Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Munich

Glyndebourne would come only four days later; my principal point of —
inevitable — comparison would therefore be with Stefan Herheim’s
staging, first seen in Salzburg,
but later (this March) in
. Herheim’s production is, unsurprisingly, one for the ages. I
have no doubt that it will reveal more upon every subsequent encounter. It
comes, perhaps, closer to Wagner’s reconciliations. However, any good
Adornian — is there such a thing? Are we not, necessarily, all at best
bad Adornians? — will warn you of the dangers of such positive
Hegelianisms. David Bösch’s staging gradually reveals itself to be
quite the necessary negative indictment, with respect above all to two
particular (related) aspects of the work: violence and gender. If less
all-encompassing than Herheim’s staging — what is not? — then
it lays claim to be the first Meistersinger production in my
experience to address the work from a feminist standpoint. It also arguably
offers the most intriguing treatment — I shall not say
‘solution’, for surely there is none — to the
‘Beckmesser problem’.
Katharina Wagner’s notorious Bayreuth staging
might have given it a
run for its money, had only the competence of her craft matched the provocative
thinking of her dramaturge, Robert Sollich. Above all, though, this proved to
be great musical drama: everyone committed to something far greater than the
sum of its parts, and that includes ‘parts’ such as Jonas Kaufmann
and Kirill Petrenko.

Let us start, however, with Bösch’s staging, with excellent
designs by Patrick Bannwart and Meentje Nielsen. We are in the 1950s. What
could be more apt? And no, I am not being sarcastic. This is a work concerned
with reconstruction, set in a city which, more than most, has had to be
concerned with reconstruction. Wagner, I suppose I should reiterate for the nth
time, was in no sense concerned to present a historical Nuremberg; the
ever-present — well, nearly — spirit of Bach makes that abundantly
clear. And did not the 1950s see ‘New Bayreuth’, in particularly
Wieland Wagner’s Meistersinger ohne Nürnberg? As
John Deathridge once acidly commented, when Wieland spoke of “the
clearing away of old lumber” (Entrümpelung), … [he
produced] stage pictures bereft of their “reactionary” ethos
— and, as sceptics were prone to add, most of their content as
well.’ Indeed, and if many in the audience had more to hide even than
Wieland, he had his own reasons too. The relationship between provincialism and
the dreadful reconstructionalism of the 1950s is complicated yet undeniable.
Lest we forget, 1955 was the year in which the West German Army was
(re)founded, denying its origins in what had gone before; this was also the
period of increasingly prevalent terraced dynamics and sewing-machine
geometries of Bach performances by minor German chamber orchestras,
performances that would soon metamorphose into ‘authenticke’
claims, deluded and cynically deluding, to ‘restore’ Baroque
practice. ‘They say Bach, [but] mean Telemann,’ as Adorno
unforgettably put it. Wagner meant — and means Bach, and vice
. There is nastiness as well as homeliness in provincialism;
Bösch draws out the former, in a useful corrective to the norm.

What might seem a nostalgia for the period and its ‘popular
culture’ — similarly in
Bösch’s Munich L’Orfeo
— is revealed to be
far more complicated than that. For one thing, what does ‘popular
culture’ mean? Such is a problem at the heart of the opera, at the heart
of relationships between the Masters and the populace, and Sachs’s
suggestion of testing the rules. And such has arguably become still more so
given the rise of what some of us are old-fashioned enough still to regard
with, the Frankfurt School, as the Culture Industry. If resistance is to come,
it will be more likely to come from Helmut Lachenmann than from the world of
commercial music, successfully masquerading as ‘of the people’. And
so, when microphones and various other paraphernalia of the recording industry
— ‘Classical’ in the deadly marketing-speak of that world,
then as well as now — are put in place, we sense, amongst many other
things, an act of domination such has been inflicted upon works by Bach, now
more or less unperformable, and upon every other aspect of our
‘administered’ world and lives. Although the Personenregie
of Bösch’s staging is always detailed, interesting, telling, it is
only — as in the work itself — towards the end of the third act, in
the Singschule, that things come closer into conceptual focus. It is,
as always in the bourgeois state, with violence that that is accomplished.
David has already, most intriguingly, seemed a nastier, vainer, and yes, more
interesting character than usual, with the strong implication that his penchant
for small-scale violent behaviour is owed in part not only to his provincialism
but also to his inability truly to create. Walther has tried to defend David
when the apprentices, at the beginning of the scene, attacked him, but he will
have none of it; outsiders are not to be welcomed, perhaps not even for
Magdalene’s sake. Will David prove a second Beckmesser? We shall see; it
is, at least at this stage, the first Beckmesser who provides the shock —

