Since it was premièred in 1868, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg has accumulated a greater weight of negative baggage than any other major opera. Notorious as a vehicle for Nazi propaganda, its essential core of humanity and plea for tolerance is often obscured. For all its strengths, Kasper Holten’s direction in this co-production between Opera Australia, Royal Opera House Covent Garden and the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing does little to focus attention on the values Wagner was seeking to promote.
It is tempting for directors to look for new ways of presenting operas that are regularly performed– at least outside Australia – and, arguably, they have a right to present a work in a context that takes into account the experience of contemporary audiences. The 1930s has become a popular setting for directors seeking so-called relevance and can be better justified in this case by the opera’s history, but this choice further consolidates a confusing distortion.
The Act 1 set is a blend of an Art Deco gentlemen’s club and the solid timber structure of a 16th century guildhall. It is a place of handsome respectability that generally works effectively for the staging of most of this Act. Following a buoyant workmanlike Prelude with curtain down, the opening chorus was a glorious outburst. The quasi-Lutheran hymn is treated as a choir rehearsal, with various pieces of business setting a comic tone. Both in this Act and Act 3, the chorus is compactly gathered on tiers placed reasonably well forward on the stage. This arrangement promotes solid, stirring vocal splendour.
Having male and female chorus members presented as men dressed in suits is a foretaste of the feminist reading that has its culmination at the very end of the opera, but excludes the possibility of Eva and her maid Magdalene being part of the choir. This led to some awkward and unconvincing interactions between them and Eva’s suitor, Walther von Stolzing. Amid the conventional costumes, Anja Vang Kragh’s decision to dress him in jeans, flowered shirt and tailcoat jacket marks him as an aristocratic outsider. It might not quite gel with the rest of the design, but aligns with Walther as a hybrid persona flouting convention.
Stefan Vinke’s ringing Heldentenor also sets the character apart. His is a rather compressed vocal production but his voice has a burnished lustre that was maintained throughout the many repetitions of Walther’s winning song. And it was not all unrelieved heroic power either. Vinke also has the capacity to sing softly, most notably in the Act 3 quintet, when he joined Natalie Aroyan (Eva), Dominica Matthews (Magdalena), Nicholas Jones (David) and Michael Kupfer-Radecky (Hans Sachs) in beautifully blended harmony. Spotlit against a darkened background, they created just the magical moment that Wagner must have intended.
There were other such highlights too. Pietari Inkinen’s nuanced care with Orchestra Victoria was a feature of the orchestral Interlude that follows the quintet. Beginning with warm concord from the lower strings, there was refined playing from all sections. Another strikingly beautiful moment came in Act 2 with horns at their mellow best as Sachs muses on the nature of art. Kupfer-Radecky gave a fairly restrained but sensitive interpretation of the cobbler poet. His voice has something of the quality of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s: fine-grained and velvety – the sort you could listen to all night, which is just as well given the four-and-a-half-hour length of the opera.
Natalie Aroyan also has the kind of voice that is a sheer pleasure to hear. There was nothing in the role of Eva that was not within the easy capacity of her full, creamy tone. She is dramatically accomplished even though she did have the dubious task of convincing us that a girl who agrees to being given away by her father to the winning Meistersinger, or remain unwed, would ultimately reject the man she loves because he succumbs to the vanities of being admitted to their ranks. Mind you, the ecstatic look on Stefan Vinke’s face as the honour was eventually conferred was extraordinarily egocentric; Eva was no longer on his radar.
All principal singers had much to recommend them. Daniel Sumegi’s strong bass and imposing stature gave him suitable authority as Eva’s father, the goldsmith Veit Pognor. The fresh tenor of Nicholas Jones enhanced the youthful zest of his portrayal of Sachs’ bumbling apprentice, David, and complemented Domenica Matthews’ firm-voiced reliability as his love interest, Magdalena.
It was no surprise to me that Warwick Fyfe was given the most enthusiastic reception from the audience, even if he himself seemed a little taken aback. His interpretation of Beckmesser, the pedantic rival for Eva’s hand, was another triumph – one that recalled his earlier success as Alberich in OA’s Ring. There are several factors that the two roles share, not the least of which is the accusation that both are denigrating caricatures of Jews – (although I have yet to see a convincing argument to support this contention). The two do share certain characteristics, made even more concrete in this production by Fyfe wearing a singlet at the end of this opera, just as he had as Alberich. We also feel some pity for their ultimate humiliation.
Links to his other operas appear in the libretto. Wagner makes an explicit connection to his Tristan and Isolde when Sachs explains his decision to resist entering the singing competition for Eva’s hand; despite loving her he says that he does not want to end up like King Marke. The curious idea that Eva and Walther have fallen in love and are willing to elope one day after they have met is partly explained by her reference to his portrait – shades of Senta’s infatuation with the Flying Dutchman’s portrait.
As to some of the allusions in the staging, it is debatable whether the extravagance of the brawl scene, which concludes Act 2, can be justified. The vast array of fantastical costumes and the mechanical intricacies of the rotating set are visually stunning – but do they add meaning? I think they do up to a point. It is like seeing an historical pageant, from the time of pagan myth onwards, as images of war and cataclysmic upheaval are referenced. At the beginning of the following Act, Sachs reflects on what it is in human nature that gives way to such chaos; it is a central theme that surely should having acted as a warning to Hitler. Perhaps what was most extraordinary during the mayhem was how effectively Inkinen managed to ensure musical clarity in the choral fugue. Art triumphed after all.
A strong beginning, some messy staging in the middle of the opera, a spectacular Act 2 finale and a satisfyingly inventive procession of the guilds in Act 3 made for a mixed bag as far as direction goes. Musically, it was uniformly strong with some outstanding performances. Altogether, it is a rare opportunity that should not be missed.
Heather Leviston attended the opening night of Opera Australia’s production of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” at Arts Centre Melbourne on November 13, 2018. This season of “Die Meistersinger” is dedicated to the memory of Richard Gill AO. The last performance is on November 22.