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Notes from the 2013 Salzburg Festival ( 17 )
Die Meistersinger • R.Wagner

Die Meistersinger • Richard Wagner

Innocence Regained

Pictures above and below courtesy & © Salzburg Festival / Karl Forster
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The two notable themes that wormed their way through the 2013 Salzburg Festivals were too subtle and too inconsequentially pursued to be considered actual foci, but still, there they were, offering a little guidance and cross-fertilization: One was that of Jean d’Arc, where Schiller (the play), Walter Braunfels (Jeanne D’Arc, review here), and Verdi (Giovanna D’Arco) reached hands (Honegger and Tchaikovsky might also have gone well with it). The other was that of Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the Mendelssohn-enhanced Shakespeare (review here) performed alongside Wagner’s Die Meistersinger (and where Britten might have just been too obvious).

Wagner’s Die Meistersinger can be easily overlooked as an opera with the Midsummer Night’s Dream as its inspiration and at it’s core, but it is, and it becomes more obvious when we are reminded—as director Stefan Herheim does—that in Wagner’s German translation, the play was still called “A St. John’s Night’s Dream” (“Ein St. Johannis Nachts-Traum”). Herheim’s challenge was—as it is the challenge for any director tackling Die Meistersinger without total deconstruction in mind—how to bring the opera back to its comedic, or at least humorous Midsummer-Nightly roots, and away from the über-Germanic propaganda opera that it had been turned into under Hitler… a stain that has never quite left the piece since.

Die Meistersinger is a German history lessen en miniature, a tableaux of the worries of its time: a call for peace in a country that still reeled from the shock of the Napoleonic Wars, a plea for liberties after Metternich’s reactionary European Restoration, a call for unity amid fragmentation, for common ideals amid outer threats, and for a little bit of revolution—but for heaven’s sake not too much revolution! Even the chaotic and tumultuous scene of the mass brawl (“Prügelszene”) that closes act two is structured as a gigantic fugue: as ordered and rigorous a musical form as there is. This is Wagner at his ever reoccurring best self… channeling the “rebellion, ma non troppo” topic that already pervades his early operas Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi and which was his own approach during his revolutionary Dresden days: Weapon’s cache in the backyard, overseeing troop movements on the church tower, and being buddies with the world’s foremost anarchist, but writing open letters asking the would-be-disposed King to maybe come back after a successful revolution and steer things back into nice and orderly ways… just in a bit more liberal a fashion and—most importantly—with a better funded opera house for Wagner, please.

Herheim went about this by enhancing all the many dream-aspects of the work, to the point that I noticed for the first time just how often the words “Traum” [“Dream”] and “Wahn” [“Vapor / Illusion”] actually appear in the text. Herheim also tried hard, for two acts, to restore a sense of innocence; to place the viewer soundly in the 19th century world of German romanticism and fairy tales so that the relentless Germanizing in the third act could be appreciated more for what is was meant to be then, rather than what it makes us feel like now—post Third Reich.

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The sets of Heike Scheele—which included a visual coup de théâtre for the stage-transformation between the overture and act 1—zoomed in, as it were, on furniture in Sachs’ home: A Biedermeier-period secretary desk for act 1, onto among the shelves and Chippendale-style cabinetry for act 2, and in the third act on a corner of Sachs’ house where toys lie strewn about which then attain gigantic proportions. Throughout, the playful and busy scenery—ably and enthusiastically supported by the superb Vienna State Opera Chorus—throws us cues and hints of location, time, and place—including a replica of the Adler locomotive that was the first rail-service in Germany, connecting Nuremberg and Fürth in 1835 and a veritable roll call of Brother Grimm Fairy Tale creatures in the second act. Walther von Stolzing (the petite-voiced Roberto Saccà) was a little fairy prince, a toy-caricature excitedly fiddling with his rapier—which ameliorated or concealed the fact that Saccà can’t act particularly well. Sachs (the stupendous, funny Michael Volle) was a rendition of Carl Spitzweg’s Impoverished Poet, and Eva a naïve or in any case stylized fairy-tale princess, a little wooden on purpose, which many a critic and audience member—expecting the ever-bubbly, bursting-at-the-seems and vivacious Eva traditionally seen on stage—held against Anna Gabler.