The electric shocks administered to Walther, forcibly restrained in his
chair, by the Marker are the work of what Gudrun Esslin would soon call the
Auschwitz generation; and as Ennslin went on, there is of course no arguing
with them. That, despite, or perhaps because, of Beckmesser’s — and
Pogner’s — relative attractiveness (relative to how we usually see
them, and indeed to the definitely older-school Kothner). Who, after all, has
not occasionally found something of attraction in the discipline of fascism,
especially when (s)he has been emboldened by readily available bottles of
Meisterbräu? Guilds had never been as stable as nostalgia
suggested; that is surely part of Wagner’s meaning here. But Bösch
brings already-existing divisions to the foreground. Some Masters look —
costumes crucial here — and act with greater modernity, or at least in
greater fashion than others. If the Guild is keeping things together —
and such, of course, was the crux of nineteenth-century Romantic and Hegelian
defences in the face of liberal attacks upon them — then it is not clear
whether it will succeed for much longer. ‘Reconstruction’ tends to
incite — as any Stolzing, Ensslin, or Lachenmann would tell you.

Sachs’s van — ‘Sachs’ says the neon, definitely not
of Fifth Avenue — captures our attention at the beginning of the second
act. There is no doubt that the mise-en-scene is of a grimmer 1950s:
doubtless necessary in some ways given the cost of war, but this is not a
suburb of joy. It is not the Munich we see in the second Heimat; nor
is it the Nuremberg the tourist will see. But it is there. Beckmesser’s
virtuosity comes to the fore. He is not a fraud, although he may be
unimaginative; he has craft, even if he does not have art; he is, moreover,
certainly not a mere figure of fun. His piccolo guitar to
Walther’s full-size version invites a number of reflections. Yet his song
works, in its way: perhaps of another age, another age that most likely never
was, but such is reconstruction. Eva seems even more girlish than usual, almost
Barbie-like; I asked myself whether we should ever see a feminist production
that would address the monstrous nature of her treatment. The violence of the
Prügel-Fuge’s staging eclipses any I have seen. Too often,
we forget that there is real violence involved. (Perhaps Wagner did so too; if
so, he stands as much in need of correction as anyone else.) Here,
David’s deeds with baseball bat mark him out as every inch the
neo-fascist; Pegida would welcome him with open arms. We then begin to wonder:
what will the guild become in the hands of his generation. Is Sachs the last
hope, rather than the harbinger? Likewise, how will Walther turn out? For ever
Tariq Ali, think how many Blairs, or would-be-Blairs there have been. At the
close, the Night Watchman (in modern policeman’s garb) is dealt with by
the remaining small gang of young townsfolk. They take him back to his car and
send him on his way, but it is made clear that he has no choice; this is
their manor. Crossing themselves beforehand, they have mimicked the
(deliberately?) incongruous procession at the opening; they know how to use
traditional forms when it serves their purpose. The final punishment beating
takes place as the curtain — and one of the thugs’ baseball bats
— falls.

‘Sachs’ has lost its first and almost its second ‘s’
when we catch up, the morning after the night before. Make of that what you
will. Walther has spent his night in the van. Beckmesser, when he hobbles back,
is suicidal — quite understandably. It is discovery of the poem that
turns his mood (just enough) around. Sachs is not the only one so to suffer,
although Beckmesser would never have the imagination, nor the understanding, to
come up with the Wahn monologue. Still, the ubiquity of Wahn
is more than usually, atmospherically present. Yes, as Michael Tanner has
pointed out, the work is about ‘coping’; and coping is difficult in
a world such as this, which is one reason why we indulge in deluded and
deluding reconstruction in the first place. Walther is too young, too callow
really to understand; he and Eva are unable to keep their hands off each other,
on top of the van, as Sachs confronts a further bout of depression. The
violence of Wolfgang Koch’s — and the Bavarian State
Orchestra’s — outburst here, the former occasionally edging towards
Sprechgesang, even towards Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder ,
was especially telling, and complemented, extended the production memorably,
indeed frighteningly. But Walther eventually appreciates his selfishness, and
comes down to help: a touching moment, especially in light of such darkness all

Let us leave the staging as some would doubtless like the work to be left,
before the Festwiese. Unlike them, those who misunderstand the Quintet
and do not appreciate that its moment of ‘beauty’ is quite
deliberately foreshortened, we shall return, but I should rather deal with
Bösch’s final scene at the end. (Think of this, perhaps, as a
rupture to the account of the staging, just as Peter Konwitschny once ruptured
the aura of this allegedly problematical scene, in order, controversially, to
put it mildly, to deal with the allegations, most of them unfounded.)

