By ZACHARY WOOLFE
Günther Groissböck, seated, as the goldsmith Pogner in Barrie Kosky’s staging of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” at the Bayreuth Festival.
Credit Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuth Festspiele
BAYREUTH, Germany — Is “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” — Wagner’s only mature comedy, playing this summer at the Bayreuth Festival in a savvy new staging by Barrie Kosky — its composer’s gentlest piece or his harshest? It is certainly the Wagner opera with the most vexed afterlife.
When the festival, which this peerlessly megalomaniac composer founded as a vehicle for his works in 1876, reopened after the First World War in 1924, the audience rose to its feet for the choral finale of “Meistersinger,” a paean to the purity of “holy German art,” then sang “Deutschland Über Alles.” The opening of the newly elected Reichstag after Hitler rose to power in 1933 was capped with a performance of the opera in Berlin. In 1938, the order to destroy the synagogue in Nuremberg — on Hans-Sachs-Platz, which shares the name of the opera’s kindly protagonist — was given with words from the libretto: “Fanget an!” (“Begin!”)
How does a seemingly sweet-minded fantasia about love, cobblers and 16th-century song contests become a Nazi favorite? For one thing, that fantasy is of an ethnically pure (and utterly imaginary) antique Germany for which Wagner, and Hitler after him, was endlessly nostalgic. The villain, a pedantic town clerk, has characteristics that evoke certain anti-Semitic stereotypes; at the end of the opera, Hans Sachs darkly warns Nuremberg about external threats to its unpolluted culture. “Die Meistersinger” was easily made to function as nationalistic agitprop.
This has made it a complicated piece to present since the Second World War, its glowing music and emotional warmth coexisting with politics that are problematic, to say the least. Many directors, particularly at Bayreuth, have taken pains to show their consciousness of this. And yet a “Meistersinger” staging can veer too far into jackboots and Hitler salutes: It’s possible to overplay the work’s own history.
Alert to these issues and intellectually agile, Mr. Kosky, the artistic leader of Berlin’s Komische Oper and the first Jewish director in the Bayreuth Festival’s 141-year history, has created a concept that, at the second performance on Monday, stepped gracefully around the work’s potential land mines.
He begins in the library at Wahnfried, the Wagner family’s home in Bayreuth, where the composer liked to unveil his works in virtuosic one-man performances, hourslong salon affairs for friends and family. So this “Meistersinger” stars Wagner and his circle, including an odd proliferation of men who come climbing out of the piano and look, well, exactly like him, at different ages.
This conveniently allows Wagner to be simultaneously the mature Sachs, whom the beautiful Eva respects, and the young Walther, whom she loves. Of Cosima, Wagner’s wife, the composer once said, “I have married Eva”: That casting is set. The composer and pianist Franz Liszt (Cosima’s father, in real life) plays Veit Pogner (Eva’s father in the opera). The conductor Hermann Levi, accused of an affair with Cosima and humiliated by Wagner because he was Jewish, is here the clerk Beckmesser, who pines for Eva and is humiliated because he is Jewish.
Art, life and politics are all in the mix as the action unfolds in a jovially surreal combination of Wagner’s late 19th century, the libretto’s 16th, and the 20th-century Nuremberg courtroom in which Nazi war criminals were tried. The settings (by Rebecca Ringst, with costumes by Klaus Bruns and lighting by Franck Evin) aren’t those of the libretto, but Mr. Kosky plays the opera mostly straight, as if the composer were sketching his intentions in the midst of a cross-chronological fever dream.
When Mr. Kosky diverges from the text, it’s often evocative. The riot that Beckmesser sets off at the end of the second act is here an eerie pogrom. When it’s over, the clerk puts on an oversize, sneering, hooknosed puppet head, complete with side curls and skullcap, and dances gingerly as an even larger version of the head slowly inflates next to him. It then deflates as the serene music of the night watchman plays and the curtain falls. The scene is one of shame and exclusion more than overt violence, and is the more powerful for that.
Mr. Kosky is well versed in Bayreuth history. Starting his second act with light illuminating a disc of grassy meadow in a vast darkness, he nods at the influential 1956 “Meistersinger” of Wieland Wagner, the composer’s grandson, which rejected realistic settings — and the politics with which they’d become associated — in favor of a stylized nocturne. The bobblehead Beckmesser winks at Katharina Wagner’s 2007 “Meistersinger,” with its bobblehead German cultural icons.
And the overall concept recalls perhaps the most important Bayreuth production since Patrice Chéreau’s centennial “Ring” cycle of the late 1970s: Stefan Herheim’s “Parsifal,” first seen in 2008. Mr. Herheim’s staging, like Mr. Kosky’s, has its roots at Wahnfried, then traces the tangled histories of Germany and the festival over the eventful century after Wagner’s death.
But Mr. Kosky’s work is lower-key than Mr. Herheim’s, just as “Meistersinger” is more earthbound than “Parsifal.” And Philippe Jordan led an appropriately low-key performance, acute in its pacing without racing, and never too bombastic.
Michael Volle was an eloquent Sachs, his moods as changeable as Wagner’s are said to have been. Günther Groissböck was a booming Pogner, and Johannes Martin Kränzle a Beckmesser balanced between sensitivity and buffoonery. As Walther, Klaus Florian Vogt grew in clarity and power through the performance, but his eerily pure voice easily soured into thinness and strain. (Daniel Behle, as the apprentice David, had a more rounded tenor.) For all of Anne Schwanewilms’s mild dignity as Eva, her sound was tired and worn.
The final clever trick of Mr. Kosky’s staging is to place the opera’s notorious ending in Wagner’s own mouth. (That is, in the mouth of a Sachs who looks just like Wagner.) Alone onstage — back to the one-man show — at the courtroom’s witness stand, he puts on a kind of solo rally, bitterly warning of the foreign incursions that menace Germany. Then the back of the set flies up and an orchestra and chorus slide in on a stage-size platform for him to conduct in the final anthem.
Mr. Kosky sidesteps responsibility: It’s Wagner on trial here at Nuremberg, he seems to be saying, not those who perform or watch him. It’s an adroit move (one of many in the staging) that proves this director’s point, that this opera is Wagner’s mouthpiece, both when it’s humane and when it’s malignant.