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Kasper Holten's farewell production at the ROH: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

For his farewell production as director of opera at the Royal Opera House, Kasper Holten has chosen Wagner’s only ‘comedy’, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: an opera about the very medium in which it is written.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg , Royal Opera House

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: The Royal Opera company

Photo credit: Clive Barda


It is also an opera that performs, rather than theorises, Wagner’s claim that his operas will fulfil his revolutionary concept of a teleological art: an art that would save the future world from the philistinism and barbarism of the present. So, Wagner might have said that Meistersinger is an opera about ‘me, authority and tradition’.

Holten’s new production is ‘revolutionary’ in its own way, turning the opera inside out, back to front and even (literally) upside down in one climactic vignette of cultural anarchy. Wagner’s own words, ‘Kinder, schafft Neues!’ (Children, create new things!) preface the programme-book synopsis that Holten has penned - and, later, reappear as graffiti on a toppling wall - so, is Holten telling us that he is taking up Wagner’s cause?

Wagner transports the audience back to the guild culture of 16th-century Nuremberg, opening Act 1 inside St. Catherine's Church where a service is just ending. Holten and his designer Mia Stensgaard shun historical and geographical authenticity and create a single set - albeit one which revolves to destroy its own theatrical illusion of veracity - which is well-suited to the opera’s scenes of pomp and ceremony but less apt for the more intimate episodes which probe into the hearts, minds, homes and streets of the citizens of Nuremberg.

We find ourselves in a grand, panelled room - a gentlemen’s club or Masonic hall - in the early decades of the 20th century. Glamorous and sophisticated, this stately chamber is a homage to art deco geometric angularity, with its polished parquet floor, decorative plinths topped with lyres, birds and statuettes, and ornamental indoor trees. It’s certainly handsome to look at and, as the ROH Chorus launched into their lusty rendition of a Lutheran pastiche, the flashes of chrome and nickel momentarily suggested vast organ pipes - which helped to push aside the question of what a church choir was doing in a private members’ club. The centrepiece is a huge raised ‘throne’ of burnished copper, which put me in mind of, alternately, an outsized beer tankard and the F.A. Cup.

170308_1894_meistersinger DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG PRODUCTION IMAGE (C) ROH. PHOTO BY CLIVE BARDA.jpg Photo credit: Clive Barda.

When a team of waiters arrives to set up, under the supervision of Major Domo David and Stewardess Magdalene, dinner tables for the arriving club members, we slip back a decade or two into the Edwardian opulence of Downton Abbey. The tables are laden with flickering candles, glittering goblets and red floral decorations. Indeed, everyone seems more interested in what’s for dinner - Beckmesser picks at melon and serrano ham - than the essential aesthetic dilemma which troubles Wagner’s guildsmen, ‘what is beautiful?’

And, herein lies a problem with Holten’s conception. The real 16 th-century Meistersingers, having created an idealised lineage stretching back to the twelve great masters who represented the first flowering of German culture in the 13th century, were now concerned that their traditions were falling into disrepair. Sachs and Beckmesser tussle how these traditions might be saved and maintained; Veit Pogner addresses the decaying state of art in his presentation to the Guild Meeting, offering his daughter as a prize that can inject new life into a dying art form.

In Holten’s theatrical world, however, the prize-song competition seems irrelevant, even incongruous: when Pogner ‘sells’ his daughter, Eva is more a trophy Eve than a muse of Parnassus. When a greasy looking Walther arrives, his rock-band t-shirt, out-sized coat and cool shades are an eyesore amid the formal regalia of the club, as Holten reverses the class-relationship between Wagner’s courtly knight and the guildsmen.

170308_2150_meistersinger DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG PRODUCTION IMAGE (C) ROH. PHOTO BY CLIVE BARDA.jpg Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Act 2 does not take us out into the streets and among the people: Sachs seems to have set up shop in the club dining-room, and the ornamental planters have to do service for fragrant lime trees and verdant meadows. Given the incompatibility between set and action, stronger stagecraft is needed if we are to appreciate the Nurembergers’ lives and minds. Moreover, the end-of-act fracas between David and Beckmesser mushrooms into a vision of apocalypse worthy of Hieronymus Bosch: a riot of beasts and devils swarms the stage - Signe Fabricius’ movement direction is masterly - and the throne, already on a tilt, is ripped from its pedestal and spun aloft, as a tattooed, torch-bearing, cloven-hoofed Pan ineffectually calls the hour.

170308_2316_meistersinger BRYN TERFEL AS HANS SACHS, RACHEL WILLIS-SORENSEN AS EVA, GWYN HUGHES JONES AS WALTHER (C) ROH. PHOTO BY CLIVE BARDA.jpgBryn Terfel (Sachs), Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Eva), Gywn Hughes Jones (Walther). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Act 3 appears to tell us that what we have just seen is ‘a dream’, of a theatrical kind, as the set swivels back to reveal its own ‘back-stage’. A slow revolve takes us full circle and by the end of the Act we are back in the gentlemen’s club for the Feast of St. John. Costume Designer Anja Vang Kragh indulges in hyperbolic pageantry: while the guildsmen, who perch on raked seating as if watching a dramatic performance, wear modern dress, the ‘mastersingers’ are an explosion of richly coloured finery and frippery, topped with pavement-slab mortar-boards. Again, the attention to detail is notable: Sachs even has a boot atop his golden staff. But, surely the vagrant-like Walther would not get past the doormen?

