A Midsummer Night’s Dream
When it was over, one could only marvel. Stefan Herheim’s staging of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – which opened this month at the Opéra de Paris after an initial, well-received outing in Salzburg in 2013 – was less a triumph of ingenuity than a model for everything to which an opera production in the twenty-first century might aspire. High in concept, dense in allusion, and overflowing with visual detail, it occupied a previously unimagined space between tradition and reinvention, remaining on the one hand scrupulously faithful to the tone and action of the text while continually uncovering new avenues of meaning and magic in Wagner’s great comedy.
Yet for all its extra-textual innovations, the production was never so beholden to its own concept as to alienate those members of the audience who had come to revisit the familiar story of Hans Sachs and Nürnberg’s guild of singers; and when combined with a well-considered, richly detailed reading of the score from Philippe Jordan, a superb performance from the choir, and a committed ensemble of singers, this Meistersinger – somewhat surprisingly, the first staged version given at the Opéra de Paris in over a quarter century – was an evening of unparalleled musical and theatrical brilliance.
The nature of the creative process stood at the heart of Mr Herheim’s conception, which opened with its central figure – a man in his fifties with Beethoven’s hair and Wagner’s mutton-chops – stumbling around in his nightgown looking for pen and paper. From here the story of Meistersinger unfolded not in St. Catherine’s or the streets of old Nürnberg, but within the different corners, greatly enlarged, of the man’s modest house. Through a combination of video projections and disbelief-inducing stagecraft, the Biedermeier writing desk in the corner was transformed into the church of the first act, while in the second a cabinet and sideboard became the facing houses of Sachs and Pogner, with the bookshelves behind standing in for the buildings of Medieval Nürnberg. Wagner himself, if he squinted, might have even recognised the disposition of the stage. Yet the elaborately constructed world of oversized objects, perfectly realised by set designer Heike Scheele, served as a constant reminder that everything was happening within a fever dream of inspiration.
The central figure imagined himself into this dream world as the poet Hans Sachs, a widower troubled by memories of his dead wife and children (the latter haunted the set in the form of unused toys and oversized children’s books). Yet in Mr Herheim’s telling, the crux of the story rested not in the complex relationship between Sachs and Eva – although the moment in the third act when Eva realises the depth of Sachs’s feelings for her was almost unbearably moving – rather in the adversarial co-existence of Sachs and Beckmesser. With similar hair and identical chops, Beckmesser was Sachs reflected in a distorted mirror, enforcing the notion that within every artist there is a magnanimous poet and a small-minded pedant locked in eternal struggle. But while productions that attempt to shoehorn a last minute rapprochement between Beckmesser and Sachs often seem painfully disingenuous, the eventual resolution of their conflict was, without wishing to spoil the wonderful final scene, not merely well-earned but absolutely essential.
Perhaps the greatest success of Mr Herheim’s staging was its refusal to rest solely on the ingenuity of its concept. Instead, the production thrived on an accumulation of clever visual ideas and an admirably broad network of references ranging from the Grimm Brothers to the Marx Brothers, from Shakespeare to Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, and even some nods in the direction of Hitchcock and Tarkovsky. Admittedly Mr Herheim’s obsession with finding physical expression for each line of dialogue and each note of the score was occasionally distracting, and the first act in particular suffered from periodic bouts of excess movement. Seeing the apprentices fall down when Walther unsheathed his sword was vaguely amusing the first time, but less so with each subsequent appearance. Fortunately the tendency toward exaggeration diminished during the second and third acts, leaving only the compelling theatre of strongly realised characters.
The evening’s performances were, for the most part, equally strong. Anyone used to hearing Hans Sachs sung with warmth, compassion and perhaps a dash of resignation might well have been surprised by Gerald Finley’s volatile, often angry cobbler. Age, in Mr Finley’s reading, had done little to soften Sachs’s poetic temperament – when he discovered David’s basket of flowers and ribbons one could hear regret and longing for lost youth – and his firm, occasionally steely voice captured the torments of an artist struggling to make the necessary sacrifices for his art. Where many would approach the ‘Wahn’ monologue as a momentary cloud of doubt, quickly dispelled, Mr Finley’s performance suggested that the darkness was closer to a default state.
As the flipside of Sachs, the Beckmesser of Bo Skovhus took some getting used to. He seemed, in the first act, somehow too emphatic and too close to caricature, spitting derision to the point of obscuring vocal clarity. If the character didn’t necessarily grow more likeable during the course of the opera, Mr Skovhus’s vocal exaggerations at least settled down, tempering the basic mean-spiritedness with a certain amount of bruised dignity. He was a delight in the poem-stealing scene, and sang with palpable uncertainty during his attempt at the prize song.
The Walther of Brandon Jovanovich and the Eva of Julia Kleiter were both good individually, even if they didn’t make an especially convincing couple. Mr Jovanovich for his part had no problem finding both confidence and inflexibility within the young transplanted nobleman; although clearly capable of summoning tenorial grandeur when necessary – his response to Beckmesser’s ‘Fanget An’ made sure that everyone in the auditorium was paying full attention – there were also welcome notes of humility in his prize song. Ms Kleiter, who sang Eva in Berlin earlier this season, has an earthier tone and an ease of navigation at the lower end of her range that sets her apart from Evas who trade in lightness and purity. What she may have lacked in demure pianissimi was more than offset by the dramatic intuition she brought to her two big scenes with Sachs in the second and third acts, as well as her notably rapt introduction to the quintet.
Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s excellent performance of Magdalene managed, in only a handful of appearances, to find the humanity and inner passions of a character who is all too often reduced to a purely supporting function; and as the object of her affections Toby Spence was in some ways an ideal David, his voice perhaps a touch thin in places, but always energetic and highly expressive. Yet it was Günther Groissböck who, as Veit Pogner, may have given the evening’s finest performance. His delivery was crisp and animated, unencumbered by heaviness but brimming with a warmth and humanity which even Sachs seemed to lack; his speech to the masters in the first act (‘Das schöne Fest, Johannistag’) captured a perfect balance between pride and doubt. It should also be noted that the apprentices were of a very high quality, bringing a lightheartedness to the initial meeting of David and Walther, and that the choir were excellent in their every appearance. Their opening chorale achieved a glowing piety that even a genuine church choir might struggle to emulate, and their tremendous ‘Wach auf’ would have humbled any poet.
Although Philippe Jordan’s musical direction seemed to maintain a conscious distance from the Germanic tradition, dialling back some of the heavy grandeur and heady exuberance, it was impossible not to appreciate his attention to details both orchestral and dramatic. Under his direction, the orchestra maintained a refined sound full of delicate timpani rolls, gently polished brass and woodwind details that are often lost beneath the thick lower strings. Mr Jordan rarely lingered on particular scenes – the roll-call of the masters in act one passed by with an lack of ceremony, and even Sachs’s closing monologue was unusually brisk – but his command of pacing, texture and structure often resulted in moments of surprising clarity. The aftermath of Walther’s audition song can easily turn into an overstuffed shouting match, but Mr Jordan’s patient construction ensured that the individual strands of the scene were never overwhelmed by chaos.
The orchestra maintained their fresh, focussed sound throughout the evening, showing few signs of fatigue; and together with the chorus, they made sure that the final bars served as a joyous encapsulation of why Meistersinger remains such a popular and beloved work. Yet for all the different performances and stagings it has received in the century and a half since its première, Mr Herheim’s production demonstrated that there are still unexplored possibilities to be found within this inexhaustible masterpiece.