Wagner's Meistersinger from Bayreuth

Experience Michael Volle's remarkable, outstanding Hans Sachs ...

Wagner's Meistersinger from Bayreuth

When DG made this Meistersinger available for lockdown streaming, it included interviews with the director Barrie Kosky, the conductor Philippe Jordan and the Sachs, Michael Volle. None of these make it to the actual DVD or Bluray one can buy; instead, an essay by Kosky goes some way to explain a production that includes multiple Wagners (including mini-me's) and a trial scene in which it is Wagner himself who is in the dock (at one stage, the clock in the courtroom rather cleverly morphs into a moon for the Sachs/Eva scene). Certainly one can understand the idea of a claustrophobic Wahnfried, the Wagners' residence (the setting for the first act: we are told not only the date, August 13, 1875, but also that the time as the action commences is 12:45 and the temperature is "a pleasant" 23 C).

Various characters are aligned to Wagner's inner circle and even Wagner himself. Sachs is the Meister Richard Wagner himself; Pogner is Franz Liszt; Cosima Wagner, Richard's wife, is aligned to Eva; Sixtus Beckmesser is the conductor Hermann Levi. The parallel is that both Wahnfried and Nuremberg are insular societies; and of course Meistersinger is the story of an outsider (Walther von Stolzing), but also of the inner and outer struggles of the cobbler, Hans Sachs, and of course it is a story of love. The nexus between comedy and a discomforted audience is explored here in depth, with the idea of the trial itself bringing in images of the Nazi war trials after World War II in a courtroom of the Nuremberg Palace of Justice.

Amazingly, the performance is available in full (four hours 55 minutes!) on YouTube, but one really needs the full DVD/bluray experience (it fits on one bluray, of course) :

(It is worthwhile glancing at some of the comments for this video, though, just to get an idea of how the production polarises opinion.)

The longest opera in the repertoire, Die Meistersinger is nevertheless popular through its light touch, its often transparent scoring and its comedy (it's not Wagner's only one: he wrote Das Liebesverbot at the age of 21). Wagner sets Meistersinger amongst an ancient community of Guilds - more than just groups of artisans, these collections of craftsmen were actually the precursors of groups such as the  Freemasons, with elaborate rituals and specific "greetings". The clear "wise man"/elder is Hans Sachs (a real historical personage), himself in love with Eva. Sachs' apprentice, David, is in love with Magdalene. There are twelve Mastersingers, including Sachs the Cobbler, their specialisations ranging from baker (Fritz Kothner) to "Zinngießer" (pewterer - Balthasar Zorn) and "Strumpfwirker" (stocking weaver - Hans Schwarz).

Die Meistersinger is the only Wagner title that refers to a collective and indeed there is a matryoshka doll of groupings here, which seems to whittle down to the singleton Sachs: around him are the Mastersingers; and around them is the Volk, the German people. With its final hymn to German Art and its tale of an elitist few into which the interloper, the Franconian knight Walther von Stolzing, seeks entry, it is no wonder the piece especially appealed to the Nazi sensibility (the interested reader who wishes to explore the influences of Wagner over history is directed to Alex Ross' huge new book, Wagnerism: please note that the link below nets a discount of around a tenner!).

The piece - and this production - is dominated by Hans Sachs. Michael Volle is in many ways the ideal interpreter of this role, living every word, and Klaus Florian Vogt's sweet, almost Italianate tenor is perfect for Walther. The role of Beckmesser is almost always taken as a caricature of the pernickity critic: instead, Johannes Martin Kränzle gives a reading of great character in which we feel this is a real person, not a cardboard cut-out.

Kosky's conception works exceptionally well in that it is far form mono-dimensional. For all the "cleverness" of the Wahnfried conceit, repeated viewings confirm it to be consistently illuminating. If I prefer the Magdalene of Weibke Lehmkuhl to the Eva of Anne Schwanewilms (who I have heard do marvellous things elsewhere, in a recital of Mahler, Richard Strauss and Liszt at the Wigmore Hall and in the closing scene from Strauss' Capriccio at the Barbican), and if the small but significant appearances of the Nightwatchman (Georg Zeppenfeld) seem rushed by Jordan (one of my few reservations of his conducting), this remains a strong cast and a phenomenally well conducted performance. The great choral moments of the final act are wonderful, the Bayreuth chorus on top form (there's a bit of a surprise I won't spoil). But it is the Sachs of Michael Volle that is simply revelatory, his great monologues true highlights of the performance..