The Ex Factor

Bryn Terfel amid the chaos of the Royal Opera's Die Meistersinger. Photograph: Clive Barda

Richard Wagner
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Royal Opera House

Gioacchino Rossini
Il Viaggio à Reims
Danish Royal Opera

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, March 17

Hans Sachs’s proposal, in the first act of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, that, once a year at least, the people decide the outcome of singing competitions, has a lot to answer for – not least, Melodifestivalen, the Swedish schlager contest whose final winner gets to represent the country at Eurovision. This year’s winner is controversial, not because it employed an English swear-word, but because the popular vote was subordinated to an international jury of schlagermeisters, who hauled the winner from third in the popular rankings to the top spot. Happily, I missed all this in order to attend another stitched-up singing competition in the form of the Royal Opera’s new production of Wagner’s opera. For Sachs, once he’s calmed the “whirl” inside his head, is the ultimate smooth operator, prepping the crowd, and the orchestra, to ensure not only that his boy wins the prize but the subsequent reconciliation of all involved.

The winning of hearts and minds is, of course, an unpredictable business, a fact which has become painfully clear to the Royal Opera’s artistic director of six years, Kasper Holten. His new staging of Die Meistersinger, conducted by Antonio Pappano, offers a fond farewell to a company sorry to see him go, as well as a parting shot to an audience which, on the whole, is not. Under Holten’s briefer than expected tenure, the house has seen many changes, but the most prominent of them is the boorish bad temper which has made it now routine for the efforts of new stage directors to be greeted with boos.

Some boos even greeted Holten’s farewell curtain call on opening night. Shameful manners, to be sure, but it shows just how deep the mistrust now runs, especially given that Holten’s Meistersinger reflects in many ways how much better he now understands the house’s audience. The show has pageantry and pathos, clever storytelling, and plenty of wit in overall design and detail. Holten’s stagings are always rather crammed with details, but here they take their cue, as often as not, from a thoughtful engagement with the score and its origins. The opening chorale is sung not by a church congregation but by a choral society, a contemporary equivalent of the kind Wagner himself busied himself with while exiled in Zurich. Sachs is the much-admired composer. The entrance of the Masters with their wives, into the kind of Masonic hall Albert Speer might have designed if he’d received that kind of commission (the actual designer is Mia Stensgaard), expresses both the individual characters of each while also, in the way the wives are bustled off after a glass of champagne, reflecting the patriarchy which none of them questions. While the setting is modern day, the Act II riot shows the folkloric traditions of a Bavarian midsummer’s eve going awry, the mischief presided over by a Night Watchman dressed as Krampus.

The flood of details is mirrored in Pappano’s handling of the score which, following a slightly underdone overture, is awash with features set in careful relief. While the symphonic sweep of specialist Wagner conductors is perhaps not there, the topical liveliness of Meistersinger, which bristles with associations through its incorporation of numerous contrasting styles, lends itself to Pappano’s sweeping rhetoric. The pacing is spot-on, mirrored on stage in, for example, the gradual distribution of the paraphernalia of cultural pre-eminence which takes place during the first act’s second scene, perfectly in time for the entrance of the Masters. The confidence of both the stage and musical direction is reflected in the vocal performances. The chorus, even in Act II’s chaotic culmination, sings superbly and acts with brilliantly calibrated colour and detail. Even when the stage is crammed, everyone knows what they’re doing, what story they’re telling, and, to judge from the conviction, why they’re telling it. Bryn Terfel’s Sachs sounds predictably magnificent, though occasionally a little subdued, as if concerned with presenting the character’s troubled relation with his public persona. Gwyn Hughes Jones’s Walther sounds as sweet as he looks absurd, dressed as he is (by the costume designer Anja von Kragh) in a charity-shop tail coat over a dirty heavy metal T-shirt, while Johannes Martin Kränzle reminds us why he’s currently the best Beckmesser in the business. Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s wonderfully full soprano grows apace with her character, Eva, while the rest of the cast – including Allan Clayton’s David and Stephen Milling’s Pogner – reveal a company thoroughly inspired.

It is in the production’s grand design that Holten takes the kind of risks that make his London audience shudder, because it becomes clear that the set is itself given agency as a metaphor for the Masters’ world and the way its rigid traditions are shaken by Walther’s revolutionary aesthetics. The ill-at-ease conception of Walther’s costume is writ large in the way the imposing interior gradually disintegrates during Act II, culminating in the visual and aural cacophony of the riot. Here, everything turns to dramaturgical chaos. Sachs doesn’t know where to sit, and looks absurd pitching and cobbling Beckmesser’s shoes in subfusc whites. Beckmesser doesn’t know where to sing nor Lena where to listen. Eva and Walther look on, perturbed and mystified not by the unfolding comedy but by the creaking disintegration of their architectural surroundings.

