At the heart of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg lies a classic tale of spiritual development in which a young man learns humility and respect on the path to realising his potential. Alongside it one finds a scathing critique of pedantry and artistic conservatism with Beckmesser acting as Wagner’s personal piñata, suffering a torrent of physical and psychological blows that seem almost disproportionate to his crimes. Just as we forgive Walther his arrogance, the tragedy of Beckmesser is often obscured by a screen of comedic bluster. But what if Walther could care less about songcraft and tradition; and what if Beckmesser, beaten by common thugs, betrayed by his only friend, and robbed of his one chance at married life, turned out to have a genuine human breaking point?
David Bösch used this pessimistic reading as the unexpected terminal point of his fascinating and often unsettling new staging which opened recently at the Bayerische Staatsoper. The production – which featured a superb cast and exceptional musical direction from Kirill Petrenko – plucked the story from its pre-industrial past and set it down in a modern edge-city with brutalist medium-rise housing, satellite dishes and almost nothing in the way of natural light. Yet despite these muted surroundings and a vision of the characters that was often uncomfortably bleak, the staging was also surprisingly funny. Until, suddenly, it wasn’t.
The idea that Meistersinger is supposed to be a comedy has led a number of directors to lean sometimes too heavily on the physical comedy playbook. Mr Bösch’s approach was refreshingly low key. The actions and interactions had an unforced, almost deadpan quality and the humour was deployed subtly, more often as clever visual details than obvious set pieces; yet the humour was never too far removed from a pervasive sense of dread. This vague unease, born of hopelessness, affected the different characters in different ways, but it was Eva alone who seemed to perceive its full extent. Of all the characters, Eva had the most to lose, and her attempts to escape the cruel future that awaited had an uncomfortable edge of desperation.
Indeed, her situation was so desperate that she latched onto Walther as a way out. With skinny black jeans, white trainers, a t-shirt that even the most obnoxious hipster would avoid, and a pair of headphones that had been demoted from sound-reproduction device to fashion accessory, Walther was all surface. He carried a guitar case, but it too seemed merely part of his look. And behind the look there was nothing. He had the intellect of a dial-tone, and his complete failure to register the significance of every situation was one of the production’s most reliable sources of comedy. Until, suddenly, it wasn’t.
One could shrug off Walther’s disinterest at David’s enumeration of the tones, and his obvious impatience with the masters’ rules; but when he started to roll a cigarette while waiting for the third act quintet to end, one suspected that Sachs’s attempts at a moral education had been for naught. Sure enough, Walther sat through Sachs’s final monologue with unconcealed disdain and, the second it was over, grabbed Eva and his guitar case made a break for it. The fact that this final flip-off to the masters was so fully in keeping with Walther’s character made it no less devastating. Sachs’s appeal to the power of art, surely one of the greatest moments in all of opera, had changed nothing.
It was Walther’s apathy that allowed the tragedy of Beckmesser to emerge from the shadows. The town clerk was just out of touch with reality enough to believe that his singing could win the heart of a much younger woman, and his unrealistic ambitions were met not just with mockery but with explicit physical punishment as well. After an unusually savage beating from David – there was blood – Beckmesser was left lying on the street to suffer at the hands of local hoodlums with monkey masks and nightsticks. When Beckmesser next appeared, it was in a wheelchair.
It is common for directors to downplay the violence in Meistersinger – it is supposed to be a comedy, remember – and to treat the climax of the second act like a Warner Brothers cartoon where the impact of the anvil produces only a few stars circling around the head. Mr Bösch, however, confronted the psychological toll of the violence. After suffering his final humiliation at the song contest, Beckmesser disappeared only to return with a gun in the final seconds of the opera, intending to kill Sachs but ultimately turning the gun on himself. Although not convincingly staged, the idea was a powerful one: Beckmesser had been human all along, and we, the audience, were terrible people for laughing at his misfortune.
