Thursday, 16 March 2017

A Meistersinger with plenty to feast on

Ending of Act II
One of the things that makes good art great is its endurance and its openness to reinterpretation down the years: that whatever the apparent subject, it is never just about that.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is such a beast. Weighing in at four and a half hours of music –divided here by two intervals of 35 minutes apiece, allowing audience members the time to unpack the Tupperware and enjoy a leisurely picnic – it might be Wagner’s one mature comedy, but that should not be read as suggesting it lacks intellectual meat.

Indeed, one of the pleasures in watching is in noting the themes – and also how the production works with (or against) them.

The downside with such works is that they can also be open to people attempting to foist interpretations on them.

In the case of Meistersinger, there has been a determined effort by some to suggest that Beckmesser is an anti-Semitic character (who has to be defeated by an Aryan).

Nobody has ever been able to concretely prove that any character in one of Wagner’s operas is Jewish. Wagner’s anti-Semitism is a well-known fact, but that doesn’t mean that his dramas are filled with anti-Jewish tropes. 

Here, the name of Sixtus Beckmesser is thoroughly German and what he quite clearly is is Wagner’s Malvolio, right down to the thin-soled shoes he has badgered Hans Sachs to finish being his yellow stockings, cross gartered.

Why does he have to suffer defeat and humiliation? Because he’s a jealous snob; a petty guard of the petty rules that govern the Meistersingers’ guild – the sorts of rules and attitudes toward art that Wagner himself railed and reacted against.

Further, he has the temerity to imagine that he would be a suitable match for the much younger Eva, who has been promised to the winning Meistersinger at the city’s midsummer festival. The widower Sachs has the decency, self-awareness and basic humanity to know he’s too old for her, even though the idea is not unattractive.

But Wagner is not quite so simplistic: while Sachs comes to see the limits of the rules, he doesn’t represent artistic anarchy, but wants to find an equilibrium between tradition and moving forward.

The idea of wahn – one of those German words that contains a whole philosophical concept; in this case, meaning far more than simple ‘madness’ as it is literally translated – permeates Sachs’s (and Wagners) fears, yet it can be a positive force in creativity. The conflict between strict rules/convention and artistic evolution reflects similar tensions in the wider world between the status quo and change. We all face this and most of us probably take comfort in what of the former suits us and believe only in limited change. Thus understanding Sachs’s fears and dilemma is not difficult.

However, when he pays homage to tradition in the final act, it is often considered a difficult piece of nationalistic fervour. 

But historical context means a lot. When it was penned in the 1860s, Germany was on the cusp of becoming a reality, offering its peoples an increased security in the face of competing and established nationalisms from east and west in particular. It is easy now to forget that nationalism was not considered inherently negative in the 19th century: specifically, we don’t consider Italy’s move toward nationhood at the same time as anywhere near so problematic. German nationalism of the same period, though, has come to be viewed through the prism of what happened decades later and is thus treated as unique.

And it’s hardly as if we in the UK don’t like more than a spot of wildly bombastic pomp and circumstance – and not just at the Last Night of the Proms.

Hans Sachs and Sixtus Beckermesser
It’s also worth remembering that while Wagner himself might have been a nationalist in ways we think of today, he was also anti-militaristic and anti-imperialistic: today’s definition of nationalism usually includes militarism and, at a time when the UK government is planning ‘empire 2’, some on these islands at least hanker for imperialism.

On a cultural level, German-language opera existed, but German composers such as Handel and Gluck had preferred Italian, just as the court of Frederick the Great spoke French – a point referenced in Sach’s hymn to German art. That’s the context for artists striving for a German voice in art.

Royal Opera House director of opera Kasper Holten leaves the job with this new production. And it has left some to grumble – not least about how he’s changed the ending. But then, isn’t breaking the rules what this is all about?

Here, after Walther is accepted into the meistersingers’ guild and, in turn, accepts that, rather than fall into his arms, Eva storms off – presumably angered by his apparent rejection of rebelling against the rules and/or his acquiescence with the nationalism most usually perceived.

It does no damage to the whole, however you look at it.

Mia Stensgaard’s set has come in for criticism too – particularly in the second act, where something more pastoral might be welcome. This is certainly a point.

We start with something like a vaguely Deco series of boxes; angles everywhere, with staircases that go nowhere and a door like the aperture of a camera. It could remind one of Escher’s nightmarishly impossible architecture and indeed, at the climax of the second act, it becomes a nightmare. In a clever move, it only really resolves to full symmetrical neatness in the final act.

In between, during probably the slowest revolve in theatrical history, we see the back of the main set, rigged out as though it were backstage. But as Sachs plots to turn the madness to sanity, it also sees him ‘outside’ the world of which he has been such a part; a clique; an elite with its endless rules that help to preserve that elite.

Resolving the issues is what allows him to return inside, but only as he also helps to at least partially break the strangulating hold on artistic freedom. This is like Wagner’s personal manifesto – as is Sachs’s belief in democratising art by calling for the meistersinger to be chosen by popular vote and even his own determination to match words and music completely, which Sachs mentions in the libretto.

Dress is modern and includes nods to modern elites such as masons – the production poster adds business/City types as another elite.

It’s been noted that Walther is dressed scruffily, with a rock ‘n’ roll t-shirt – unfitting for a noble. But actually, it fits perfectly: the artisans in the guild are the ones for whom such things as appearance are central to their cultivation of their own sense of being an elite. An aristocrat has no need of such symbols because he’s already a member of a ‘real’ elite – though there is irony to his being the one trying to break into a very different sort of establishment.

Sachs, Eva and Walther
If Meistersinger, lacking the sturm und drang impact of Wagner’s great Romantic works, never quite hits the emotionally devastating notes of, say, the last minutes of Tristan und Isolde, it is perhaps his most consistently beautiful and melodic score.

The orchestra was in fine form under Antonio Pappano, if a tad too loud during some of the conversational moments.

Bryn Terfel might not be quite the baritone he was a few years ago, but his is an easy charisma and he brings a straightforward honesty to Sachs that is perfect for the role.

Johannes Martin Kränzle as Beckmesser deals with the comic elements delightfully, while Gwyn Hughes Jones as Walther and Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Eva, and Allan Clayton and Hanna Hipp and Sachs’s apprentice David and Eva’s maid Magdalene, all give fine performances.

The ending, with two choruses cramming the stage, is a theatrical barnstormer. The music resolves as it does at the end of the overture – and a glorious resolution it is too.

Meistersinger is a comedy in the same way that the likes of Twelfth Night is: there are laughs and chuckles, but there is much more to take away when the final chord has sounded.

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