I have never heard the work conducted better ‘live’ than by
Kirill Petrenko. I was less convinced by his Bayreuth Ring
performances than many were; perhaps I did not hear him at his best. This,
however, was Wagner conducting — in a work in which I have heard
and Daniele
struggle to reach their highest standards — to speak of in the
same breath as that of Bernard Haitink (my first). Petrenko’s command of
the Wagnerian melos, assisted by, indeed expressed in, the outstanding
playing of the Bavarian State Orchestra, was outstanding at every level. There
was no doubting the overall structure, but that structure was formed by the
needs of the moment, by the Schoenbergian working-out of the material, rather
than imposed, Alfred Lorenz-like, upon it. This was not a David; this was a
young Sachs. He could, indeed, hold back or press on when the singer seemed to
be suggesting it, playing the orchestra like his own piano, albeit without the
slightest hint of shallow virtuosity, for this was no Beckmesser either. But it
would not jar; indeed, performance and work seemed to form one another, which,
in this of all works, is surely the point. The orchestra had nothing to fear
from the most exalted of comparisons; rather, those with whom it might have
been compared, should fear them. Likewise the chorus, whether in terms of vocal
heft and colour, of clarity of line, or of stage movement. The dialectic
between individual and society (and changing conceptions thereof) was brought
vividly to life here and elsewhere.

I took a little while to settle down to Koch’s Hans Sachs. That is
partly personal, I think; to my ears — and indeed to my eyes — he
somehow seems more to be an Alberich. That I found disconcerting, but it was my
problem, really. There was no doubting the intelligence of his portrayal, and
in the third act, my reservations evaporated. Here, there seemed to be a
perfect marriage of Wort and Ton, of Oper and
Drama. (And yes, I know that is not quite what Wagner meant in the
latter case, but it is considerably closer than it might initially seem.) He
took us through Sachs’s struggles, and took us through some more. There
was no false reconciliation of ‘mere’ geniality, although
manipulation of Wahn might prescribe it, successfully or otherwise, if
as a palliative rather than as a cure.

Kaufmann’s Walther avoided the drawback of his first performance in
the role (I think), in concert at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival. There, it was an
astonishing performance, in which Kaufmann tired a little towards the end.
Here, he was perhaps less golden of vocal tone, more baritonal, but that is an
observation rather than an æsthetic judgement. There was no problem
whatsoever with his pacing. And my goodness, he could act! The puppyish
enthusiasm of the first acts, the inspiration Walther drew from Eva, whilst
showing off to her, not unlike a tennis player at Wimbledon with his girlfriend
in the crowd, the mixture of enforced, societal chivalry and the arousal of
deeper, or at least more primal, urges: those and many more acutely observed
moments denied the manufactured boundary between ‘musical
performance’ and ‘acting’. If we are to talk of
‘Wagner’s intentions’, let it be in that manner.

Benjamin Bruns had a difficult time of it. This, after all, was anything but
the typical David, but Bruns had us believe in the ‘new’ — or
should that be ‘restored’ — character, his impotent (often,
at least) rage as chilling as the ‘purely’ vocal delivery was
thoughtful and indeed often beautiful. Sara Jakubiak really took to the demands
of her role (on which more below). Visually and vocally striking, this was an
Eva both at home in and estranged from her Nuremberg. Okka von der
Damerau’s Magdalene brought a deeper, luxuriant vocal colour to the
stage, again with clear ‘dramatic’ as well as vocal commitment.
Tareq Nazmi’s Night Watchman was deep and dark of tone: just what the
doctor has always ordered.

Of the other Masters, Christof Fischesser was definitely first among equals:
handsomely, even suavely sung, a Pogner of ambition in which he was likely to
succeed, rather than someone entering his twilight years. Kothner was played
movingly by Eike Wilm Schulte, with the relative stiffness of his delivery,
particularly striking in the first act, a move to distinguish this
‘old-school’ Master from the next generation(s). Markus
Eiche’s Beckmesser was of the first class: more plausible a suitor than
most, intelligently, often beautifully, sung, with a fine marriage of dignity
and, increasingly, desperation.

