Monday, August 12, 2013

Salzburg Festival, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg
August 9, 2013
Eva - Anna Gabler
Magdalene  - Monika Bohinec
Hans Sachs - Michael Volle
Walther von Stolzing - Roberto Saccà
Veit Pogner - Georg Zeppenfeld
Sixtus Beckmesser - Markus Werba
David - Peter Sonn
Kunz Vogelsang - Thomas Ebenstein
Konrad Nachtigall - Guido Jentjens
Fritz Kothner - Oliver Zwarg
Balthasar Zorn - Benedikt Kobel
Ulrich Eißlinger - Franz Supper
Augustin Moser  - Thorsten Scharnke
Hermann Ortel - Karl Huml
Hans Schwarz - Dirk Aleschus
Hans Foltz - Roman Astakhov
A Nightwatchman  - Tobias Kehrer

Conductor - Daniele Gatti
Director - Stefan Herheim
Sets - Heike Scheele
Costumes - Gesine Völlm
Lighting - Olaf Freese

Konzertvereinigung Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic

Once this Wagner Bicentenary Year is over, probably the biggest question we'll all be asking ourselves is why wasn't Stefan Herheim allowed to stage the 200th Birthday Ring?

Sadly, it has become something of a truism that to hear the best Wagner singers and see the best Wagner productions you needn't (shouldn't?) go to Bayreuth.

I really don't believe that Frank Castor's Ring is the unmitigated disaster that everyone says it is.
It has tantalising, albeit isolated, flashes of brilliance.
And that is a great deal more than can be said of the previous production by Tankred Dorst, which was so unremittingly dull and dire that it must rank as one of the worst Rings I've ever seen.

Vocally, too, Bayreuth's Bicentenary Ring was anything but worthy of Wagner's Festspielhaus, in this year of all years.
Just look at the line-up of the concert performances of the cycle at this year's Proms to see that the world's current best Wagner singers were everywhere this year but on the Green Hill.

Yes, Bayreuth still has arguably the world's best Wagner orchestra. And it looks set to remain so in future with Kirill Petrenko taking his place alongside the festival's unofficial GMD Christian Thielemann among the ranks of the festival's great conductors.

But all in all, Bayreuth really should be ashamed of the shambles it has made of the bicentenary celebrations, after a shoddily-prepared Birthday Concert on May 22, the Festspielhaus still clad in scaffolding, Wahnfried reduced to rubble and the Markgräfliche Opernhaus closed to the public.

In artistic terms,  it is Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier who should take the blame for the muddled and directionless management of the world's oldest summer music festival. 

Of the various productions staged under their leadership, only Hans Neuenfels' Lohengrin and Stefan Herheim's Parsifal have really proven up to the mark.

Otherwise, it's a list of could-have-beens: Lars von Trier pulled out of the 2006 Ring to be replaced by Tankred Dorst. And it seemed like groundhog day again when Wim Wenders got cold feet for the Bicentenary Ring, which was then handed to Frank Castorf.

Following Sebastian Baumgarten's (literally) execrable Tannhäuser, future productions aren't looking especially mouth-watering either.
I've never found any of Katharina's productions -- from her Der fliegende Holländer in Würzburg in 2002 to her Meistersinger in Bayreuth in 2007 and Rienzi in Bremen in 2008 -- to be at all convincing.
Yet she has entrusted herself with the new Tristan in 2015. And Jonathan Meese -- a sculptor, painter, installation and performance artist of some notoriety in the German-speaking world -- will make his directing debut with the next Parsifal in 2016.

It is rare, but not impossible, for guest directors in Bayreuth to be asked back.
Among the 23 who have worked there since 1951, only August Everding and Götz Friedrich have ever staged more than one opera in the Festspielhaus.
Everding was responsible for Der fliegende Holländer in 1969 and then Tristan und Isolde in 1974 and Friedrich for Lohengrin in 1979 followed by Parsifal in 1982.

Since then, however, it seems to have become some sort of unspoken rule for directors not to return.

But surely, given the critical and popular success of his astonishing Parsifal, an exception could have been made for Herheim?