In the first four scenes of Act III, as Sachs wrestles with his understanding of what ails his conscience and the values of the society it underpins, the gradual falling into place of his solution takes the visual form of the entire set slowly revolving, the action taking place among the rigging, blinking LEDs and water dispensers so that here, space becomes time. The quintet, memorably established and led by Willis-Sørensen (at a moment when many Evas find their strength beginning to fail), thus emerges from the literal re-setting of the stage in a way entirely commensurate with Wagner’s intention that the moment should enact spiritual communion in song. In these backstage scenes, the gestures are toned down to match the setting, lending the interactions a more natural and human character.

The aesthetics are troubling here; we would not tolerate, for example, an actor expressing the dissolution of his character by acting badly. In the same way, witnessing the dramaturgical incoherence of Act II goes against our deepest convictions about what theatres do. Simply speaking, it just looks wrong. But then, in Act II, everything is wrong. The throwing open to question of a whole culture and its means of expression is precisely what Wagner intended. And just as opera singers have greater leeway than straight actors in allowing their performer’s persona to blend incompletely with that of their character, so too do opera directors, perhaps, have greater freedom to allow the machinery of illusion to play its own dramatic role. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I strongly recommend making the effort to acquire it. For not only was I moved, instructed and enlarged but, more importantly, I left the building singing and laughing, grinning at the sneaky humour that penetrates not just Holten’s staging but the entire piece. And let’s not forget, Wagner’s opera, for all its troubling profundity, is first and foremost a musical comedy.

Perhaps this was Holten’s real farewell, a snook-cocking cry of “you still don’t get it, do you?” before catching a plane, the following morning, back to his life in Copenhagen. The opera house there, which he ran before taking up his post in London, is in a parlous state, harried by punitive government cuts. The building itself, an object of twenty-first-century nobility, sits on its moated island, economically and culturally isolated from a city whose distrust of elitism has deeper roots than most.

But they can still put on a great show. The young Italian director Damiano Michieletto, whose Guillaume Tell in 2015 ignited the scandal that ultimately led to Holten’s resignation, has a hit on his hands with a new production of Rossini’s dramma giocoso Il Viaggio à Reims, superbly conducted by Thomas Søndergård. Practically the entirety of the original scenario has been thrown out. Justifiably, too, given that Rossini himself never envisaged that his clever but broad satirical comedy of circumstantial pageantry surrounding the Coronation of Charles X of France would survive the context of its original performance (namely, the coronation of Charles X), and cut up much of the score to reuse it in Le Comte Ory.

Michieletto has taken François Gérard’s monumental 1827 painting of the event as his inspiration, and made a show about an art exhibition centred on it. The opera’s characters comprise both the people of the gallery (Madame Cortese is its Anna Wintour-esque owner, sung by Henriette Bonde-Hansen; Corinna is a student with a sketchbook, sung by Anke Briegel) and characters from various artworks who emerge half-dressed because the exhibition, like the hotel in Rossini’s original, is unfinished and nothing is where it’s supposed to be. Their confusion, occasioned as much by having emerged from the wrong paintings as by no longer being in paintings at all, is compounded by non-singing characters from the other paintings. Velázquez’s Infanta Margarita Teresa sidles on with a figure from Keith Haring (complete with expression marks), pursued by a bandaged Van Gogh and Picasso’s Weeping Woman. The result is a show of slick but genial humour which ought to delight both the minority who know the original opera (the plot’s reworking is ingenious) and those who don’t. Moreover, the direction is entirely to the benefit of the music. In the famuous, absurdly virtuosic “Gran pezzo”, for fourteen voices, the implicit musical dangers are also expressed visually. Lord Sidney, Corinna’s lover, sings his beautiful opera-seria number, “Ah! Perché la connobbi?”, to Sargent’s Madame X, whose canvas not only gradually comes to life, but comforts him, strips him, and finally covers him in black paint so that he can be absorbed into the painting. The final act, during which the characters find their costumes and their places in a giant mock-up of the background of Gérard’s painting, makes wonderful sense of Rossini’s fun-poking at the national characters of the dignitaries. But when they’ve found their places, the process by which the rest of the painting composes itself is brought about by Corinna’s crowning, trance-like aria, “All’ ombre amena”, gloriously sung by Briegel, so that the spectacle somehow breathes again with something of the majesty and wonder of the original painting. It is, all told, quite difficult to believe all this can be achieved in a way that allows Rossini’s unparalleled warmth and wit to sparkle afresh. But sparkle it does. Indeed, I haven’t laughed at or felt so deeply uplifted by an opera since, well, the previous evening’s Meistersinger.

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