Such then was the comedy of Mr Bösch’s Meistersinger. Yet the success of this production was its ability to swing so effortlessly between its different moods. The climax of the first act, in which an angry Walther smashes a plaster bust of Wagner on the audition stage, was immediately humanised by the sad image of Fritz Kothner alone, clinging onto the largest remaining fragment. The inspired lunacy of Beckmesser’s serenade – delivered from a malfunctioning cherry picker – took a sharp detour into darkness with the arrival of the neighbourhood goons. Mr Bösch’s ability to step so lightly along the permeable boundary between hilarity and horror, without making either seeming contrived, was arguably the production’s greatest strength.
If the intimations of darkness in Wagner’s great comedy left a bitter aftertaste – as it was no doubt meant to – the musical side of the production was an unending delight. Although few will be surprised to learn that Wolfgang Koch sung and acted a magnificent Sachs, and that Jonas Kaufmann dominated the stage with his charismatic dark-toned Walther, the evening’s great revelation came from the Beckmesser of Markus Eiche. Mr Eiche all but ignored the century-and-a-half of accumulated wisdom on how the character should be portrayed, shedding the histrionics, the pomposity and the self-pity to reveal the fragile dreamer behind the chalk board. Mr Eiche had both the vocal restraint and the nervy presence to turn the attempted serenade in the second act into one of the evening’s most inspired scenes.
There was much to despise about David Bösch’s characterisation of Walther, but everything to like about Jonas Kaufmann’s performance. His voice, deeper and earthier in tone than the average Walther and none the worse for it, was never grand or bold for the sake of effect. Although he had no problems remaining comfortably above the orchestra, what impressed most was the unforced quality of his delivery. Few singers have made the Walther of the first act sound so ignorant or disinterested; he delivered his sullen ‘Am stillen Herd’ slumped in a chair. Yet when giving vent to his anger and hurt in the second act, one of the few genuine emotions to pierce Walther’s façade of cool, the results were gripping.
Unlike many singers, Wolfgang Koch does not appear to take the appeal of Hans Sachs for granted. He sang the role in Berlin earlier this season and, as in that performance, it was not until the second act that one really began to warm to his presence. In the first act, he seemed unextraordinary, one of many masters with voting rights at the meeting; only after the Flieder monologue and a highly charged scene with Eva in the second act, did he start to establish himself as the core of the drama. This is perhaps the secret to his interpretation: he earns our trust in stages, allowing us to see his flaws as well as his essential nobility of spirit.
Sara Jakubiak’s versatile Eva would have been strong in any setting, but her strengths seemed especially well suited to the production. Her delight at seeing Walther at the beginning of the first act turned quickly to palpable fear as she realised the depths of his ignorance about the upcoming song competition. Her mounting anxieties about her own future, expressed in a voice that was often coloured by hints of severity but was never harsh or unappealing, brought an almost surprising dramatic force to her scene with Sachs in the second act; yet her exclamation of ‘O Sachs, mein Freund!’ in the third act was delivered with disarming tenderness.
The light-toned David of Benjamin Bruns and the unusually bubbly Magdalena of Okka von der Damerau seemed well suited to one another even if they remained largely peripheral to the other threads of the story. However Christof Fischesser’s crisp, commanding Pogner was excellent; his matter-of-fact, slightly self-satisfied address to the masters in the first act was no less effective for being largely stripped of the pomp that often accompanies the scene. It was also difficult not to be charmed by the aging Fritz Kothner brought to life by Eike Wilm Schulte.
Yet it was Kirill Petrenko’s extraordinary musical direction that proved to be the evening’s most valuable asset. Everything about his reading seemed natural and untroubled, as though maintaining a lively flow of drama for four and a half hours was the easiest thing in the world. There were, of course, grand moments; the end of the first act roll-call was especially magnificent, and the orchestra were whipped to a state of extreme excitability in the third act when Walther, inspired by the sight of Eva, delivered his proposed third verse. Yet one was never aware of Mr Petrenko making adjustments for effect, of speeding up or slowing down the action; and while he did his best not to draw attention to the orchestra, it was impossible not to notice the luxurious sound of the strings – substantial and clear with a notable low-end heft – or the glowing concentration of the brass. Even if the production had been less provocative and the singers less distinguished, Mr Petrenko and the orchestra would have ensured an unforgettable evening.