|Yes, they did this.|
That probably looks as if Kosky (the Australian director who has sometimes described himself as a "gay, Jewish kangaroo" - see my interview with him in the JC here) is bashing us over the head. Believe it or not, he isn't - or not solely. This masterful production poses many, many questions, but offers no easy answers. Kosky's laser-like imagination deftly clinches the linking image as one of judgment: the 'marker' is judging Walther, and Sachs judging Beckmesser, in the courtroom in which the Nuremberg Trials were held. Ultimately Sachs delivers his speech on great German art alone in the witness stand, before turning to conduct a newly visible orchestra to prove his point. At this moment, the audience must become the judges. We are saved by art alone... Or are we? That is up to us.
|Saved by art alone?|
We are not only judging Sachs, though - because this Sachs is Wagner. The overture shows us the interior of the composer's nearby house, Wahnfried, and as the first chords blaze out, the doors fly open and in strides the maestro, complete with his two Newfoundland dogs. We soon meet Cosima, who's been upstairs with a migraine; her father, Franz Liszt; a guest, the conductor Hermann Levi (who was the son of a rabbi, but was Wagner's choice to conduct the premiere of Parsifal). There's the spectacle of Wagner and Liszt playing this music to their captive audience as a piano duet, and the mercurial Wagner becomes puppet-master, directing everybody, while Levi is shown up as an outsider, reluctant to kneel for prayer - he's Jewish, but also he has gammy knees. A portrait of Cosima wins a central role, and soon from inside the piano emerge the mastersingers in 16th-century costume...
Wagner is transformed into Sachs; and his younger self, Walther; and his younger self still, David the apprentice; and two young boys in similar costume, perhaps Siegfried, or Wolfgang and Wieland. Cosima becomes Eva, if without such properties of recreated youth, and Liszt is her dad, Pogner. And Levi is coerced by the Master into becoming Beckmesser.
One can, of course, pick holes in the concept if one wants to - Eva/Cosima's hoppity-skippity ways in her dignified older-woman black crinoline don't always work convincingly. Yet the whole is carried out with the kind of flair, wealth of detail and technical brilliance that reduces such matters to relatively minor caveats. The crowd-scenes' Bosch-like ferments are punctuated by startling moments of stillness. Grass matting rises to fly skywards; Wahnfried wheels away, in its entirety, into the distance. (And how do those characters get into the piano to climb out of it? From row 24, the illusion of magic seemed complete.)
But the audacity of unfurling that giant antisemitic caricature is something that probably would only be acceptable in Bayreuth, a festival fated always to seek atonement for its historical disgrace. Today many scholars assert that Beckmesser was never intended as a Jewish caricature, while others declare it's obvious that he is one. Some productions hint at the issue genteelly - David McVicar's Glyndebourne production is a case in point - while others appear to by-pass it, notably the Bayerische Staatsoper's fascinating 1960s-set staging. Kosky grabs the issue and faces it, head on. That takes quite some guts. Besides, dramaturgically, historically, in terms of Wagner and Cosima's relationship, personalities and attitudes, the production seems watertight.
|Kränzle & Volle as Beckmesser & Sachs|
As Walther, Klaus Florian Vogt had virtually everything, including the requisite metallic cut-through tone to carry off the rigours of the role and the power to soar over the textures, and in this context it's hard to ignore the way that blond "Aryan" look contrasts with the bearded Beckmesser when vying for Eva's affection. Günther Groissböck presented an exceptionally colourful and beautiful-toned Pogner, while Daniel Behle was a warm and mercurial David, and Wiebke Lehmkuhl a mellifluous Magdalena despite the flighty character assigned to her (as an aside, one couldn't help feeling that the female characters didn't fare too well in this staging). And the chorus was an utter glory. Less happy, sadly, was the Eva of Anne Schwanewilms, who seemed at times to be struggling vocally. Philippe Jordan's conducting slid towards some ponderous tempi; indeed, a couple of times one feared things were about to grind to a halt. Some of the soloists appeared to do their level best to chivvy the pace along.
A mixed evening, then, but one that has provided endless food for thought well beyond the Festival Bratwurst. I'd love to see it several more times.
Photo credits: (c) Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuther Festspiele
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