If there are some question marks over the logic and consistency of Holten’s concept, the cast score full marks all round for stamina. Byrn Terfel took a little while to get into his stride - his is quite a subdued Sachs - but by Act 2 he had the measure of Beckmesser, cobbling with sly insouciance during his serenade. And, though the relationships between Sachs, Walther and Eva at times lack clarity, Terfel skilfully conjured pathos in his scene with Eva. Sachs’ paean to ‘Holy German Art’ can seem like an unsettling volte-face, but Terfel’s imperious explanation of the need to preserve and continue the mastersingers’ art smoothed over the swerve.

170308_1954_meistersinger BRYN TERFEL AS HANS SACHS (C) ROH. PHOTO BY CLIVE BARDA.jpg Bryn Terfel (Hans Sachs). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

American soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen is a creamy-voiced Eva; the richness and radiance of her voice conveys Eva’s surprising feistiness, as does Willis-Sørensen’s nuanced acting - even though she is saddled with a series of ghastly, unflattering costumes including a dress as sturdy as a battleship. If only her diction had been clearer; this was a weakness that was exacerbated by the clarity of Terfel, and that of Gwyn Hughes Jones as Walther von Stolzing.

170308_2315_meistersinger RACHEL WILLIS-SORENSEN AS EVA (C) ROH. PHOTO BY CLIVE BARDA.jpg Rachel Willis Sørensen (Eva). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Hughes Jones’ tenor was characteristically warm and honeyed, and he did not flag once during the long, demanding performance, as he honed his prize song to expressive perfection over four and a half hours. But, while unwaveringly lyrical, Hughes Jones sometimes lacked brightness in the middle register where he was occasionally obscured by the rich brass orchestrations. It was also hard for the Welsh tenor to establish Walther’s nobility, given that he looked like a bristly, boorish rocker.

170308_2065_meistersinger JOHANNES MARTIN KRÄNZLE AS SIXTUS BECKMESSER c ROH. PHOTO BY CLIVE BARDA.jpg Johannes Martin Kränzle (Beckmesser). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Johann Martin Kränzle was outstanding as Beckmesser, preening and prim, and oozing smug self-satisfaction. He pulled off the ‘singing badly well’ paradox, and acted superbly with his voice. After his final humiliation, he lurked in the shadows, his peacock robes replaced by a grubby white vest; a troubling figure of pathos.

170308_1762_meistersinger ALLAN CLAYTON AS DAVID (C) ROH. PHOTO BY CLIVE BARDA.jpg Allan Clayton (David). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Allan Clayton was confident and exuberant as David; the role was exceptionally well characterised and Clayton was a persuasive presence, even when some of the business around him was not. He struck a good rapport with Hanna Hip’s bright-toned Magdalene. Stephen Milling as Veit Pogner and Sebastian Holeck as Fritz Kothner also stood out for the authoritativeness of their singing.

The ROH Chorus were in hearty voice and chorus master William Spaulding enjoyed his moment in the spotlight, conducting the chorale singers, in Act 1. Antonio Pappano drove the action swiftly on - Meistersinger can run to five hours, this performance was barely four and a half - and the ROH Orchestra got better and better. If the overture lacked the full quota of both gravity and gleam, then the Act 3 prelude was particularly beautiful - and may have seemed especially touching given the unalleviated high temperature of the playing preceding.

Holten saves his best trick until last. When the club members arrive for dinner in Act 1, the female guests are banished: they are clearly just arm candy. But, when Eva sees both Sachs and Walther acquiesce to the power of tradition, she’s having none of it. That said, surely Wagner’s message is that ‘true’ art depends as much on tradition as it does innovation.

Claire Seymour

Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Hans Sachs - Bryn Terfel, Sixtus Beckmesser - Johannes Martin Kränzle, Walther von Stolzing - Gwyn Hughes Jones, Eva - Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Veit Pogner - Stephen Milling, David - Allan Clayton, Magdalene - Hanna Hipp, Fritz Kothner - Sebastian Holecek, Kunz Vogelgesang - Andrew Tortise, Balthasar Zorn - Alasdair Elliott, Konrad Nachtigal - Gyula Nagy, Ulrich Eisslinger - Samuel Sakker, Augustin Moser - David Junghoon Kim, Hermann Ortel - John Cunningham, Hans Schwarz - Jeremy White, Hans Foltz - Brian Bannatyne-Scott, Nightwatchman -David Shipley, Apprentices (Jeanette Ager, Maria Brown, Maria Jones, Clare McCaldin, Simon Biazeck, Phillip Brown, Edmond Choo, Freddie De Tommaso, Andrew Friedhoff, James Geer, James Scarlett, David Woodward,

Director - Kasper Holten, Conductor - Antonio Pappano, Set designer - Mia Stensgaard, Costume designer - Anja Vang Kragh, Lighting designer - Jesper Kongshaug, Choreography and movement - Signe Fabricius, Fight director - Kate Waters, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Saturday 11th March 2017.

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