Showing posts with label Michael Volle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Michael Volle. Show all posts

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Die Meistersinger von Bayreuth

Yes, they did this.
The last scene of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg's second act is usually stirring, but doesn't often make the pit of your stomach drop as if you're in the London Underground's oldest lift. But this is Barrie Kosky's new production for the Bayreuth Festival. While white supremacists were marching and murdering in Charlottesville, we were in the Festspielhaus watching as Kosky unleashed across the entire giant plain of a stage an inflatable cartoon head, akin to the vile Nazi-era caricatures of supposedly typical Jewish appearance (as in the picture, but magnified a few hundred times). The riot in the town square here is fermenting an incipient pogrom against the Jewish Beckmesser. And, horrifying to admit, as an interpretation it makes sense.

That probably looks as if Kosky (the Australian director who has sometimes described himself as a "gay, Jewish kangaroo" - see my interview with him in the JC here) is bashing us over the head. Believe it or not, he isn't - or not solely. This masterful production poses many, many questions, but offers no easy answers. Kosky's laser-like imagination deftly clinches the linking image as one of judgment: the 'marker' is judging Walther, and Sachs judging Beckmesser, in the courtroom in which the Nuremberg Trials were held. Ultimately Sachs delivers his speech on great German art alone in the witness stand, before turning to conduct a newly visible orchestra to prove his point. At this moment, the audience must become the judges. We are saved by art alone... Or are we? That is up to us.

Saved by art alone?

We are not only judging Sachs, though - because this Sachs is Wagner. The overture shows us the interior of the composer's nearby house, Wahnfried, and as the first chords blaze out, the doors fly open and in strides the maestro, complete with his two Newfoundland dogs. We soon meet Cosima, who's been upstairs with a migraine; her father, Franz Liszt; a guest, the conductor Hermann Levi (who was the son of a rabbi, but was Wagner's choice to conduct the premiere of Parsifal). There's the spectacle of Wagner and Liszt playing this music to their captive audience as a piano duet, and the mercurial Wagner becomes puppet-master, directing everybody, while Levi is shown up as an outsider, reluctant to kneel for prayer - he's Jewish, but also he has gammy knees. A portrait of Cosima wins a central role, and soon from inside the piano emerge the mastersingers in 16th-century costume...

Wagner is transformed into Sachs; and his younger self, Walther; and his younger self still, David the apprentice; and two young boys in similar costume, perhaps Siegfried, or Wolfgang and Wieland. Cosima becomes Eva, if without such properties of recreated youth, and Liszt is her dad, Pogner. And Levi is coerced by the Master into becoming Beckmesser.

One can, of course, pick holes in the concept if one wants to - Eva/Cosima's hoppity-skippity ways in her dignified older-woman black crinoline don't always work convincingly. Yet the whole is carried out with the kind of flair, wealth of detail and technical brilliance that reduces such matters to relatively minor caveats. The crowd-scenes' Bosch-like ferments are punctuated by startling moments of stillness. Grass matting rises to fly skywards; Wahnfried wheels away, in its entirety, into the distance. (And how do those characters get into the piano to climb out of it? From row 24, the illusion of magic seemed complete.)

But the audacity of unfurling that giant antisemitic caricature is something that probably would only be acceptable in Bayreuth, a festival fated always to seek atonement for its historical disgrace. Today many scholars assert that Beckmesser was never intended as a Jewish caricature, while others declare it's obvious that he is one. Some productions hint at the issue genteelly - David McVicar's Glyndebourne production is a case in point - while others appear to by-pass it, notably the Bayerische Staatsoper's fascinating 1960s-set staging. Kosky grabs the issue and faces it, head on. That takes quite some guts. Besides, dramaturgically, historically, in terms of Wagner and Cosima's relationship, personalities and attitudes, the production seems watertight.

Kränzle & Volle as Beckmesser & Sachs
Musically things were not always as even as one might wish, although the best was the best of all the best. The peerless Beckmesser of Johannes Martin Kränzle was cherishable, with subtle, beautiful singing and detailed characterisation, carrying off both humour and humiliation with convincing aplomb. Michael Volle as Sachs/Wagner matched him in magnificence: a huge, charismatic personality with vast velvety voice, Volle seems effortlessly to hold stage and audience in the proverbial palm of his hand. The relationship between the two characters proved, as it should, the lynchpin of the entire edifice.

As Walther, Klaus Florian Vogt had virtually everything, including the requisite metallic cut-through tone to carry off the rigours of the role and the power to soar over the textures, and in this context it's hard to ignore the way that blond "Aryan" look contrasts with the bearded Beckmesser when vying for Eva's affection. Günther Groissböck presented an exceptionally colourful and beautiful-toned Pogner, while Daniel Behle was a warm and mercurial David, and Wiebke Lehmkuhl a mellifluous Magdalena despite the flighty character assigned to her (as an aside, one couldn't help feeling that the female characters didn't fare too well in this staging). And the chorus was an utter glory. Less happy, sadly, was the Eva of Anne Schwanewilms, who seemed at times to be struggling vocally. Philippe Jordan's conducting slid towards some ponderous tempi; indeed, a couple of times one feared things were about to grind to a halt. Some of the soloists appeared to do their level best to chivvy the pace along.

