24 May 2011
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Glyndebourne
Glorious sunshine for Glyndebourne Opera’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg on the eve of Richard Wagner's birthday.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Glorious sunshine for Glyndebourne Opera’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg on the eve of Richard Wagner's birthday.
Glyndebourne is Britain’s equivalent of Bayreuth. Although its repertoire is obviously more varied, it’s a place of pilgrimage because it is iconic, the first and greatest of the English summer opera festivals. There are photographs of John Christie, Glyndebourne’s founder, in an amateur staging of Die Meistersinger in the 1930’s, but this is the first full production, as it’s a big opera for a house which even now seats barely 1100. But Glyndebourne has always been ambitious. How proud Christie would be to see this fulfillment of his dreams!
Because the theatre at Glyndbourne is more intimate than at Bayreuth, a bombastic, Teitjen-style production would be overwhelming. However, Vladimir Jurowski, Glyndebourne’s Music Director, has vision. He’s intuited how well Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg fits in with Glyndebourne’s open-air, countryside ethos. This is an opera where Nature plays a big role. Walther von Stolzing learned to sing by listening to birdsong. The Prize Ceremony takes place in a meadow. Summer and new growth infuse the whole spirit of the opera.
Heavy handed approaches underline grandeur, which is appropriate for the Meistersingers in procession, or for authoritarian interpretations of the choruses in the Third Act. But Jurowski understand the soul of this opera. He emphasizes the freedom and liveliness in Wagner’s music. The overture tumbles along vivaciously. He keeps textures light and bright, so they shine. This is a very different Meistersinger from some versions we’re used to but it’s true to score and to the meaning of the opera.
Hans Sachs is a cobbler, who sees all men’s shoes — the ultimate leveler. He doesn’t judge people by background but by who they are. He can spot Walther von Stoltzing’s true nobility when the Meistersingers ridicule him as an outsider. And that nobility comes from Art, not status or tradition.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is comic, but not comedy. It’s subversive. Beckmesser is the Town Clerk, thus symbol of the Establishment and authority. That’s why Pogner’s happy to marry his daughter off, and why the Meistersingers obey him when he ridicules Walther, who lives for pure art. Sachs opposes mob thinking, whether the mob are his fellow Meistersingers, or the townsfolk, fighting mindlessly in the streets. He protects Walther by giving him a chance to express his talent. Just as Sachs doesn’t march to anyone’s tune, neither will Walther. If Hitler had had any inkling of what Die Meistersinger really is about, he might not have been quite such a fan.
Sachs wasn’t fiction, but a real man who lived in the 16th century, when Germany was split apart by religious wars. Nuremberg was a Protestant island in the sea of Catholic Bavaria. The Papacy implied rule from Rome, regional cultures and languages suppressed by the dominance of Latin.
“Heilige Deutsche Kunst” refers quite specifically to the concept of emerging German identity which started with the translation of the Bible into the vernacular and the Reformation. “Should the Holy Roman Empire end”, sing the townsfolk, “German values won’t end”. Just as Sachs and his peers rejected Rome and what it stood for, Wagner was turning from French and Italian opera, to create anew. It’s not necessarily negative, xenophobic or Nazi, for it marks the fundamental change in social attitudes the Reformation brought about. So, freedom and renewal are very much part of Die Meistersinger.
Jurowski conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra as if it were a large chamber ensemble. Different threads are clearly defined, bringing out the almost contrapuntal flow in the music, where the different groups jostle together. The dynamic is vivid, and Jurowski’s deft touch doesn’t let it become congested, even in moments when different groups clash. The meadow scene with its massed voices and contrasting themes can become a disorganized mess, but Jurowski makes it possible to hear each sub-group’s individual character. Just as Sachs treats all as equals, Jurowski keeps a tight balance which lets the music shine.
This production (David McVicar, director, Vicki Mortimer, designer) is joyful. The apprentices are wonderfully energetic and “rude” in the best sense of the word. They leap and dance with the precision of workmen who are mastering their craft. They’re the future, just as Walther is. The apprentice’s music brought very animated playing from the orchestra — those sharp cracks and beats were made for rustic dance and exuberance. Topi Lehtipuu’s David sings with vigour, giving greater depth to the role than it sometimes gets. He acts like he’s put upon, but he’s a strong personality. Sachs would hardly take on a stupid apprentice, nor promote him to Gesellen. Lehtipuu’s David is convincingly the next Sachs in embryo.
But why is the opera updated to the early 19th century? Perhaps McVicar’s making a connection to Beethoven and Goethe, but the link is remote and adds nothing. Act One is dominated by a huge fan-vaulted ceiling. Of course, Walther and Eva meet in church, but it’s a major misreading of the opera. Wagner and Sachs aren’t upholding the Church but offering alternatives to traditional authority.
If anything, this is an opera about the freshness of nature, which is why the tree in the town square and the meadow play a part. Nuremberg in Sachs’s time was a warren, where the community lived in claustrophobic proximity. This elaborate ceiling means that Sachs’s workshop becomes something decidedly upper class, which destroys the idea of Sachs as a humble man of the people, who is elevated by his art. Wagner sent the Town Clerk into the cobbler’s workshop to show up the contrast in their status.
Hans Sachs isn’t a role one might associate with Gerald Finley, so there’s no point in comparing him to some of the iconic Sachs’s of the past. Finley’s voice is in reasonably good shape, so his Sachs is a refined, understated characterization. It emphasizes the poet in Sachs more than the cobbler, but it works well enough. Finley is convincing in the long monologue. “Wahn, Wahn, überall Wahn” is a sentiment anyone can identify with, whatever the context.
Johannes Martin Kränzle is an effective Sixtus Beckmesser. He’s the most elegant man in town, who’s always got up in finery, unlike the locals who save it for festive occasions. The part could use more malice, but Kränzle spinned out the curling lines sinuously and moved like a viper. At the end, when he played his lute like an air guitar, it was hilarious. Anna Gabler sang Eva as a charming ingénue, at her best in the final scene where she at last can openly declare her love. The quintet was delicious, the three central figures haloed by the two lesser roles.
Marco Jentzsch’s Walther von Stoltzing was extremely impressive. This is a singer to watch as we desperately need new Heldentenors, or at least tenors with good range and dramatic stage presence. Jentzsch is tall and handsome, which helps, but his singing is his greatest asset. The voice is warm but assertive, and he uses it with intelligent expressiveness. This was Prize Song to cherish, beautifully fresh and pure, yet tinged with commitment. For someone relatively young, he’s mature. Walther, after all, is an independent spirit who even when he wins, doesn’t want to join a group. While he looked dazzling in his Hussar costume, it was an interpretive mistake, since Walther is a leaderless wanderer who doen’t do status or adhere to outward form. “Nein, Meister, nein!” Jentzsch is so good, however, that you focus on the singing, not the suit.
Though this production doesn’t plumb the subversive depths of this rewarding opera, it’s exuberant and uplifting, especially in the final scene, where all the threads are drawn together. Jurowski and the London Philharmonic are so vibrant that they bring insight into the inner dynamic of the music. Wagner and Sachs are much deeper, but in these discordant, polarized times, take heed of the message of this Glyndebourne Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Harmony is a lot more difficult to achieve than it seems. This production may be sunny but it’s not shallow.
Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg continues at Glyndebourne Opera until 26th June. It will be screened live on HD in cinemas and also available online. For more information please visit the Glyndebourne Opera website.