Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Bayreuth Festival, Bayreuther Festspiele, July 2018

In this revival of last year’s successful new Meistersinger director Barrie Kosky there seems to an excess of stage farce that rather weakens the overall effect.

Sachs, Walther, David, mastersingers in Haus Wahnfried, all images Bayreuth Festival/ Enrico Nawrath

Too much mockery is expended on Beckmesser, rendering him not just a klutz but a pathetic creature shuffling over to Eva on his knees in Act 3 as his prize song goes wrong. Wagner’s witty mis-wording of Walther’s original text is funny enough in itself not to need such extra effects, and on a second view it is hard to see the relevance of the inflatable Jewish caricature when he gets clobbered at the end of Act 2, and the Jewish dwarves surrounding him in the first scene of Act 3. This is not to criticise Kosky’s central concept of Nuremberg as a city of trials: for the Meistersingers, Walther, Beckmesser, and indeed the judicial investigations after the Second World War. But I’m less sure about portraying the mastersingers as figures of fun, as if in a British pantomime. This is partly Kosky conjuring fun out of fustiness, but perhaps with an edge of mockery against formal German attitudes that permitted the extreme depersonification of the Nazi period.

Beckmesser accepting the song from Sachs

Yet in the final paean to German art, with its warning against succumbing to foreign rule, Kosky’s handling of the scene is brilliant as everyone but Sachs leaves the stage, the back wall rises and an entire orchestra plus chorus appears from nowhere, with Wagner’s wife Cosima sitting on the front steps of the orchestra. Suddenly the on-stage orchestra takes up the music with Sachs himself conducting, before disappearing as the players in the recessed orchestra pit take over. The message is clear: it’s all about the music. Both Sachs and Walther by this time are clothed as Wagner with black velvet berets, harking back to the overture where we see the interior of Haus Wahnfried with guests including Liszt and three younger versions of Wagner, who reappear in Act 3 to kiss the painting of his wife Cosima, which has just been placed in the witness box of the Nuremberg court. Deliberate juxtapositions of the past and distant past are emphasised at times by the clock on the back wall running very fast backwards, but there are sometimes too many interleaved ideas, and I did not see the point of the extraordinary clutter in Act 2, which the chorus skilfully clear up before launching into the fight scene.

Just before the quintet

Yet the music is everything and once again the sensitive baton of Phillipe Jordan moved things beautifully forward after slight orchestral uncertainty during the overture. The main cast was the same as last year with the one unfortunate exception of Eva. Michael Volle as Hans Sachs was outstanding, showing effortless power in a natural and very expressive portrayal, and Johannes Martin Kränzle made an exceptional Beckmesser, his natural comic timing allowing arrogance to swerve into amusing nervousness, and I loved the little backwards dance in the first scene of Act III when Sachs allows him to take the poem without attribution. Klaus Florian Vogt exhibited intense power and lyricism as Walther, Günther Groissböck an engaging sympathy as a deeply voiced Pogner, and Daniel Behle made a wonderfully expressive David. Wiebke Lehmkuhl was a delightful Magdalene, but there is something wrong when the Magdalene of Acts 1 and 2 is vocally superior to Eva, a role in which Emily Magee was sadly miscast. She improved in Act 3 where she tripped in to talk to Sachs like Aunt Pettitoes from Beatrix Potter, but she lacks the lightness of touch for this role, and though her voice found its centre in the quintet it almost drowned the other singers.

This intriguing production does Bayreuth proud, though some comedy elements, such as the pantomime mastersingers, seem in danger of going out of control.

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