Opera Britannia, May 28, 2016
Sebastian Petit
Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Bayerische Staatsoper, 26. Mai 2016
Wagner : Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
What a bizarrely schizophrenic evening this was! On one side one could revel in a superb musical performance led by Kirill Petrenko featuring a strong, cohesive cast. On the other hand, that performance was constantly contradicted visually and emotionally by David Bösch’s grungy, determinedly anti-romantic production. The evening started strongly and throughout the first act the lithely iridescent musical performance seemed to go hand in hand with Bösch’s view of the piece. Each of the Masters was a sharply defined character – I particularly enjoyed the mildly rebellious master listening to music on headphones during the meeting! The carefully graded and varied reactions to Stolzing’s musical hand grenade all rang true without caricature. The final image of the act – a heartbroken Kothner clutching a shard from a shattered bust of Wagner was unexpectedly moving.

But as Act II progressed, doubts grew as the Personenregie seemed to rely more and more on tired sight gags and pratfalls. The look may have been staunchly modernistic but some of the visual jokes would not have looked out of place in an Otto Schenk Wagnerworld production. The moment Markus Eiche‘s wonderfully strange Beckmesser produced a large sledgehammer I knew with sinking certainty that he would drop it on his foot. And, alas, he did not disappoint. The picky amongst us could also be forgiven for wondering what Pogner, apparently prosperous, was doing living in a sink estate akin to the nightmare environments of La Haine or Dheepan. Christof Fischesser was a well sung but dramatically understated young father figure in the part.

The act climaxed in a riot scene which was the opposite of comic; involving, as it did, some extremely realistic violence, thugs in animal masks and the taunting of a powerless police force (substituting for the Nightwatchman). The chorus blocking was merely confusing rather than riotous. The climax with Beckmesser, already covered in blood, apparently about to be kneecapped, left a distinctly nasty taste in the mouth.

Alas, matters deteriorated still further in Act III with an interminable bit of business involving bad coffee and even worse milk. The almost foolproof moment leading into “O Sachs, mein Freund” failed to come off, despite the best efforts of Sara Jakubiak’s Eva and Wolfgang Koch’s Sachs. This failure was down to a combination of an insufficiently angry “Hat man mit dem Schuhwerk nicht seine Not” and the decision of the director to not allow the young lovers to be drawn into Sachs’ frustration and hurt. Despite being hampered by this, this was Jakubiak’s best moment with her strong, very individual voice given the chance to open out thrillingly. Later in the horribly exposed launch of the sublime quintet she sounded nervous with the voice losing focus at the ends of phrases. A pity that Petrenko, in a generally very fast reading of the score, chose to slow the pace quite so much at this most testing of pages.

Only a house with the tech-savvy of Munich would stage the famously difficult scenic transfer from Sachs’ workshop (or graffitied van, in this production) into the meadow on the banks of the Pegnitz without recourse to a drop curtain or house tabs. But, bang on cue, huge sections of scenery glided off with a minimum of fuss and noise thanks to the crack stage team. Admittedly what transpired was no meadow but a grim adversarial ring surrounded by scaffolding balconies and hung with crude banners. Only Pogner apparently could afford an illuminated name sign. Beckmesser, dressed as if going for the bizarre act of the year in Eurovision, was the only person onstage allowed any colour in sea of white, blacks and greys. Clearly this populace had little cause to celebrate Johannistag except for the obligatory day off from toil.

The actual song contest proceeded much as in any production, though the joke of Beckmesser’s song-spot constantly shifting position onstage soon became wearisome. Jonas Kaufmann arrived as if playing the rock god and, given his luminous singing of the Preislied, that seemed fair enough. Even Bösch’s decision for Sachs’ plea to respect the Meister and Holy German Art to fall on deaf ears and for Walther and Eva to abandon Nuremberg rang true within the context of the production. To be honest, even Sachs didn’t seem that convinced. But Bösch couldn’t even trust that slightly sour ending and piled on the sensation by having poor Beckmesser first threaten Sachs with a gun and finally blow his own brains out just as the music reached its joyful climax. No wonder the audience were left flabbergasted – they were handed a monstrous anti-climax which subverted Wagner’s intentions for cheap sensationalism. A pity, as the first act had promised so much.

