How do you solve a problem like Richard Wagner? Put him on trial: that was director Barrie Kosky's solution in his new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the opening of the 2017 Bayreuth Festival. Hans Sachs’ final speech, imploring us to “honour your German masters”, was delivered by Wagner himself from the dock at the Nuremberg Trials.
Die Meistersinger is infused with the composer’s ugly politics and vision of himself as the saviour of German art. This production made its autobiography explicit. At the beginning of the Overture, the unmistakable figure of Wagner in trademark floppy hat strides into Wahnfried (his villa in Bayreuth), eliciting a gasp from the audience. This was a great dramatic coup of the sort Kosky thrives on.
In Kosky’s production, the opera is a surreal fantasy orchestrated by Wagner in which the main roles are characters from his own life. Jewish conductor Hermann Levi reluctantly takes on the anti-Semitic role of Sixtus Beckmesser; a silver-haired Franz Liszt plays goldsmith Veit Pogner; and Cosima Wagner (Liszt’s daughter and Wagner’s wife – keep up at the back), becomes Veit’s prized daughter Eva.
Wagner, of course, plays a starring role – not only in the prize part of cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, but by casting two Wagner-lookalikes as Frankish knight Walther von Stolzing and cobbler’s apprentice David. This was no mere directorial conceit. Rather, the production triumphs as a character study and dissection of the composer’s narcissistic psyche.
Kosky invites us to indulge our fascination with the cult of Wagner in its sacred temple, Bayreuth, surrounded by its high priests and priestesses. Wagner as Hans Sachs gets to deliver his own profound social insights; “Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!” (Madness! Madness! Everywhere, madness!) could be a motto for our age as well as his.
The composer is also confronted with the consequences of his own anti-Semitism. In place of medieval Nuremberg, Acts 2 and 3 of Wagner’s operatic fantasy are played out in courtroom 600. Beckmesser becomes a conduit for Wagner’s hatred of the assimilated Jew, and is literally blown up into a giant inflatable anti-Semitic cartoon.
Plenty to unscramble, but take a break from the intellectual puzzles and there was plenty to enjoy in an evening of exceptional musical standards. Leading a luxury cast was baritone Michael Volle, who proved himself a masterful artist with a versatile instrument and a penetrating dramatic insight into the dual role of Sachs and Wagner.
Klaus Florian Vogt was a sweet and compelling Walther von Stolzing, nearly outshone by the outstanding Daniel Behle as David. Johannes Martin Kränzle imbued Beckmesser with exceptional nuance and empathy. Conductor Philippe Jordan aimed for lightness instead of grandiosity with brisk and energetic direction, although the co-ordination between singers and orchestra needed time to settle.
The “Live in Cinema” transmission for those who missed out on the hottest ticket in the German cultural calendar wouldn’t have passed Wagner’s exacting standards, but gave a good account of a landmark production that gets to the heart of the Wagner paradox.