More absurdly, there was grumbling that Markus Werba’s Beckmesser was nothing more than a Jewish caricature. You would have to have an imagination of Jews that is itself a caricature—either born of plain ignorance or involuntarily guided by the very propaganda that Germany cranked out in the early and middle 20th century—to suggest any such thing. Werba’s Beckmesser, incidentally, reminded of nothing so much than Christoph Waltz doing Saturday Night Live, going for cute and light-yet-sophisticated comedy. After a brief murky spell, he sang and acted himself to the forefront of the cast. Just behind the luminous Volle, that is, who had as much a darkly serious and manipulative side and moments of narcissist temptation to him as Beckmesser had comic episodes: Both men evolved around each other as if two sides of one coin.

Strong, rigorous audience expectations being unmet was likely the main problem of this production. Anyone who didn’t like these Meistersingers (opinion was split between a majority of “best thing since sliced bread” and a minority of “rubbish”) seemed to judge them against some disparate, personal ideal and complained that Herheim’s vision simply didn’t meet it. They didn’t get deconstruction, which they might have accepted and kept them occupied thinking, too busy to complain. And they didn’t get the beer hall-style tradition with medieval Nuremburg at its center… a Nuremburg that in any case stems from Wagner’s imagination more than any reality of that town. The other, more legitimate grumble was that the voices were not Salzburg Festival-worthy. That’s true, to a degree, for Saccà—although in his defense it should be pointed out that he had the wisdom never to force his voice to do more than it was capable of. For my money, an undersized, chamber-esque Stolzing still beats a belting one… and by the third act the German-Italian tenor (formerly at the Zurich Opera, like everyone Alexander Pereira hires in Salzburg) rather found his grove. Now if only Saccà had a more beautiful voice than he does. The audience in any case felt no compunctions about booing him into the ground.

They did the same thing with Anna Gabler, though on the occasion of this performance not nearly as much as they had apparently done at the previous one where of all the accounts I heard, the kindest was still “She simply has got the wrong voice” and where “she can’t act her way out of a paper bag” was the consensus on her dramatic abilities. The former I attribute to the misunderstanding of her slightly stilted character and the general, intentional artifice mentioned above; the former to a bad day. On the 15th, not only was Anna Gabler not bad, I would go so far as to say that I quite liked her as Eva. The booing in any case felt more influenced by previous reviews (an opportunity for the audience to show its oh-so-clever sophistication without risk of being wrong) than the reality on stage. Monika Bohinec’s Magdalene (replete with Rapunzel-hair in act 2) meanwhile got off scot-free, although her barbed and nasal high tones weren’t exactly a pleasure.

Peter Sonn’s David started out unusually dense for a David, but either he or one’s ears adjusted. Georg Zeppenfeld was a splendidly regal Veit Pogner (vocally suggestive of a future Gurnemanz, with metallic, fine authority), part of an attractive group of Mastersingers among which Oliver Zwarg’s Fritz Kothner also stood out.

The Vienna Philharmonic under Daniele Gatti, to the extent I heard them properly from the slightly covered box at the back of the Grosses Festspielhaus, didn’t aim for merit badges. Orchestral voices tumbled into the music in a way that was either plain incoherent and indicative of Gatti’s penchant for particularly individual voicing, taken slightly too far. The horn section flubbed happily, and Gatti’s direction often felt bereft of fire or sparkle when he didn’t (successfully) emphasize a dream sequence or unearth surprise moments of Johann Strauss in the score (act 3). The orchestra did, however, not perform too loudly—as they were said to have done in performance before and after—which must have minimized the vocal struggles considerably).

New York audiences are in for a treat when Herheim’s Meistersinger production arrives at the Met, as it’s slated to. Herheim—a native Norwegian—meanwhile should be awarded an honorary doctorate in German history, having proven in this production and his Bayreuth Parsifal that he knows it inside out, subtleties, facts, flavors and all.