So thank God for the musical side of this mismatched equation. Within the space of one week I have been privileged to hear Christian Thielemann conduct one of the finest Lohengrins of my experience and now Petrenko’s Meistersinger. Far too many conductors smother this score with too much love and produce a lumbering, turgid evening – Petrenko never made that mistake. The overture kicked off at a tremendous lick – this was Meistersingers on a power walk rather than the usual pompous march. Petrenko ensured throughout a long evening that audibility was never compromised by orchestral grandeur.

The other aspect that characterised the musical evening was crystal clarity and attention to precise musical detail. This was carried through to the singers – I have rarely heard the numerous tiny decorations with which Wagner peppered the vocal line sung with such accuracy. Two examples will suffice – Kaufmann’s Act I “Gewinnen” and the numerous fussy fioriture in Eiche’s Act II serenade. Eiche was in many ways the star of the evening. Vocally almost impeccable, he portrayed a complex personality worlds away from the usual desiccated caricature. Eiche (and presumably, Bösch’s) Beckmesser was a young-ish man and a perfectly credible suitor for Eva. His awkward personal interactions marked him out as a typical low-achiever, a victim of bullying who, having achieved a modicum of power, has himself become the bully. A pity that the climax of his Act III song of triumph which should have crowned his assumption came slightly unstuck.

There were loud mutterings after Kaufmann’s opening night relating to his alleged unsuitability for the role and an overcautious husbanding of the voice in the first two acts. However, 3 performances into the run, he seemed to have settled into his stride and, while never producing a massive sound, had no problems riding the orchestral climaxes. His “Am stillen Herd in Winterzeit” was gorgeously realised and his furious outburst in Act II was appropriately thrilling. He avoided the classic mistake of over-singing the song writing scene and had plenty left for a crowning Preislied. Any long term reservations are likely to relate to the vocal timbre, which is darker than the usual silvery tenor in this role. But who today sings and looks the role as well? It would be interesting to see him in a more traditional production but, for now, after so many prophesies of doom related to his vocal estate, I will be content with this performance.

Wolfgang Koch is familiar to Londoners as Sachs, having appeared with the Royal Opera in both London and Birmingham under Pappano. This, however, was a very different view of the role and one which posed as many questions as answered. This cobbler, scruffily dressed and almost grey of complexion, was no centre of his community. Indeed, already living on the edges of society, he seemed almost ready to drop off entirely. It appeared odd that such an apparently isolated figure could hold sway amongst the Meister and, still more unlikely, in the city as a whole. Koch sang with his accustomed power and sensitivity and while the voice is not intrinsically beautiful he rarely flags even at the end of a very long evening.

Benjamin Bruns, a singer new to me, was a strong David – singing with a silvery beauty and power. Despite his scruffy Masters, he was nattily attired in a shiny grey suit and bow tie and looking almost disturbingly like a young Peter Pears. Bösch’s concept of the role was far from the usual lively young whippersnapper. This David was a prissy martinet in the making, far closer in character to Beckmesser than Sachs. As with Beckmesser, there were disturbing indications that David was the victim of bullying. His relationship with the very unpleasant apprentices trod an uneasy path between overseer and punchbag. His extreme outburst of violence towards Beckmesser, the character he most resembled, was therefore all the more shocking. Bösch’s disturbing view of the apprentices extended to several senior members of the ensemble being roped into their number and then costumed as Just William type schoolboys.

As already noted, Jakubiak was an unusual Eva, better at full throttle than in repose. She looks gorgeous onstage and the relationship with Sachs is strongly delineated. An unusual take on her part in Act III sees her believe that he has betrayed her trust and agreed to her marriage to Beckmesser – Jakubiak’s anger and disappointment was vividly felt, as was her radiance as she realised her mistake. She was lucky to be paired with Okka von der Damerau’s unusually imposing Magdalene, who already sounds ready to graduate to roles such as Fricka and Brangäne.

All the Meister, including Eike Wilm Schulte’s gentle Kothner, were strongly sung and vividly characterised – a testament to the strength of the Munich ensemble. Also notable was Tareq Nazmi’s Nightwatchman, whose resonant tone strongly contrasted with his powerless Officer Krupke type character.

Musically, this was as fine a Meistersinger as I’ve experienced in some years but the production was a frustrating missed opportunity that threw away a promising first act in a welter of cliché and unwanted sensationalism.

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