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?
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
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.