Friday 21 March 2008

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 19 March 2008

Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin

Hans Sachs – James Morris
Veit Pogner – René Pape
Kunz Vogelgesang – Paul O’Neill
Konrad Nachtigall – Arttu Kataja
Sixtus Beckmesser – Roman Trekel
Fritz Kothner – Hanno Müller-Brachmann
Balthasar Zorn – Peter-Jürgen Schmidt
Ulrich Eisslinger – Patrick Vogel
Augustin Moser – Peter Menzel
Hermann Ortel – Yi Yang
Hans Schwarz – Bernd Zettisch
Hans Foltz – Andreas Bauer
Walther von Stolzing – Burkhard Fritz
David – Florian Hoffmann
Eva – Dorothea Röschmann
Magdalene – Katharina Kammerloher
Ein Nachtwächter – Alexander Vinogradov

Staatskapelle Berlin
Staatsopern Chor Berlin
Eberhard Friedrich (chorus master)
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Harry Kupfer (producer)
Hans Schavernoch (designs)
Buki Schiff (costumes)
Franz Peter David (lighting)
Roland Giertz (choreography)

This was a frustrating Meistersinger: in many ways good, but it could easily have been better. The Prelude to Act I surprised me and did not augur well. It combined a somewhat uninflected smoothness of line with a surprisingly hard-driven quality. The combination put me in mind of Karajan on an off-day, a comparison which annoyingly continued to suggest itself to me throughout the performance, especially the first two acts. Like Karajan even at his most unappealing – and I speak as an admirer in general – Daniel Barenboim would not have been capable of allowing the performance to fall below a certain level. There was, for instance, no doubt that he had command of the work’s structure. (If only one could have said that of the conductor during the Royal Opera’s Ring.) But the trick, if one can call it that, of Wagner conducting is to combine over the drama’s vast span a Furtwänglerian Fernhören with attention to detail, so that command of both short- and long-range aspects – and the reality is far more complex than this, involving numerous intermediate stages – dialectically heightens the effect of the other. One can look more synchronically at both score and performance, and see an equally important, related but distinct, problem for the conductor to address. Wagner, as Pierre Boulez has written, ‘refused to sacrifice expressiveness to polyphony, endowing each part in the polyphonic web with such expressive power that there is almost a conflict of interest: everything sings and sings “unendingly”’. Not only balancing but in a sense also heightening that conflict is the conductor’s task. This requires an almost superhuman attention to Boulez’s ‘everything’.

As so often with Barenboim, perhaps drawing upon his expertise in both French music and Mozart, there was some beautiful highlighting of woodwind detail. There were times, however, when Barenboim and his orchestra simply sounded careless. Anyone can make mistakes, but there were more than one would have expected, perhaps most glaringly from one of the horns just before the Trial Song. More seriously, there were times when Barenboim sounded insensitive not only towards the singers, but towards the stage events as such. (With regard to the former, surtitles would doubtless have mitigated the problem, but, whilst I have seen them here in Parsifal and Tristan, there were none on this occasion, for an opera whose conversational exchanges are far more rapid.) Pierre Monteux once referred so tellingly to ‘the indifference of mezzo forte’; here, especially during the second act, there was too much indifference of harsh orchestral forte. Whilst there were moments when the Staatskapelle Berlin sounded its usual, burnished self, there were too many when it did not. Indeed, the moments when the performance moved up a gear brought into heightened relief what had been missing, for instance when we heard the ’cellos' rich mahogany of the Prelude to Act III, itself beautifully paced, and subsequently the conjuring up of an appositely Tristan-esque ecstasy in the triangle between Sachs, Eva, and Walther. Perhaps conductor and orchestra had allotted more time to rehearsal of Prokofiev’s The Gambler, the new opera for these Berlin Festtage. This may be understandable, but Die Meistersinger does not play itself.

René Pape had originally been slated to play Hans Sachs. His attention to text and line was exemplary as Pogner, but I cannot have been the only member of the audience wishing that he had taken on the greater role. James Morris was therefore in something of an invidious position. He was strongest in the third act, but for much of the second act, he surprisingly seemed to struggle to establish the force of personality that must be clear by this stage. It is here, not in the final act, that Sachs comes into his own. Company stalwarts, Roman Trekel and Hanno Müller-Brachmann shone as Beckmesser and Kothner, offering more rounded portrayals than is generally the case. In this, they were certainly assisted by Harry Kupfer’s production. Beckmesser rightly emerged early on as an impressive if limited figure, his subsequent ridiculousness brought on by hubris rather than intrinsic. Kupfer brought an interesting ambiguity to Kothner: insisting upon the Tabulatur, but visibly on the side – in terms of stage placement as well as inclination – of Pogner and Sachs during the Trial Song, watching and listening, even if he did not quite understand. This was characteristic of a laudable characterisation and differentiation granted to the Mastersingers as a whole. Their corporate identity did not preclude individual personality, a fine example of this being Peter Menzel’s keenly observed Augustin Moser. Moreover, their reactions developed. The sense of fear was palpable as Walther began to sing; they were uncomprehending and threatened, but only later vicious, once Beckmesser’s marking had encouraged them. Choral contributions were good, if not at the outstanding level I have heard before in this house.

