symbols are particularly evident in the second act.  What is not clear is that the end shows ordinary people  and that a group of religious leaders representing  the major religions of the world  are throwing symbols of their religion into an empty coffin, presumably that of Titurel.  It would appear that religion is being dismissed but, on the other hand, it is also embraced not only by the grail  but throughout the second act when the Flower Maidens enter wearing burkas and in other moments  in this production.  The bottom line appears to be that religion and its influence in society is not only complex but also ambiguous.   The first act is highly dramatic showing a very wounded, bleeding Amfortas  agonizing in his distress.  Sung by a golden voiced American baritone, Ryan McKinney, the scene was both beautiful and grotesque as the knights of the grail gather round and drink his blood.  The singing throughout this production is first rate led by one of the best Gurnemanz  I’ve ever seen,  Georg Zeppenfeld.  Andreas Schager was a strong Parsifal but his vocal portrayal was throughout too confident to express the personality of this  pure fool. Schager doesn’t do ‘fool’ too well. I had much preferred last year’s Parsifal, Klaus Florian Vogt.  Also glorious was  Elena Pankratova as Kundry; her big  voice filled this wonderful hall but in Act 2 she sang quietly and pensively.    The slow tempos of Parsifal even sounded a bit slower because the conductor occasionally put in some unusual total silences.

It is gratifying to see that the level of artistic performance at Bayreuth, which had diminished somewhat in recent years, is now at a very high level. It is again the Mecca for Wagner lovers.

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