The prospect of sitting in a not too comfortable chair for about 5 1/2 hours is not necessarily attractive but sometimes you just have to brave it…
Wagner – not necessarily a composer high on top of my list but I was intrigued by the new production that Kasper Holten put together as his farewell.
Having been to the Insights event that was put on with Pappano, Willis Sorensen, Terfel, Hughes Jones and Holten himself back a few weeks ago I was actually really excited to be going to the opera on this occasion. It was very eye-opening talk about this monstrosity of an opera. Holten explained his motivation behind the setting of the opera in current London which seemed rather interesting. During this evening I was remembered the presentation that I did in secondary school about Wagner in the historic context. Not only was his music revolutionary – he was part of the revolution himself. It most certainly was a very was a very interesting and important part in German history. It wasn’t until 1848 that there was a certain sense of national pride developing and then finally in 1871 that Germany was formed the closest that we know as the country now. With this historic context in mind it is a little more understandable that Wagners music and text can be interpreted in the wrong way…. you will see later why I bring this up now…
With the first few bars of the Ouverture, which are of course more than well know, the whole scene is set – mighty oak trees on a village square somewhere in rural Germany – that is what comes to mind. Well, not in this production… As mentioned it was set in London – though I have to say that it is not necessarily obvious that it is meant to be in a differnt country to Germany. Holten was inspired by his first experiences when he came to London in 2011. The sheer contrasts between old and new are just remarkable in London – and this is what Wagner basically is about as well – honouring tradition but trying to break with it at the same time. The whole Pomp and Circumstance that you can still find in the UK – some traditions dating back hundreds of years… In a documentary I recently heard that one particular group of people in the Houses of Parliament are still wearing black waistcoats as they are mourning Prince Albert – he passed away a mere 156 years ago!! Yet, London is also a city of modernism. Holten vividly described being invited to a Gentlemen’s Club – and no, this is not some sort of dodgy establishment! In “Club Country” ( around Pall Mall and Mayfair) there are lots of these exclusive clubs – charging extortionate membership fees, only men are allowed to become members, women can visit but only if dressed up in evening wear, the list goes on…. you see – there are similarities with the Mastersinger Guild of 1860s Nuernberg…
The curtain finally opens and the stage reveals the interior of some sort of club where you get a sense of rules that are in place and you should stick with them. Walther von Stolzing enters and Eva and him are visibly falling in love immediately. The energy between the whole cast was absolutely remarkable!
Act 1 was just beautiful – it gave you the feeling of getting an exclusive glimpse into a world of its own. Whilst the Mastersingers go through their agenda for the evening and Walter is planning on trying to join the guild, they are being served up a lavish three course dinner. Working in hospitality myself and having extensive experience within a upper class environment it was a very real depiction of what is going in those exclusive clubs in London. Hats of to the cast – the chorus singers as servers and of course the Mastersingers themselves. Sixtus Beckmesser, sung by Johannes Martin Kraenzle, was depicting a character that would make me cringe if were to have him as a customer in a restaurant – his attention to detail to be a rather creepy, obsessive old gentleman. This first act went by so quickly and one was very much excited about finding out how the whole things was going to continue.
Act 2 was dominated by Beckmesser trying to serenade Eva and horribly failing. Of course this gives Hans Sachs some food for thought of the power of poetry. With the festivities of Johannisfest the next day this part of the opera finishes with a hell of a midsummer nights feast! You didn’t quite know what was happening and I didn’t know where to look first. I won’t go into too much details – just in case someone plans on going themselves… It was a feast for the eye – even though it was very provoking! Little Wagnerian side kicks as well as mythical references were made and it was quite a spectacle. The interval was much needed to get you down from this high.
The last act was probably the one where you were able to tell that the opera was set in a more contemporary frame. The stage was very slowly rotated – revealing the mechanics of the machinery -without any covering up. The costumes of the Mastersingers were hanging on rails… there is the facade and the reality… Once the festivities for the Johannisfest had started it did feel like a proper German Volksfest. A lovely little touch was that the off stage trumpets and drums were actually in the auditorium. The trumpets were up in the amphitheatre and the drums in the stalls – I felt like I was part of the people at the Fest looking at this masquerade of the Mastersingers. It was rather hilarious to watch this whole Saengerkrieg unfold in front of your eyes. The way Beckmesser got humiliated was very poignant – certainly an ironic remark what and how can happen these days… Of course the most crucial moment is when von Stolzing refuses to take the honour of becoming a Meistersinger which really upsets Hans Sachs. Holten has left Sachs’ last aria in the opera – which is a very powerful piece of music – not necessarily in the right way!! In a nutshell everything German needs to remain German and should not be watered down by anything foreign and any revolts of any sort. Well, as a German this doesn’t sit too well with me… I really enjoyed the opera up until this point but this last aria left me a little bit speechless and in shock. It was something that I needed to digest and think about first. Thanks to history of the 1930s and 1940s Germans are not likely to be proud of the nationality. Yet, in 1868, the year of the first perfomance of this opera, this was a whole different story. Only 3 years after Germany came into existence as the country we know today. Before then it was not one country but a collection of small counties, kingdoms etc who were looking for a common identity. Wagner was one of the leading figures of this movement so it is not a surprise that is music is so Germanic and sadly was misused in later years. Whilst it was a little upsetting at first I think I can see the aria for what it is in the artistic context and leave it there.
The orchestra under Pappano’s baton was superb! Well, and the cast – no words are needed! What was fascinating – as this was a new production – whilst Holten had his vision, it wasn’t fixed. So him and, especially the lead singers, were spending a lot of time talking through the opera and getting there input to come up with a very harmonious staging. For me personally you could really feel that the singers made the roles their own and put their soul into it – every little grimace and twinkle in the eye had a reason. As cheesy as it might sound – they all were one big family. Willis Sorensen, even though she is a very recent addition at the Royal Opera House, felt like she had been working with both Terfel and Hughes Jones for years! It really was remarkable! One thing does need to be said though – the only one I could really understand was Sir Bryan. The diction of the other singers was not necessarily at their best and as a native German I needed to refer to the English titles as well.
Whilst I can understand that some people might be offended by some of the staging I personally was positively surprised and would certainly go again to this production. I was very hesitant in finally tackling a long Wagner but it was the shortest 5hrs 35 mins ever. This just proves that with a decent production a long opera can be fun – I would go as far as to say that it is suitable for an operatic novice.
Kinder Schafft Neues!!