Wednesday 17 February 2010

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Deutsche Oper, 14 February 2010

Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Hans Sachs – James Johnson
Veit Pogner – Kristinn Sigmundsson
Kunz Vogelgsang – Thomas Blondelle
Konrad Nachtigall – Simon Pauly
Sixtus Beckmesser – Markus Brück
Fritz Kothner – Stephen Bronk
Balthasar Zorn – Jörg Schörner
Ulrich Eißlinger – Peter Maus
Augustin Moser – Burkhard Ulrich
Hermann Ortel – Klaus Lang
Hans Schwarz – Jörn Schümann
Hans Foltz – Hyung-Wook Lee
Walther von Stolzing – Klaus Florian Vogt
David – Paul Kaufmann
Eva – Michaela Kaune
Magdalena – Ulrike Helzel
Night-watchman – Krzysztof Szumanski

Götz Friedrich (director)
Peter Sykora (stage designs)
Kirsten Dephoff and Peter Sykora (costumes)
Gerlinde Pelkowski (revival director)

Chorus and Supplementary Chorus of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Movement Chorus, Actors, Acrobats (choreography: Charlotte Butler and Carsten Meyer)
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Donald Runnicles (conductor)

And so, my brief sojourn in Charlottenburg drew to a close with a performance of the greatest of all comedies. From the host of idiocies one hears repeated about Wagner, the claims of a lack of humour must be amongst most preposterous. Whilst I missed out on the new Rienzi, an intriguing-sounding Flying Dutchman, and of course the Ring, at least I could be reminded of just what a magnificent work of art The Mastersingers of Nuremberg is: most welcome, since I still shudder when considering the sheer directorial ineptitude of my most recent stage encounter with the work, when Katharina Wagner presented it at Bayreuth.

Götz Friedrich was a far wiser director and his 1993 production holds up pretty well almost seventeen years on. It will doubtless be well known to many readers from the DVD recording, but this was my first acquaintance. Nuremberg is recognisably Nuremberg, but the costumes suggest the nineteenth century: the time of composition, I suppose. A vision of old Nuremberg and, more, briefly of the devastation of its twentieth successor, may be glimpsed during the opening prelude, thus framing the production’s terms of reference. We can never quite forget – especially when a Star of David is seen on stage with the Mastersingers’ guild: same symbol, different meaning, but the possibility of consequences? (By the way, obsessive purveyors of anti-Semitic interpretations of Wagner may care to ask themselves why the composer chose to mention King David. It would hardly have been beyond him to have chosen a different symbol.) This set me thinking that, in some respects at least, a city such as Nuremberg might well have been recognisably the same city, at least during the earlier nineteenth century. The guilds were breaking down, but not broken. They had their defenders, from Hegel to Wagner. And they presented their own solutions to the ‘social question’, represented their own version of community to an increasingly disenchanted world of liberal ‘free competition’. Not the least of the consequences of the 1848-9 revolutions was the boost given to ‘free trade’ and onslaught on impediments thereto: such sops to the bourgeoisie kept them on side with the restored order, far preferable to the red threat, from Wagner and his ilk, they had glimpsed during the uprisings.

Lest this sound one-sided – and I should emphasise that the thoughts are largely mine, sparked by the production, but not necessarily to be ‘found’ therein – the humour of Friedrich’s staging should certainly be mentioned. To take one example, I have never before found the reappearance of the Nightwatchman amusing. Here, the haplessness of his arrival once the riot is over was just that. The Malvolio-like quality of Beckmesser was emphasised throughout; there may or may not be uncomfortable questions to ask here, but the brilliance of Wagner’s humour is too often overlooked. Other nice touches include Walther threatening physical violence when impertinently asked whether he is frei und ehrlich geboren. Would not any self-respecting Junker do the same? Schopenhauer, however, barely registers.

Prior commitments meant that Donald Runnicles, who has recently become Music Director of the Deutsche Oper, was unable to lead a new production during this Wagner festival. We found him in the pit, however, for Meistersinger. He encourages a good, indeed an excellent, sound from the orchestra – which, during my three performances, I found on as good form as I can recall, perhaps better. The Viennese glint on which I have remarked in earlier reviews remained very much a characteristic of the strings. Warm and full of sound, this was an orchestra fully worthy of expressing the sentiments of heil’ge deutsche Kunst. On the negative side, to be mentioned though not exaggerated, Runnicles could sometimes drive the music too hard, veering occasionally towards the metronomic, the very antithesis of Wagner’s ever-varying melos. Moreover, there were too many disjunctions between stage and pit. Perhaps there was limited rehearsal time, but the excellent chorus was too often left adrift. It is worth here, however, commending chorus master William Spaulding for his work with the chorus, which once but no longer seemed a poor relation to its counterpart at the Linden opera.

Fortunes were somewhat mixed on stage. James Johnson was a likeable Hans Sachs, who grew in character as the performance progressed. He could sometimes, however, be overwhelmed by the orchestra and lacked the degree of personality – think Sir John Tomlinson! – that makes a true Sachs. The real fly in the ointment, however, was Michaela Kaune’s Eva. Her voice lacks beauty, even steadiness, and simply sounds ‘wrong’, too mezzo-like, for the role. The radiant lyricism that should flow so freely from this evocation of the Goethian Ewig-Weibliche was nowhere to be heard. I had wondered whether a different production from Bayreuth (!) might set her off to better advantage – sadly not. Indeed, I found myself wishing that she would swap roles with Ulrike Helzel, an artist new to me but a quite outstanding Magdalena. Here was beauty of tone, and a character in whom one could believe as an object of David’s love. Davids tend to be winning – what a gift of a role it is! – but Paul Kaufmann’s refusal to be an exception should nevertheless be cited approvingly. Kristinn Sigmundsson’s Pogner sounded tired – he had sung King Henry the night before – and Stephen Bronk’s Kothner simply sounded old. However, Markus Brück’s Beckmesser was a joy. If Sir Thomas Allen remains my gold standard in this role, this was an excellent assumption of the part, fully alive to the Shakespearean humour I mentioned above, unwilling to descend into even the slightest suspicion of caricature.

And then – there was Klaus Florian Vogt. Regular readers will know of my esteem for his near-miraculous voice. I almost tire of praising him, but not quite. Once again, he displayed his instrument’s strange, yet wonderful mixture of lyric tenor quality with the power of the heroic tenor: an ideal combination. The Prize Song was so beautiful as to bring one to tears, almost as if Fritz Wunderlich had turned Heldentenor. How could anyone resist? Vogt can act, too, as I had to admit even at Bayreuth…