A wondrous, beautiful and fulfilling



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“I’m following in father’s footsteps, I’m following dear old dad”

This year marks the 100th anniversary of former Bayreuth director, Wolfgang Wagner, son of Siegfried Wagner and Richard Wagner’s grandson, who directed the Bayreuth Festival alongside his elder brother Wieland from 1951 until the latter’s death in 1966 and then assumed total control until he retired in 2008. He prophetically exclaimed: ‘There’s only one star in Bayreuth and his name is Richard Wagner.’ That profound statement still holds true today.

Therefore, to mark Wolfgang’s centenary (whose anniversary actually falls on 30th August) a commemorative opening concert took place on the eve of this year’s Bayreuth Festival in which conductor, Christian Thielemann, remarked on how he had to thoroughly relearn conducting techniques to fit the requirements of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus about which Wolfgang Wagner knew every detail. Appropriately, the area in front of the Festspielhaus is now named after Wolfgang.

A fabulous concert by all accounts, the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra was joined by such Wagner heavyweights as Günter Groissböck, Stephen Gould and Waltraud Meier, the latter giving a moving rendition of the ‘Liebestod’ from Tristan und Isolde. And to add to the centenary celebrations, an exhibition entitled ‘The Principal’ - chronicling Wolfgang Wagner’s professional life as artistic director, stage designer and director - is running at the Richard Wagner Museum (Villa Wahnfried) to Sunday 3rd November.

Naturally, the anniversary concert was hosted by Wolfgang’s daughter, Katharina - great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner and, indeed, great-great granddaughter of Franz Liszt - who now, of course, gloriously follows in her father’s footsteps.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Bayreuth Festival   

You soon get a feeling for the style of Barrie Kosky’s innovative and entertaining production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, first seen at Bayreuth in 2017. For one thing, he dumps the traditional setting of St Catherine’s Church in Act I for Villa Wahnfried where we meet Wagner and his wife Cosima entertaining bosom friends in a ‘read-through’ of Meistersinger in which the Jewish-born conductor, Hermann Levi, is portrayed and greatly humiliated as Sixtus Beckmesser, the role so magnificently sung and so well acted by Johannes Martin Kränzle.

The date of this well-heeled gathering (13th August 1875) was projected in large lettering on a gauze-covered curtain whilst the names of Wagner’s beloved dogs (Molly and Marke) were also flashed up and, oddly enough, the temperature of the day - 23C. Bayreuth’s usually hot often in more ways than one!

The pivotal role of Walther von Stolzing (seen as Young Wagner) fell to Klaus Florian Vogt, a big ‘favourite’ of the Green Hill and his entrance into Wahnfried’s elegantly-furnished, book-lined drawing-room came by way of a precarious route tumbling from Wagner’s Steinway Grand directly into the arms of Cosima (seen as Eva) powerfully sung by Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund while Günther Groissböck as Veit Pogner (Eva’s father, later appearing as Franz Liszt) showed his muscle equating to his wealthy position.

The Master Singers arrive by the same circuitous route (plus a few Wagner look-alikes, too) with their chains of office denoting their trade dangling heavily from their necks. Robed in traditional processional gowns - inspired, perhaps, by the Nuremberg Renaissance printmaker, Albrecht Dürer - they could easily have passed off as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men from the pantomime, Dick Whittington. 

But Mr Kosky’s production was far from ‘pantomime’ and, as always, he keeps plenty of tricks up his sleeve offering a dramatic and stylish ending to Act I inasmuch as Wahnfried was seen slowly retracting to reveal a replica of Room 600 of Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice used by the International Military Tribunal for the War Trials of 1945-46 with a lonely GI on duty, a timely reminder of things to come.

In the original production the same set was cleverly adapted for Act II but here the courtroom floor was free of furniture and completely grassed over finding Wagner and Cosima tucked up one corner enjoying an al fresco lunch. Kosky’s new thinking now depicts Room 600 completely bare apart from a big heap of goods and chattels from Wahnfried bunged up one corner which, I guess, would not look out of place as an ‘installation’ in London Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.
One of the highlights of this act was the formidable tête-à-tête between Hans Sachs (sung by Michael Volle portraying Old Wagner) and Sixtus Beckmesser with Sachs interrupting and greatly annoying him by bumbling away at his old cobbler’s song while hammering the soles of Eva’s half-made shoes while marking his musical errors. And the moment David (sung by Daniel Behle) confusingly sees Beckmesser - whom in Kosky’s thinking is a Frankenstein-type creation of everything Wagner hated not only Jews but the French, Italians and critics alike and, no doubt, the tax man - serenading his girlfriend Magdalena (Wiebke Lehmkuhl) all hell breaks loose. 

