Bayreuth Festival 2017: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Kosky/Jordan)

Andreas Schager as Parsifal, Bayreuth

Michael Volle (Hans Sachs) and Klaus Florian Vogt (Walther von Stolzing).
Photo: Jörg Schulze / Bayreuth Festival

Whole-hearted approval from a typical opera audience, let alone a typical Wagner audience, in a production’s first run is rarely a good thing. There will be exceptions, of course. However – and I speak from experience, having struggled with some parts of Frank Castorf’s Ring the first time I saw it – if what you see is what you get, what will you see, or hear, a second time. As someone once said, or sang – and indeed, as someone once wrote: ‘Kam Sommer, Herbst und Winterzeit, viel Not und Sorg’ im Leben, manch ehlick Glück daneben, Kindtauf’, Geschäfte, Zwist und Streit: denen’s dann noch will gelingen, ein schönes Lied zu singen, seht; Meister nennt man die!’ Is there, as Brecht maintained, a ‘swindle’ inherent in art? One does not have to be a card-carrying Brechtian to say: yes, of course. Art conceals art, and nowhere more so than in Die Meistersinger; that is what the opera is about too, as well as the crucial element of reflection. There are different types of swindles, though. Ultimately, although Barrie Kosky’s new production of Die Meistersinger begins with promise, I fear that it turns out to be of a rather more disreputable variety. This, I am afraid, is Kosky – at his best, a fine director, although highly variable – at his most unsympathetic, his most cavalier; indeed, I should go so far as to say, at his most dishonest.

We start, part way through the opening Prelude, at Wahnfried. (Did not someone do something similar at Bayreuth not so very long ago?) For some reason, a date in the summer of 1875 is chosen and flashed in front of the stage. (Such ‘information’ is the extent of the video here, along with rather strained attempts at humour. An outside temperature is shown and many in the audience are helpless with laughter. I only wish that I were joking.) Wagner, Cosima, Liszt, and others assemble – as if this were something recounted in Cosima’s Diaries, but I am pretty sure that it is not. One of those others is Hermann Levi, apparently about to conduct Die Meistersinger at Bayreuth: before the Ring, it would seem, somehow, and thus before everything else. Never mind that the work was never conducted at Bayreuth in Wagner’s lifetime, whether by Levi or anyone else. The scenario gives Kosky the chance to invent an instance of anti-Semitism, anyway, by having Wagner and everyone else kneel for the opening chorale and genuflect. (As if Wagner would ever have done such a thing!) Levi is bullied into doing the same. Does it matter that that never happened? On one level, of course not. On another, not really, for we are not exactly short of instances either of virulent anti-Semitism on Wagner’s part or directed against Levi. On another level again, that of whether this be the right work, I am not sure: yes, with respect to Levi, it clearly should be Parsifal, but we can let that pass. On the final level, however, I think it does, very much. For Kosky’s conceit is to put Wagner, in the not entirely coherent guise of Hans Sachs, quite literally on trial. And Wagner receives neither a defence nor indeed a case against him that is anything other than a string of misrepresentations and fabrications. Yes, this is a staging, not a thesis, but I think it matters when the very clear implication is that much, at least, of what we are seeing is based on historical fact and, perhaps worse, upon critical Wagner scholarship.

Levi becomes Beckmesser as Wagner becomes Sachs. Somewhat oddly, Liszt becomes Pogner, as Cosima becomes Eva. That sub-plot, if you will – it should, of course, be the actual plot – does not work at all, even though Kosky admits, with varying degrees of clarity and coherence, that there is something of Wagner in Walther too. Wagner, after all, certainly did not have to rely on Liszt’s, or anyone else’s, permission to win his second wife; and it does not make obvious sense to have a younger version of himself snatch her from his older self. The problem, again, is that these things seem strongly implied; they neither cohere internally nor externally. The trial business is much more serious, alas. For after a great deal of first-act theatrical ‘business’ – more activity than real drama, I am afraid to say – Wagner’s villa recedes into the distance (again, quite filmic, in its way) just before the interval to reveal Wagner/Sachs on trial, in Nuremberg in – yes, 1945.

