Flamboyant and a wonderfully quirky director Barrie Kosky’s innovative production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was first seen at Bayreuth in 2017. Born in Melbourne in the late 1960s, the grandson of Jewish emigrants from Europe, Kosky’s name is now indelibly linked to Bayreuth’s glorious history, as he has become the first Jewish director to hold court here.
That’s quite an honour and I think a significant step, too, by Katharina Wagner – artistic director of the Bayreuth Festival, and daughter of Wolfgang Wagner and great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner – appointing Kosky, as it supports her strong viewpoint of bringing to the fore Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitic stance.
The traditional setting of St Catherine’s Church in Act I gets dumped for Villa Wahnfried, where we meet Wagner and his wife Cosima entertaining bosom friends in a read-through of Meistersinger in which the Jewish-born conductor, Hermann Levi, is portrayed and humiliated as Sixtus Beckmesser, the role so intelligently sung and so well acted by Johannes Martin Kränzle.
The pivotal role of Walther von Stolzing (seen as Young Wagner) fell to Klaus Florian Vogt, a big favourite of the Green Hill, and his entrance into Wahnfried’s elegantly-furnished, book-lined drawing-room came by way of a precarious route tumbling from Wagner’s Steinway Grand directly into the arms of Cosima (portrayed as Eva), powerfully sung by Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund, while Günther Groissböck as Eva’s father Veit Pogner (seen later as Franz Liszt) showed his muscle equating to his wealthy position.
The Master Singers arrive by the same route with their chains of office denoting their trade dangling heavily from their necks. Robed in traditional processional gowns – inspired, perhaps, by the Nuremberg Renaissance printmaker Albrecht Dürer – they could easily have passed off as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men from the pantomime, Dick Whittington.
But this production was far from pantomime, and the formidable tête-à-tête between Hans Sachs and Sixtus Beckmesser in Act II proved a brilliant and well-executed scene riddled with humour, trepidation, and uncertainty, with Sachs permanently interrupting and annoying Beckmesser by bumbling away at his old cobbler’s song while hammering the soles of Eva’s half-made shoes to distract and mark Beckmesser’s musical errors. A nasty and disturbing scene, though, brought this act to an unsettling close as Beckmesser became the target of a brutal pogrom-style attack.
Perfectly fitting the shoes of Hans Sachs, German baritone Michael Volle delivered a commanding performance of his mentor and creator, Richard Wagner, finding himself in the witness-box of Room 600 of Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice used by the International Military Tribunal for the War Trials of 1945-46, facing the music in more ways than one. But music, I guess, wins over politics?
Adding to the overall pleasure of the production were Rebecca Ringst’s sets, which were thoughtfully designed to capture the correct scale and detail of the opera’s respective scenes. For instance, Wahnfried (created as a doll’s-house box set) was as accurate, I should imagine, as one could possibly get from Wagner’s day while costume designer, Klaus Bruns, was just as thoughtful in his ideas producing a good wardrobe.
Mr Kosky delivered Bayreuth a production of Meistersinger that puts Richard Wagner – who described Jews as enemies not only of German culture but also of humanity as a whole – on trial and firmly in his place. This production might just be the one that’ll help to separate Wagner’s operas from their dark, distant, and murky past.
Swiss-born conductor, Philippe Jordan, took charge of a masterful performance while chorus director, Eberhard Friedrich, came up trumps as well.
- By Richard Wagner
- Directed by Barrie Kosky
- Conducted by Philippe Jordan (Bayreuth Festival Orchestra)
- Chorus-master: Eberhard Friedrich (Bayreuth Festival Chorus)
- Cast includes: Günther Groissböck, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Camilla Nylund, Klaus Florian Vogt, Michael Volle
- Bayreuth Festival