Back, then, to the Festwiese. Who owns the guild, or at
least its products? A corporation, albeit in the modern rather than the archaic
sense: Pognervision. Privilege, be it of class, of gender, of other varieties,
is always likely to emerge victorious. The early televisual variety show we see
might seem ‘popular’ but it is deeply — and indeed shallowly
— manipulative. (Admittedly, Bösch has nothing on ‘real
life’, in this country at least, Tory Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt
appointing his friend, the creator of Big Brother, Peter Bazalgette,
to chair the Arts Council, etc.) Falko Herold’s video work provides
‘titles’ for each Master (‘individual’ or styled to be
corporate?) as he enters the scene, just ‘like on the television’.
There is, of course, something for all the family — within strict limits.
David and his camp dancers suggest what the real view of ‘deviance’
is: perhaps it will be tolerated as a harmless joke, but as for any serious
attack on patriarchy… David is not in on the joke, anyway, and his
humiliated by them: again, a proto-Beckmesser. When forced (‘peer
pressure’ is like that) to drink too many shots, to prove his
‘real’ masculinity, he falls paralytic, unable to perform his
functions (doubtless in any sense).

The cruelty meted out to Beckmesser will be even worse – although we should
remember, and we are reminded, that he too would essentially buy Eva, our
bartered bride, and he makes clear his desire to possess her, even against her
will, so is no ‘victim’ at all in that crucial sense. Bedecked in gaudy
‘variety’ gold, in which he is clearly anything but comfortable,
Beckmesser has been set up to fail. ‘Entertainment’ is the name of
the game, and we are reminded of the cruelty of a work in which the comedy, in
the common sense at least, is within, is of characters laughing at another; it
is comedy, then, at which we should feel uncomfortable, and we do. Eva, who has
learned a great deal during the course of the work, is increasingly disgusted
by what she sees. Kothner is ‘marketed’ as celebrating his fiftieth
year in office; even a ‘tribute’, indeed perhaps especially a
tribute, must bear the ‘ratings’ in mind. (The relative stiffness
of his delivery in the first act, via-à-vis that of Pogner and Beckmesser,
thus falls into greater relief.) When Eva thinks that Sachs has fallen in with
her father’s sell-off — for surely this ‘show’, with
related ‘philanthropy’, is as much for business as anything else
— she cannot bear to look at him any more. Whilst the crowd, manipulated
by the ‘event’, sings his praises, she not only turns away; from
her balcony, she haplessly throws the contents of her glass in his direction.
No one notices; on stage, that is, for we do.

Yet Sachs is wiser than most, as we have always known. He realises that all
has gone awry at the moment when most — whether on stage or in the
typical audience — think it has been resolved. Has Walther joined the
guild? It is not clear (deliberately so, I presume). In a more fundamental
sense, however, Sachs is deeply troubled rather than triumphant. Beckmesser
returns. Out of desperation, he tries to shoot dead the presumed author of his
misfortunes, but falls before being able to carry out his punishment. The idea,
we presume, was to let the poison, or whatever it was, do its work following
the shooting. That may or may not be metaphorical. Of course, it does not work
out as intended. It never did for Beckmesser; it never does for reconstruction.
Well, not unless you are Wagner — or Herheim, and then you acknowledge
that it is not what most people think it is. And even then…

Mark Berry

Cast and production details:

Walther: Jonas Kaufmann; Eva: Sara Jakubiak; Magdalene: Okka von der
Damerau; David: Benjamin Bruns; Hans Sachs: Wolfgang Koch; Sixtus Beckmesser:
Markus Eiche; Veit Pogner: Christof Fischesser; Fritz Kothner: Eike Wilm
Schulte; Kunz Vogelgesang: Kevin Conners; Konrad Nachtigall: Christian Rieger;
Ulrich Eisslinger: Stefan Heibach; Hermann Ortel: Friedemann Röhlig;
Balthasar Zorn: Ulrich Reß; Augustin Moser: Thorsten Scharnke; Hans Foltz:
Christoph Stephinger; Hans Schwarz: Peter Lobert; Night Watchman: Tareq Nazmi.
Director: David Bösch; Set designs: Patrick Bannwart; Costumes: Meentje
Nielsen; Video: Falko Herold; Lighting: Michael Bauer; Dramaturgy: Rainer
Karlitschek. Chorus, Extra Chorus (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff) and
Orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera/Kirill Petrenko (conductor).
Nationaltheater, Munich, 22 May 2016.

product_title= Richard Wagner : Die Meistersinger von N¸rnberg, Bavarian State Opera, Munich
product_by=A review by Mark Berry