As it happens, I had been in Nuremberg just a few days previously. I had walked down the Strasse der Menschenrechte, a sign not only of true internationalism, of an order determined to defeat Nazism forever, but also reminding us of its resurgence since 1989. Names of Germans murdered on account of their ‘race’ since unification are movingly displayed on one monument. (Would that we might have something similar in the United Kingdom for our victims of ‘Brexit’ violence.) No country in the world has shown anything like the determination to come to terms with its past that Germany has, and no country is, I think, quite so clear that more, far more, still needs to be done. Vergangenheitsbewältigung works, but it is an ever-necessary process, not something ever to be completed. How about, then, we start blaming Wagner for everything? It is preposterous and, more to the point, very, very dangerous. Clearly it is very dangerous indeed simply to blame Hitler, to refuse to treat with National Socialism with the historical seriousness it deserves and demands, and thus to acquit the social and economic structures, as well as the other historical actors, who enabled Friedrich Meinecke’s ‘German catastrophe’ to happen. But to say that in any sense Wagner was responsible is to return to the thesis, if one may call it that, of what is perhaps the single most disgraceful book ever to be written about the composer: Joachim Köhler’s Wagner’s Hitler: The Prophet and his Disciple. Yes, Wagner’s Hitler, not Hitler’s Wagner. Köhler presented – and I am not exaggerating one iota – a monocausal explanation of the Second World War: Wagner. He has since, apparently, disavowed this book, although I should be surprised to hear that he had disavowed the royalties. It might as well have been Wagner and UFOs, only that would have been harmless by comparison.

Kosky nowhere in the ‘trial’ that ensues – rather hesitantly, for the second act, bewilderingly takes place on some grass that appears inside the courtroom – entertains the possibility that Wagner might not be guilty. Nowhere does he suggest that many Wagner scholars would dispute even the thesis that anti-Semitism is to be found within the dramatic works, let alone the ludicrous excesses of sensationalists such as Köhler, Paul Lawrence Rose, Marc A. Weiner, Hartmut Zelinsky, and so on. (Their ‘methods’, if one may call them that, are far closer to those of Goebbels than anything in Wagner, but never mind.) This is, quite clearly, although for reasons never explained, an entirely discreditable work by an entirely discreditable composer. I, presumably, am a Nazi too, for having dedicated so much of my life to the study of such discreditable, even murderous material. There are many more persuasive claims than those mentioned above for the thesis of anti-Semitism both in this and other works by Wagner; but frankly, when Kosky cannot be bothered to summon up a fair trial, I might as well leave naming them for another day too. Presenting Beckmesser as the victim of a pogrom at the end of the second act, replete with Stürmer imagery, horrifies – but lazily so. It has not been prepared, on the production’s own terms, let alone anything beyond them. So far, so disagreeable, but it is really the third act that takes the biscuit. Having told us – though very carefully, or very glibly, said nothing really – how wicked this all is, and having assembled all the paraphernalia of the courtroom ready for judgement, Kosky then cannot be bothered to pursue the case, such as it is, any further. What we then witness is a highly conventional –pretty much indistinguishable from David McVicar – ‘entertainment’ unfold in ‘pretty’, only slightly ironised (if at all) sixteenth-century costumes bar or take the bizarre, disquieting appearance of caricatured 'Jewish' dwarves when Beckmesser is on stage. Otherwise, it just all happens within the courtroom; that is all. Thus Kosky both manages to construct a grotesquely unfair trial, and then to say that it never really mattered anyway.

It becomes glibber still. At the close, the courtroom recedes and disappears. The final chorus takes place with an orchestra of actors, the chorus having disappeared too. What Kosky seems to be saying is that most trivial of responses one sometimes hears to Wagner: ‘I hate the man, but love the music. Why can’t we just enjoy that?’ Well no, actually. For one thing, there is no ‘music itself’. One hardly need be a doctrinaire, or even heterodox, New Musicologist to appreciate that; this is, after all, a musical drama. If that is tainted, then yes, we do need to address that – unless, perhaps, you are going to remove the words completely, or at least their dramatic import. (I suppose, in a way, Kosky has a fair stab at doing that, if not quite in the way he thinks he does.) If the work and the composer have been put on trial, then at least let us see and hear the evidence. ‘Dann Tat und Wort am rechtem Ort,’ please; or at least let us have deed and word in a place whose sole intent, or at least result, is not seemingly to deceive.

It is a great pity, in part because the idea of constructing some sort of fairer trial would have been a genuinely interesting, worthwhile thing, not least at Bayreuth, but also because much, if not all, on the musical side proved genuinely worthy of celebration. Michael Volle gave at least as fine a performance of Hans Sachs as I have heard from him. Given his dual role as Wagner, that must stand as a still greater achievement in many ways than his Salzburg Sachs for Stefan Herheim (whose production remains quite hors concours). Such depth and sophistication in attention to word, tone, and gesture, would surely have delighted his alter ego. Likewise Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Beckmesser, in at least as great a performance (and in very challenging circumstances). Their dialogue during the second act was such as to be worthy of awards – in the spoken, let alone the lyrical, theatre. Günther Groissböck, so excellent a Fasolt earlier in the week, put all those earlier virtues to work in the role of Pogner, and Daniel Behle, Froh in that same performance, had greater opportunity, finely taken, to shine as David. Klaus Florian Vogt’s Walther is a known quantity; many dislike it on account of simply disliking his voice. I shall admit to having cooled somewhat on that count myself – maybe partly on account of having heard Jonas Kaufmann and Brandon Jovanovich – but he sang very well on his own terms, could always be heard, and dealt very well with a production that very much left him on the sidelines. Wiebke Lehmkuhl offered a likeable, musical performance as Magdalene. Only Anne Schwanewilms disappointed, quite miscast, it would seem, incapable of holding her line in the Quintet, and not only there.

