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.
Richard Taruskin entitled his 1988 polemical critique of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the context of historically informed performance, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’.
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
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.