Songs without ideas

Richard Wagner

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, June 10

The Wagnerian ambitions of John Christie, owner of Glyndebourne and founder of the festival on which his house’s fame principally rests, have been a long time bearing fruit. In 2003, some forty years after Christie’s death, the house presented only its first full Wagner opera: Tristan und Isolde, in Nicholas Lehnhoff’s gravely beautiful production. Momentum is now gathering, however; the new season has opened with David McVicar’s staging of Die Meistersinger, conducted by Glyndebourne’s music director Vladimir Jurowski. With a cast of more than a hundred singers and sets built with the kind of eye for detail and permanence that few houses can rival, it is a production that must count itself among the festival’s most ambitious to date.

This is not the first time the burghers of Wagner’s Nuremberg have found themselves wandering the rolling hills of Sussex. Before the festival’s inception in 1934, Christie used frequently to mount amateur concerts for the house’s guests and employees in the great organ room. Among these was a performance on June 3, 1928 of Die Meistersinger, Act Three, scene one, in which Walther delivers, and Beckmesser adopts, his song. All five singers wore full costume. Christie himself – in an extension, one assumes, of the spirit of hospitality – took on the role of Beckmesser. And that unhappy figure is at the centre of McVicar’s production. This shows sound judgement. For although Hans Sachs, the wise cobbler and musician, holds the work together, shaping the images of hope, craft and art Wagner intended his audience to take away with them, it is of course the guild master who forms the drama’s dark heart. Beaten in the second act, humiliated and ostracised in the third, Beckmesser clearly exceeds the broadly comic profile of the drama, unbalancing the opera in the process and reminding us that the work’s rosy conclusion may be less durable than Wagner’s music would have us believe. This imbalance derives from factors internal to the work, but it has been exacerbated by the opera’s wartime performance history and by our own generation’s inability to move beyond the idea that Beckmesser was intended by the composer as an incitement to anti-Semitism.

McVicar’s intention has been to restore some dignity to the part, drawing on the acting and vocal talents of the German baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle. This is a brave and potentially satisfying move, but one that the director has then undermined by his interpretative decision to “cast” Beckmesser, unmistakably, as the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, the most prominent and influential of the “Jews in music” who wounded Wagner’s youthful vanity and later excited his scorn. McVicar’s “idea” is confused by the fact that the urbane and popular Meyerbeer bears no resemblance to Nuremberg’s devious clerk, whom Wagner in any case intended as a caricature of the critic Eduard Hanslick. Far from being an incompetent, rule-bound obsessive, Meyerbeer excelled in the art of adapting himself to the demands of public taste – and it was this very flexibility, mistaken for moral inauthenticity, which aroused Wagner’s suspicion in the first place.

Such a muddled representation would not matter so much were it not for the fact that McVicar’s conception of the work is otherwise rather empty. He has set the action in Biedemeyer Germany, and thus linked the song contest and its attendant dramas to a restorative movement in German culture entirely at odds with Wagner’s own radical programme – the one Sachs is called on to shelter; the production demotes the drama’s ideological landscape to the cosy world of bonnets and bustles and televised Jane Austen. Wagner is many things to many people, but few, apart from McVicar, would argue his strengths lie in romantic comedy. All this should not detract from some fine points. The set designer Vicki Mortimer’s opening tableau – with the congregation’s profile set against a nicely executed triptych pastiche adapted from Dürer’s painting of Jesus among the scholars, and crowned by an intricate rose-vaulted ceiling – is striking.

Some of the singing is excellent, with Gerald Finley superb as Sachs. Kränzle, too, steering clear of the usual cackling and crooning, gives Beckmesser’s ill-fated serenade more chance of success than the imposed interpretation seems to allow and, in the final act, cuts a sympathetic figure, withdrawing from Sachs’s entreaty to forgive and forget. Marco Jentzsch’s Walther, on the other hand, and Anna Gabler’s Eva both lack the vocal presence and flexibility of tone necessary to convey depth – a less than ideal default in a production also bent on sapping both roles of precisely that quality. More seriously, none of the singers is helped by Vladimir Jurowski’s painfully elongated phrasing in the pit. He starts well enough, with a breezy and sure-footed Prelude and opening chorale, but all too soon, like his directorial partner, appears to run out of ideas.

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