The Bayreuth Festival Chorus’s contribution outstanding, as one might have expected, though no less worthy of comment for that. The ability of chorus members to combine such excellence in singing with highly detailed individual stage performances – always a Kosky strength – should also be praised to the rafters. If Philippe Jordan strayed too little from mezzo piano and mezzo forte in some sections of the work, his conducting nevertheless emerged considerably more variegated than it had in Paris last year. He generally handled the work’s corners skilfully, and showed a good rapport with the wonderful players of the Festival Orchestra, whose commitment could not be gainsaid. There were perhaps no great insights on Jordan’s part, but this is a very, very difficult work for a conductor to bring off; I am tempted to think it the most difficult of all, perhaps bar Tristan. If I still longed for the wisdom of Bernard Haitink, then I nearly always do in this work. And art, as it reminds us, must move on.

That is not, however, to say that just anything goes. ‘You see,’ Brecht wrote, ‘you can do lots of things with form, carry out all sorts of swindles and fake improvements which then simply exist in “external form”.’ There was ‘the “people’s community …; there was the “economic upturn”, the “economic miracle” thanks to rearmament. And, on paper, the people had a Volkswagen, though in the cold light of day it became a tank.’ Form, he went on, ‘plays a major role in art. Form isn’t everything, but it’s so substantial that neglecting it will destroy a work.’ Indeed – and so it goes for a production. It ‘isn’t something external, something that the artist confers on content, it’s so much a part of content that it often comes across to the artist as content itself.’ Except not – if one is perpetrating a swindle or a fake trial: not, perhaps, entirely unlike what I have just done to Brecht, yet that pales into insignificance when compared to what this production does to Wagner. What worries me most is that members of the audience, flattered and laughing along to Kosky’s jokes, will feel that Wagner – and they – have been acquitted. By all means let us have a trial, but let us not delude ourselves that we have had one here.

Hans Sachs – Michael Volle
Veit Pogner – Günther Groissböck
Kunz Vogelgsang – Tansel Akzeybek
Konrad Nachtigall – Armin Kolarczyk
Sixtus Beckmesser – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Fritz Kothner – Daniel Schmutzhard
Balthasar Zorn – Paul Kaufmann
Ulrich Eißlinger – Christopher Kaplan
Augustin Moser – Stefan Heibach
Hermann Ortel – Raimund Nolte
Hans Schwarz – Andreas Hörl
Hans Foltz – Timo Riihonen
Walther von Stolzing – Klaus Florian Vogt
David – Daniel Behle
Eva – Anne Schwanewilms
Magdalena – Wiebke Lehmkuhl
Night-watchman – Karl-Heinz Lehner
Helga Beckmesser (Harpist) – Barbara Mayr

Barrie Kosky (director)
Rebecca Ringst (set designs)
Klaus Bruns (costumes)
Franck Evin (lighting)
Regine Freise (video)
Ulrich Lenz (dramaturgy)

Bayreuth Festival Chorus (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra

Philippe Jordan (conductor)



Mark Berry is Professor of Music and Intellectual History at Royal Holloway, University of London and will be a visiting scholar at the Humboldt University, Berlin, for the academic year 2023-4. He is the author of Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire: Politics and Religion in Wagner’s ‘Ring’ (2006), After Wagner: Histories of Modernist Music Drama from ‘Parsifal’ to Nono (2014), and Arnold Schoenberg (2019), and co-editor with Nicholas Vazsonyi of The Cambridge Companion to Wagner’s ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ (2020). His reviews of concert and opera performances are collected on his blog, Boulezian.


The Bayreuth Festival 2017 Reviews

Mark Berry: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Kosky/Jordan)

Sam Goodyear: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Kosky/Jordan)

Mark Berry: Parsifal (Laufenberg/Haenchen)

Mark Berry: Das Rheingold (Castorf/Janowski)

Mark Berry: Die Walküre (Castorf/Janowski)

Mark Berry: Siegfried (Castorf/Janowski)

Mark Berry: Götterdämmerung (Castorf/Janowski)