Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Glyndebourne. Is it unusual to start a new season with a revival ? This production premiered on the exact date on which Wagner was born 200 years before. Fortuitous timing, perhaps, but also a bright start to the 2011 season. "Sunny but not shallow" I wrote at the time - read my original piece HERE .
David McVicar set the production around the time of Wagner's birth, which was appropriate in the composer's anniversary year, but rather less relevant now. On the plus side, early 19th century designs are easy on the eye. Perhaps the popularity of this production stems from it being so genteel and non-challenging. But Die Meistersinger isn't about pretty scenery. On the contrary. It says, quite clearly that appearances deceive. The good guy is not the one in the smart black suit. On the minus side, it gentrified 16th century Nuremburg, obliterating the context of Reformation and revolt. It didn't matter so much in 2011 because we were celebrating the start of the season, the production was fresh and it was different. Gerald Finley was a sophisticate, rather than earthy. Because he's a house favourite, it's perfectly reasonable to build a production around him. There isn't and shouldn't be a "Hans Sachs type" but Finley's voice is on the genteel side, so his Sachs was never going to be gritty or pugnacious. Hence his Sachs was an Early Romantic poet, from a time when poets were intellectuals, often aristocratic, almost all middle class. They'd no more make a living fixing shoes than might a hero from Jane Austen.
True, the Romantic period was a revolution, but the revolution Wagner wrought transformed the music of the past, even if it grew from Romantic values. I enjoyed the 2011 premiere because Vladimir Jurowski conducted exceptionally well. The orchestra communicated what the set avoided. There's no reason why Die Meistersinger shouldn't be sunny and gay, in the old sense of the word, because the Nuremburgers are celebrating the survival of their city and the renewalof art. There is more in the opera, though. The Meistersingers were happy enough to do as Beckmesser wanted and run Walter out of town, had Sachs not intervened. Not for nothing, when darkness falls, the townsfolks crap. It's comic but not funny. A crowd can descend into a mob. The Night Watchman is a counterpart to Sachs, restoring sanity.
And so to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from the Bayerisches Staatsoper in Munich, just down the road from Bayreuth and not far from Nuremburg. Presumably the locals have Die Meistersinger in their DNA, notwithstanding their ancestors' less than worshipful approach to Wagner himself. Even if they don't, the opera is so familiar that it could be interpreted in a new way, yet still be true to the fundamentals. Jonas Kaufmann is Munich's greatest asset, and even more popular than Finley is at Glyndebourne. I'm glad I listened to the premiere audio only, in order to get the musical logic behind the interpretation. Kaufmann is simply head and shoulders above everyone else in the cast, though they are good, and probably better than the Glyndebourne cast. He's just so good that he changes the balance of the opera. Jacques Imbrailo did the same with the Glyndebounre Billy Budd, singing so divinely that some forget that for Britten, the story actually revolves around Captain Vere's moral dilemma. It's fine to adjust balances in this way because they allow a change of perspective. Kaufmann's Walter was so good that no one could have mistaken him for an untrained newcomer. The birds in the woods who taught Kaufmann's Walter must have been pretty amazing. An interpretation placing more emphasis on Walter than on Sachs would be perfectly valid, if done well, because Walter is the future, as Sachs recognizes.
Sachs was named after St John the Baptist, who laid the way for Jesus. Johannisnacht is a Christian festival, but also has connections with prehistory and even the occult. The tree in the town square, for example is a kind of fertility symbol, and young folk go courting at the fair. "Holy German Art" was poisoned by Hitler, but it's not actually about Nazism. The music isn't even demonic, just affirmative, so,playing it up for cheap,thrills is a cop out. It's time to exorcise that ghost from the opera and from its interpretation. Holy German Art in Hans Sachs's time was an affirmation of native German values, as opposed to the Catholic Church, to the democratization of learning through the printed word. Before Gutenberg, people didn't have books, and had to believe what they were told. The real message of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is a lot more radical than some realize.
Please also read Mills and Boon Wagner -Meistersinger at the Met and Stefan Herheim's perceptive Meistersinger, Salzburg and ENO Vindicated : Wagner's prescient warning.