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.
Verdi Un ballo in maschera at the Royal Opera House - a masked ball in every sense, where nothing is quite what it seems. On the surface, this new production appears quaint and undemanding. It uses painted flats, for example, pulled back and forth across, as in toy theatre. The scenes painted on them are vaguely generic, depicting neither Boston nor Stockholm, where the tale supposedly takes place. Instead, we focus on Verdi, and on theatre practices of the past. In other words, opera as the art of illusion, not an attempt to replicate reality. Take this production too literally and you'll miss the wit and intelligence behind it.
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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.