Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Bayreuth Festival, July 2017

Wagner’s Nuremberg is a city of trials: Walther’s trial by the Mastersingers in Act 1, Beckmesser’s trial by Sachs as he delivers his serenade in Act 2, and their separate trials by the people in Act 3. Yet fifty years after Wagner’s death, Hitler took power and Nuremberg became the venue for those post-war Nazi trials where Barrie Kosky’s remarkable production locates Act 3, with flags of Russia, Britain, America and France in the background.

Act 1 in Wahnfried, Eva and Walther, all images BayreutherFestspiele/ Enrico Nawrath

From his post at the Komische Oper in Berlin, Kosky is the first Jewish director ever to put on a production in Bayreuth, a trial in itself — not of Kosky but the Bayreuth Festival, where Wagner’s anti-Semitism amplified by his English-born daughter-in-law Winifred left a sour legacy. Wagner critics sometimes see Jewish attributes in some of his less savoury characters such as Beckmesser in Meistersinger, but as Kosky himself writes: “Beckmesser is not Jewish. He is a Frankenstein creature sewn together from all the bits and pieces that Wagner hated: the French, the Italians, the critics, the Jews. You name it, Wagner hated it and it all ends up in Beckmesser”. Kosky has had fun with this character, beaten up so badly after his ludicrous serenade at the end of Act 2 that one arm and a finger are broken, and a medieval harpist has to accompany his Act 3 attempt at a prize song. This judge of Walther’s first trial, now badly wounded, is laughed off the stage, and when Walther refuses the honour of becoming a Master after winning the song contest, everyone leaves and Hans Sachs stands alone as Wagner himself. As he sings of the nobility of the Masters who preserve the purity of German art that could one day fall to foreign rule — a difficult point for some directors in view of recent history — Kosky does something incredible.

The back wall of the court rises and an entire orchestra appears from nowhere, moving silently forward to fill the stage. As they take up the music, Sachs conducts and whatever you think about the Meistersinger finale the point is crystal clear: the music overwhelms everything.

Beckmesser surrounded by Jewish dwarves in Act 3

Thus ended the extraordinary first night of this year’s Bayreuth Festival, following an unusual concert the night before to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Wieland Wagner’s birth. He and his brother Wolfgang, grandsons of Wagner, founded the festival anew in 1951, banning the previous director, their mother Winifred, from attending. The concert featured a 40-minute speech by Sir Peter Jonas engaging with the dark side of the festival during the Hitler years. It took a non-German to mention the unmentionable, including Winifred’s adoration of Hitler that made him an ersatz father to the young Wieland. Bayreuth has been making amends ever since, and this concert marked a turning point.

Now for the first time a Jewish director stages Wagner in the Sanctus Sanctorum, with consummate wit and clear references to anti-Semitism. Acts 1 and 2 take place in the nineteenth century, the first in Wagner’s house Wahnfried, the second at a picnic. Wagner himself is present in his trademark velvet beret, with wife Cosima and her father Lizst. This production identifies Wagner with Hans Sachs, and to a lesser extent with the noble upstart Walther who falls in love with Eva, she and her father Pogner being identified with Cosima and Liszt.

The Kosky wit, amply evident in last summer’s Saul at Glyndebourne, is hilariously exercised in lighter moments such as the entrance of the Mastersingers in Act 3 when the assembled people loudly applaud each one, but Jewish caricatures emerge too. In the melée that ends Act 2 Beckmesser appears with a huge head topped by a yarmulke showing the Star of David, followed by a vast inflatable version of the same head that collapses in the final moments of the act, and during his solo entrance in the first scene of Act 3 he is surrounded by Jewish dwarves who paw at him.

Beckmesser with a Jewish head

Helping to bring this provocatively intriguing production to life was a chorus of extraordinary power, with a superb cast of principals under the ever-sensitive baton of Philippe Jordan. Michael Volle gave huge feeling and emotion to Hans Sachs in his two great monologues, a physically robust man torn between his love for Eva and desire for a wife. In the first scene of Act 3 he sweeps a fully loaded tablecloth to the floor, and when Eva and Walther hug he flings a chair across the room with such force that it breaks. As his beloved Eva, Anne Schwanewilms delivered vocal beauty, and notable elegance in her role as Cosima, with Günther Groissböck showing proud vocal strength and confidence as her father Pogner. Klaus Florian Vogt exhibited his usual intense power as Walther, Daniel Behle showed glorious lyricism as David, with Wiebke Lehmkuhl as a feisty Magdalene, and Johannes Martin Kränzle an exceptional Beckmesser, worried and uncertain as he tries to interrupt Sachs’ great speech to the massed crowds before the song contest, pathetically wanting help with the song he misappropriated.

Sachs and Walther in Act 3

Sustained applause, with scarcely a boo to be heard, confirms that Bayreuth is now in top form after some uncertain years when famous singers declined to appear. Once again a Wagnerian music capital, in the heart of Europe.

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