And with Kosky portraying Levi as Beckmesser a nasty and disturbing scene brought Act II to an unsettling close as he became the target of a brutal pogrom-style attack. The townsfolk flared up in arms egging on the forces of evil and, disturbingly, Beckmesser’s beaten up by David (Sachs’ apprentice) with a few of his mates and forced to wear a caricature head of a Jew. The Bayreuth stage then became dominated by an inflatable caricature of a Jew unfolding from the witness-box staring longingly into the auditorium as if we, members of the audience, are being put on trial. When deflated the only evidence remaining of the inflatable was the black skull-cap heavily embossed with the Star of David.

There was so much good stuff in this production but none comes better than the ‘Morgentraum’ quintet celebrating the radiance of love and art infused with a sense of wonder with each singers’ line revolving round the word ‘Morgentraum’. A wondrous, beautiful and fulfilling piece expressing a host of different emotions by the five characters, it was heard against the drabness of the empty Nuremberg court-room with the flags of the four occupying nations - the Soviet Union, Great Britain, the USA and France - lining the back of the court. And harbouring a richly-textured baritone voice, Michael Volle (as Sachs/Wagner) delivered a brilliant and effortless rendering of the ‘Wahn’ monologue - a tribute to Holy German Art - from Room 600’s witness-box thereby putting Wagner and his music on trial. But music, I guess, wins over politics?

Mr Kosky’s a master of surprises and towards the end of the opera an entire symphony orchestra and chorus arrives on a slowly-moving platform to the front of stage. The ‘musicians’ were acted but it was hard to define at first. As they came into full view the walls of the courtroom slowly vanished reminiscent of the retraction of Wahnfried in Act I with Room 600 slowly coming into view. 

Adding to the overall pleasure of the production were Rebecca Ringst’s sets which were thoughtfully designed to capture the correct scale and detail of the opera’s respective scenes. For instance, Wahnfried (created as a doll’s-house box set) was accurate, I should imagine, as one could possibly get from Wagner’s day while costume designer, Klaus Bruns, was just as thoughtful in his ideas producing a good wardrobe. 

Mr Kosky delivered Bayreuth a production of Meistersinger that puts Richard Wagner - who described Jews as enemies not only of German culture but also of humanity as a whole - firmly in his place. This production might just be the one that’ll help to separate Wagner’s operas from their dark, distant and murky past.

Swiss-born conductor, Philippe Jordan, did a sterling job in the pit capturing the true essence, richness and beauty of Wagner’s wonderful score while the chorus-master, Eberhard Friedrich, drilled his charges so well. The large chorus more than made its mark especially in the final scene witnessing the singing competition when they flooded the court-room in excitement and wonder following Walther being awarded First Prize. The scene, I felt, echoed a Pieter Bruegel painting as the peasants were attractively dressed in pale- and grey-coloured outfits as befitting their station in life with the womenfolk adorned by those iconic-looking white-linen starched bonnets.

The audience roared their approval for the performers in true Bayreuthian style but when Mr Kosky arrived on stage to take his bow (how lovely to have him present) he was partially greeted by the Bayreuth booing mafia who were outshone by their counterparts - and I’m pleased to say mostly from my side of the house - showing wholeheartedly their support for his production. Now - that really is a touch of pantomime. Oh no it isn’t! 

Historical note: Die Meistersinger was frequently used as part of Nazi propaganda. For instance, the founding of the Third Reich on 21st March 1933 was marked by a performance of the opera in Berlin in the presence of Hitler while excerpts from the opera were played over scenes highlighting old Nuremberg at the beginning of Triumph of the Will, the 1935 documentary made by Leni Riefenstahl depicting the Nazi party congress of 1934. And during the Second World War, Meistersinger was the only opera presented at the so-called Bayreuth war festivals of 1943 and 1944.

Bayreuth Festival, Germany, August 2019
Tony Cooper
Photograph, Enrico Nawrath



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