Burkhard Fritz sang well enough as Walther, with an appropriately baritonish Heldentenor, but there was something a little too generalised about his enthusiasm and boisterousness, which did not always tie in with the events portrayed. He was a little too much the spoilt child when things did not go his way at the end of Act I. Stolzing, one must not forget, is a Junker, not a young Siegfried. His clothes, however, justly marked him as an outsider, the latest in Wagner’s long line of flawed charismatic heroes. As his intended, Dorothea Röschmann often sang beautifully, but audibly struggled at times. It is difficult to surmise what she thought she was doing at the climax of the Quintet, when suddenly she forced her voice to stand out from the blend of the others, so as to conclude with a cadence more suited to Puccini than to Wagner. The effect jarred, to put it mildly. Her Magdalene, Katharina Kammerloher, shone at her first appearance. Again, Kupfer should receive some of the credit for this portrayal as far more than the usual crone. This was a girl with a sense of fun, visibly – and audibly – attracted to David. It is a pity that her subsequent appearances were more anonymous. There was no such problem with Florian Hoffmann’s wonderful David, who both looked and sounded the boyish part. He was bright within appropriate limits, ardent without cloying, and evinced an attention to the verbal and musical text that far exceeded some more senior members of the cast.

A guiding principle of the production, although not obsessively emphasised, was that of conflict between old and new – and the shades of grey in between, as I have already commented with regard to Kothner. Boulez once remarked, concerning the only Wagner music drama he has never conducted:

… the Romantics rediscovered the Gothic style. At the end of the nineteenth century there were Gothic churches in profusion. This was the most striking example of stylistic reference. On the other hand, although in The Mastersingers there is no end of references to the Minnesänger and to the forms of sixteenth and – even more so – fifteenth century music, Wagner’s music actually has nothing to do with the historical truth about the town of Nuremberg. This is why I feel really ill at ease when people try to depict the historical town on the stage when it is absent from the music.

Kupfer did not go so far as to present a Meistersinger ohne Nürnberg. Indeed, Nuremberg was present throughout, replete with Cranach, stained glass, and banners (including King David and his harp), although never with quite such exuberant delight as, say, in Graham Vick’s Breughelesque production for Covent Garden. What instead we had, which perhaps better served Boulez’s general point than the absence of the historical town he himself advocated, was a staired centrepiece, serving, subtly altered in different guises as the Katharinenkirche – today, of course, Katharinenruine – as the balcony of Act Two, as a staircase to Sachs’s workshop, and so forth. The shape of this centrepiece suggested to me a ruined tower, perhaps even Berlin’s own celebrated image of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, and thereby seemed to allude to the devastation of the ‘German catastrophe’. This may, however, have been my imagination rather than the director’s intention; it does not really matter. A sense of the modern city was superimposed, by virtue of the skyscraper backdrop to the second act and first part of the third. This cleverly suggested, rather like an affectionate Adorno – if that can be imagined – the tension between Wagner’s thoroughgoing adoption of modern technical and technological means and his harking back to a pre-modern age of guilds, corporations, an age prior to excessive division of labour. Sachs, it will be recalled, is both poet and shoemaker. The utopian quality to this lost age, if it ever existed, was gently suggested by the joy of the Festwiese scene and its processions, giant figure of Death, flamethrowers, acrobats, and all.

To be utopian, however, cuts both ways, for a utopia cannot exist. Kupfer did not travel very far down the deconstructionist route, but the presentation was finely nuanced. There was a nice touch to the inability of Sachs to find someone on whom to bestow the Festwiese garland, following Walther’s refusal. Eventually, he placed it on the floor. A sentimental path would have been to give it to Beckmesser, but this would have been to rehabilitate him unduly. Instead, and with considerable poignancy, the defeated town clerk walked over to it and looked at what might have been, excluded from the general rejoicing without being ostracised. Indeed, during Walther’s singing of the Prize Song, Beckmesser had occasionally displayed grudging approval, taking note and even nodding, without the banal prospect of a wholesale conversion. It was a pity that the musical performances did not always match the production, for had they done so, this could truly have been a Meistersinger to cherish.