His magical and masterful re-interpretation of Meistersinger for this year's Salzburg Festival -- apparently the first staging of Wagner's only comic opera here since 1938 -- certainly gave us ample opportunity to fantasize about what he wonders he could have worked with the four-opera Ring.

Herheim updates the story, set by Wagner in the mid-16th century, to the so-called Biedermeier period in Germany in the first half of the 19th century.
And the action is all a fairy-tale, a dream on the part of Hans Sachs (who is actually Wagner himself) who rushes on stage before the overture in nightshirt and cap to scribble down his nocturnal imaginings.

We could be in a painting by Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885).

Sachs is a lonely widower, longing for the love and physical contact of a younger woman (Eva).

In the opening scene, the Nuremberg church where the congregation is singing is Sachs' own writing desk.
It's Märchen-time where the characters, the Mastersingers and Walther enter through a crack in the oversized window, the Singstuhl is the bridge of a violin and the guild members sit on thimbles engraved with their names.

It's sort of Meistersinger-meets-the-Nutcracker, and so crammed full with delightful details that the five-and-a-half hours fairly whizz by.
In fact, it's a Meistersinger you could easily take your children to.
The Festwiese at the end of Act 3 is the life-size close-up of the toy-play that Eva and Walther and David and Magdalene indulge in on the far-side of the stage.

But it precisely therein that lies the rub, a niggling qualm about such a technically perfect production.

It is all so utterly charming and enchanting that we forget that Meistersinger is Wagner's most problematic opera, hijacked and misused by the Nazis as a hymn to the supremacy of German art. And it is for that very reason that it is still treated with distaste today by even the most dyed-in-the-wool Wagnerians.

In his Bayreuth Parsifal, Herheim was not afraid to make the festival's Nazi past one of the central themes of his interpretation.
His use of swastikas and goose-stepping soldiers onstage drew loud boos from audiences every year.
So it is puzzling to say the least that he side-steps the issue so completely in Salzburg's new Meistersinger.

It is a matter of fierce debate whether, for example, Beckmesser is an anti-Semitic caricature.
But no matter what your position, the violence of the riot scene at the end of Act 2 is always deeply disturbing and the prelude to Act 3 all the more desolate for its musical depiction of the trail of devastation and destruction that the riot leaves behind.

In Herheim's reading, the riot is actually rather anodyne -- a few fairy-tale characters such as the Frog Prince and Hansel and Gretel misbehave, nothing more sinister than that.

In Sachs' (in)famous monologue at the end of Act 3, a sudden change in lighting made me sit up, expecting a dramatic new development on stage.
But it was all over in a blink of an eye, and I was left asking myself whether I'd missed something.

Vocally, Michael Volle was the star of the show. His was a superlative Hans Sach, richly nuanced and deeply moving.

And he was near matched by the excellent Markus Werba as Beckmesser.

I found the two female leads much more problematic, with Anna Gabler, to my ears, clearly miscast as Eva. Her voice is much too heavy for the role and her intonation was frequently off.

Monika Bohinec made little impression as Magdalene. Peter Sonn has a pleasant enough voice as David, but only really found his form in Act 3.

Much as I admired Roberto Saccà in Frankfurt's Idomeneo last season, he, too, seemed miscast as Stolzing, his tenor sounding tired and worn, his vibrato too wobbly for my liking.

Among the Meistersinger, Georg Zeppenfeld was excellent as Veit Pogner and Oliver Zwarg was also very impressive as Fritz Kothner.

Tobias Kehrer, on the other hand, was also seriously off-pitch in the small walk-on role of Nightwatchman.

Daniele Gatti, who conducted Herheim's Parsifal in Bayreuth, didn't always seem at ease here and, surprisingly in this score, the Vienna Philharmonic was not at its best.

Gatti, Gabler and Saccà were all loudly booed at the end.

Herheim's staging ia a co-production with the Opéra National de Paris and it seems that the Met in New York wants it, too. So hopefully there will be plenty of opportunity in the coming years to re-visit and relish this intelligent and visually stunning new Meistersinger.


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