06 Sep 2013
Herheim in Salzburg: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Stefan Herheim’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Salzburg will transfer to the Met. Will audiences collapse in hysteria?
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power. Under the neon-glare of laboratory strip-lights, the scientists and literary archeologists rout through the relics, scrape away palimpsests, shatter the printing presses, and uncover a shocking tale of violence, sex, suicide and cannibalism. ‘Strip the cities of brick,’ they cry; ‘Cancel all flights from the international airport.’ Yet, despite its ‘distance’ - both historical and aesthetic - this disturbing juxtaposition of innocence and monstrosity unsettles and seeps into our modern consciousness, like ink staining parchment.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.
Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement, but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment “is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.
Stefan Herheim’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Salzburg will transfer to the Met. Will audiences collapse in hysteria?
Not if they know and care about the opera or about Wagner. Herheim focuses on Hans Sachs himself, as individual and artist, not the “public” displays of civic pride. This Meistersinger is exceptionally werktreue and perceptive. It engages with Wagner’s ideas on creativity and the purpose of art. Herheim deals with the true meaning of “die heil’ge deutsche Kunst” and with Wagner in the context of German tradition.
The Overture unfolds showing Sachs (Michael Volle) in nightcap and gown, surrounded by relics of his long dead family. Herheim shows us Sachs the man who was once happy with a wife and children. Perhaps that’s why he acts as father figure to others. But it also shows how “Wahn, Wahn, überall Wahn” grows from deep emotional scars. Life is short, and unfair. It shouldn’t be wasted on things that don’t really count. There’s nothing silly about seeing Sachs playing with toys. This gives depth to Sachs’s personality, and also connects to the idea that creativity is instinctive. References to youth and renewal run throughout the opera. The congregation in church are witnessing a baptism. Herheim’s toys remind us to play with our imagination. Beckmesser thinks art comes from rigidly following rules. Sachs doesn’t. Do we approach Herheim’s Meistersinger as Beckmessers or as Sachs?
Throughout the opera, there are references to craftmanship and the process of creation. “Schuhmacherei und Poeterei”, as David says. Understanding Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg as a work about art and the making of art can’t surely be too difficult a concept to grasp. So there’s no need to sneer when the set turns into a giant desk. So the characters in the narrative spring to life on Sachs’s workstation. The Meistersingers make much fuss about proper seating. Herheim has them sit on upturned giant thimbles, which are later revealed as empty buckets. When Walther (Marcus Werba) sings his first “Fanget an!”, the Meistersingers collapse like skittles. It’s funny but also very apt.
By defining the concept of art as imagination, Herheim is able to release much more esoteric levels. The imagery of sleep is important, too. By day, Sachs is busy making shoes. At night he’s alone. Sleep releases the unconscious, creative mind. Sachs solves the dilemmas in his art as a craftsman, just as he fixes shoes so they function properly. In Act Two, the desk is shrouded in darkness. We catch a brief glimpse of the lilac tree through Sach’s window, but we don’t need to see it again on the desktop “stage”. Its fragrance perfumes the music. Johannistag coincides with Mid Summer Night’s Eve, the shortest night in the year when magical things can happen. When the townsfolk awake, they’re literally surrounded by “Gespenstern und Spuk”. Fairy tales, as Bruno Bettlelheim said, mask subconcious fears under a guise of comic figures. Ghosts and spooks would be hard to depict in a more literal staging. We laugh, but take the point. There’s even a group of trolls! Herheim’s wry sense of humour is deliciously wicked.
These images also bring together several periods of German culture. Herheim’s costumes suggest the Early Romantic period, when German intellectuals like the Brothers Grimm, Brentano and von Arnim and Gottfried Herder were rediscovering premodern tradition. Without the Romantics, we might not have the modern world with its interest in the darker side of life, and in creative freedom. Nor would we have Richard Wagner. He knew very well what he was doing when he chose Sachs for his subject, since Sachs lived robustly in the Reformation, another important flowering period of German culture and identity. At Glyndebourne in 2011, David McVicar’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (review here) was set in the period of Wagner’s youth but to little effect. It romanticized without connecting to the savage spirit of the Romantiker.There’s a huge difference.
Herheim’s staging is much more literate, and intelligently thought through. The Romantiker fascination with Nature was often seen through the prism of the drawing room, so Herheim’s indoor setting is wittily ironic.Things seen through the imagination are often hyper real. When David sings of “der rote, blau’ und grüne Ton” we see wild flowers held aloft. The final scene on the banks of the Pegnitz isn’t shown literally. But there’s a train! This isn’t director whimsy. Without railways, industrialization and the rise of the middle class, modern Europe wouldn’t have developed. Trains represent change, just as aristocratic Walther represents change when he joins the good folk of Nuremberg.
The townsfolk are draped in flowers: if these were real their scent would fill the hall. The women wear white aprons, so dazzlingly bright they light the stage. Herheim’s having a merry little dig at the idea that costumes “make” an opera. Although there’s a lot of detail to reward repeated viewings, the visuals aren’t there for their own sake but to intensify the fundamental drama in the music. The critical moments, like the quintet and the Prize Song are shown with simple clarity. Those who hate modern productions on principle often claim that directors should “respect the work”. But that argument can be turned completely on its head. A really good opera is strong enough to withstand multiple interpretations, and perceptive interpretations like Herheim’s show us how much there is yet to discover. “Verachtet mir die Meister nicht, und ehrt mir ihre Kunst!”.
Michael Volle’s Hans Sachs is excellent. It helps that he looks like the historic Sachs, and that he himself grew up in the Lutheran tradition. Volle gives the character grit and gravity, mixed with a genuinely warm humanity. Volle’s diction highlights the couplets and phrasings so typical of German tradition. When he sings “ehrt eure deutschen Meister! Dann bannt ihr gute Geister” he infuses the words with positive feelings, banishing memories of wartime Bayreuth.
Markus Werba’s Sixtus Beckmesser quivered with nervous energy. He sings with more colour and charm than we’d expect from Beckmesser, but that enhances his portrayal. Beckmesser’s weak rather than evil. He wouldn’t be a Meistersinger in the first place if he was incomptent. He just doesn’t get it, that true art comes from being original. Werba makes the part sympathetic. This Beckmesser is deluded rather than a troll. Peter Sonn’s David is delivered with strength and conviction. This David is no ingénu, and justifies his master’s faith in him. Herheim’s blocking of ensemble also shows how the apprentices connect to David.
Rather less rewarding were Roberto Saccà’s Walther and Anna Gabler’s Eva. Saccà’s voice finally did him justice in the Prize Song but it was a little late. As for the orchestra ? What was Daniele Gatti doing? The pace kept slackening. Sachs is a cobbler, not a carpenter. Wooden playing like this just doesn’t work. When Herheim’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg transfers to the Met, with a different cast and conductor, it should be a success.