A mixed evening, then, but one that has provided endless food for thought well beyond the Festival Bratwurst. I'd love to see it several more times.

Photo credits: (c) Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuther Festspiele


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Saturday, November 02, 2013

Sizzling Vespers at ROH


A last-minute invitation to the Royal Opera House's Great Big Verdi Bicentenary Production yesterday was more than welcome. Yet it conspired with blocked local train lines and slow rush-hour tubes to ensure that I arrived a hair's breadth before curtain up for an opera I didn't know, without having had time to read the story.

What a marvellous way to listen. You wouldn't look up the plot before attending a film, would you? If someone gave you a programme containing a synopsis, indeed, you might be cross. You'd call it a 'spoiler'. OK, some operas are so convoluted that we might need a little help. After our 20th Marriage of Figaro, we might have unravelled the plot enough to have some idea of what's going on. But in the era of surtitles, and of certain directors who actually know how to tell a good story when they get the chance, do we still need advance briefing? The only giveaway, in this state of blissful ignorance at a grand-scale, nearly-four-hour romantic roller-roaster, was knowing that the finish time would be 9.50pm. If hero and heroine start singing happy wedding songs at 9.20pm, you can bet your bottom dollar it's all going to go horribly wrong.

Robert McKee, Hollywood screenwriting story guru par excellence, might be impressed with certain part of this plot. Who could imagine a greater conflict for our young hero, Henri? He is a rebel; he discovers his father is the local dictator; and he has to choose between his newly discovered instinctive feel for his dad, aka Guy de Montfort, and the rebel duchess whom he loves, Helene. Montfort wants to kill Helene, having already killed her brother, but after Henri cracks and obediently calls him "mon pere", he changes his mind and insists that she and Henri marry. Yet the leader of the rebels, Procida - vengeful after the psychologically muddled Henri has betrayed him - declares that their wedding bells will be the signal to unleash a massacre. All of this takes place against background conflict of occupation, wanton cruelty and simmering revolt.

Stefan Herheim's production contains a few absolute masterstrokes. In the prologue, a ballet class is in progress. Soldiers burst in, taunt the girls, abduct them. Montfort chooses one and commits violent rape. The act is witnessed by the ballet master, powerless to help his dancer. He is Procida and becomes the rebel leader after years in exile - and you know exactly where he found his motivation. The rape victim demonstrates to her attacker what is about to happen: evoked in ballet, we see the pregnancy, the baby, the mother and child. The little boy will become Henri. Ballet is a vital part of the storytelling throughout, representing Henri's mother and her appalling history as a vital presence while the action progresses. The details are superb: for instance it's clear that the ballet girls in the crowd recognise, love and respect Procida for his original incarnation in their own world. And we see, on Procida's return to his studio, exactly how the rape of his dancer has become equated in his mind with the rape of his country.

The designs by Philipp Fürhofer are big, bold, convincing. Michael Volle as Montfort virtually stole the show; Bryan Hymel - the current high-register, French-conversant tenor du jour - was often beautiful in tone, but a little underpowered and, as actor, slightly wooden within a drama where so much was detailed and realistic. Lianna Haroutounian (replacing Marina "Popsy" Poplavskaya), matched him well; again, a voice that is basically gorgeous and has much character and distinction, yet perhaps not quite large enough in such a vast-scale opera. Erwin Schrott as Procida seethed, fumed and loomed - though personally I wouldn't have chosen to bring him on in a dress at that particular moment in the last act (and another touch that proved uncomfortable was Helene's cradling - and others' footballing - of her brother's severed head). Throughout, Pappano's conducting existed in technicolour, full of razor-blade edginess and Mediterranean warmth.

As for Verdi in French - it sounds even weirder, if that's possible, than Verdi in English. But it is authentic, so... what was needed was better diction from most of the cast other than Hymel. And despite all the ballet - no actual ballet. There's around half an hour of designated ballet music in this opera and there was to have been a major collaboration on this between Royal Opera, Royal Ballet and Royal Danish Ballet. But thanks to some operatic goings-on behind the scenes some months ago, the whole thing went ballet-up. It's fine dramatically as it is, of course - probably better - but still a pity to lose that.

There are reasons, one suspects, why the opera is not presented more often: it is vintage Verdi in many ways, but the music is more generic and less distinguished than such works as Otello, Rigoletto or Falstaff, while tenors who can pull off the role of Henri are few and far between. Hymel is a godsend, in that respect. This production, despite a few inevitable flaws, seems set to become a classic that will be remembered for many years to come.