Barrie Kosky conquers Bayreuth

Review and photos by Pierre Couture

Micahael Volle as Hans Sachs.

When I discovered the captivating music of Richard Wagner many decades ago, I dreamed about attending the Bayreuth Festival and seeing a performance of Parsifal and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, this last one being in my mind eternally associated with the strong German nationalistic message conveyed throughout the opera. This interest might have partly been related to my early nationalistic Québécois feelings. Remember that Richard Wagner composed his opera during the last years leading towards the unification of Germany under Bismarck.

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

This year’s brilliant production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – directed for the first time by someone outside the Wagner family, and additionally, a Jewish metteur en scène – is more tilted towards the German antiSemitic past. It is a very smart staging with an extraordinary performance of Johannes Martin Kränzle, a fine singing actor who portrays Sixtus Beckmesser, here, unusually, a primary role this time around, and the great Michael Volle playing the role of Hans Sachs. As a result, the character of Walther von Stolzing definitely becomes a secondary character. Wagner, here Hans Sachs, behind the comforting walls of Villa Wahnfried, hides from the real world until the Act 3, which takes place in a replica of the Nuremberg trials courtroom. Eventually, he is on trial, judged by the power of his music and reunited with Eva at his side, the one who here personifies Cosima.

Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther von Stolzing.

Act 1 opens in Villa Wahnfried where Hans Sachs is now Richard Wagner and who has invited some friends to celebrate a birthday, as all the gifts so suggest. Hans Sachs/Wagner arrives with two Bouvier des Flandres (one of them barked
during my second performance on the 27th August), and the guests include Walther von Stolzing (in this case portrayed as a young Wagner), Veit Pogner, and the celebrated Jewish conductor Hermann Levi. As Wagner unwraps the gifts, the personification of Hermann Levi is slowly changing into Sixtus Beckmesser, an odd character representing all the traits that the composer hated. But, according to Barrie Kosky’s program notes, he is not Jewish. His awkward behavior – not kneeling during the church prayers, drinking a glass of milk while the other guests are enjoying a “German style” afternoon tea, and wrapping and unwrapping a sandwich – contributes to it. He is perceived as a man incapable of understanding the great artistic merits of German Culture. In Act 3 he even steals the German music, and while all this is happening, Hans Sachs’ Wagner is teaching and coaching all the young Wagners dressed in similar costumes, including Walter von Stolzing.

Barrie Kosky, the production’s director, in Bayreuth.

Barrie Kosky “the agent provocateur par excellence” is a 50-year old Australian – known to have introduced himself in the past as “the Jewish Gay Kangaroo” – is an entertainer of extravagant theatrical imagination, describing his style as “high queer camp.” This enfant terrible is not afraid of going too far following his theatrical instincts, in his own words, “an unashamed mixture of kitsch, spectacle and provocation.” It is a staging that exposes some troubling realities juxtaposed with the breathtakingly beautiful music. Kosky, fully aware of Wagner’s statement, “my life is a drama I wrote”, orchestrates some scenes where the audience is forced to judge Wagner and his society. He obviously loves Wagner who comes out the big winner in the end. He argues the case for great German art before he returns to lead a full orchestra on stage with the awaiting Cosima/Eva at his feet. There is no traditional shoe making shop, just Hans Sachs occasionally walking around with one shoe in his hand, enough to imagine him as a cobbler.

Michael Volle (Sachs) and Johannes Martin Kränzle (Beckmesser).

Throughout Act 2, Beckmesser is constantly tortured by the thought of acting “Jewish” by the showing of various Jewish stereotypes, while Wagner himself makes no secret of hating assimilated Jews who had infiltrated the German culture. At the end of the act, replacing the traditional staging where Beckmesser gets arrested by the police for having disrupted order, Kosky chooses to have him sit under a gigantic balloon that depicts a Jewish stereotype. It inflates and slowly deflates while tilting towards the audience and exposing a giant kippah under bright lighting. It is an extremely poignant reminder of the antiSemitic Germany – after all, the opera is about judging Wagner and ultimately Germany. This stark and powerful statement is somewhat questioned by non-Germans present who are stunned to witness the perpetual German self-flagellation regarding their past. As a parallel, personally, as a non Jewish man, I tend to believe that today’s anti-Muslim feelings in our western societies are just as prominent and potentially as dangerous as the current antiSemitism; just witness the sad events which happened recently in my birth town of Quebec City.

Philippe Jordan, conductor.

Maestro Philippe Jordan was booed on opening night along with the underwhelming Eva / Cosima of Anna Schwanewilms. He conducts with some assurance gained from the previous season’s performances of Die Meistersinger at the Opéra Bastille and highlights some moving details and silences. As mentioned earlier, Klaus Florian Vogt’s Walther is somewhat diminished in this production but he never fails to add sonority to his youthful timbre. There are times when David, the promising tenor Daniel Behle, displays a more robust voice than Walther. And what a luxury to have the bass Günther Groissböck as a richly sonorous Pogner playing the part of Wagner’s father-in-law Franz Liszt in Act 1. Anna Schwanewilms unfortunately does not project the young look of Eva, playing the part of an even younger Cosima when Wagner met her, and seems to have lost the purity of tone and firmness so much admired in the American soprano Rachel Willis-Sorensen’s performance last spring at the Royal Opera House. But, ultimately you leave the opera house fulfilled by the gorgeously sung Sachs/Wagner of Michael Volle and his nemesis Beckmesser, the hugely talented Martin Johannes Kränzle; they are repeating their classic performance seen and heard during the last MET revival of this opera seen at the cinemas in the fall of 2014.

P.S. There is an interesting added feature I noticed with the help of my binoculars at the second showing (and also obvious while viewing the high definition video) where Kosky engineers a sort of “gay cruising scene” when one of the Meistersingers gives the eye to the attractive Walther of Klaus Florian Vogt. He is totally infatuated by him and wants to get so close to him and attempts to touch him affectionately, only to be rejected.