Many in the music world see Stefan Herheim as the Great White Hope of opera direction. The Norwegian-born director has established himself as someone who is able not only to strip away the air of familiarity that surrounds established works, but to replace it with something new and suggestive which is, often, entirely fresh. His 2008 Parsifal
for the Bayreuth Festival was genuinely revelatory and exciting, even if you needed a degree in Wagnerology and a Masters in 20th
century German History to understand it. His 2013 Les Vêpres Siciliennes
for Covent Garden, however, was burdened by its over-allusiveness and, for me, has to be classed as a noble failure. This Meistersinger
fills me with doubts, however, and makes me wonder whether the shine has come off his brand.
Like David McVicar’s Glyndebourne production
, Herheim sets the opera in the Biedermeier period in which Wagner grew up and in which the composer first visited Nuremberg. Herheim’s production refers to several events specific to that period such as the maiden voyage of Germany’s first passenger and goods railway, which ran between Nuremberg and Fürth. It makes the not unreasonable point that many of Wagner’s impressions of Nuremberg are garnered from that time period and, therefore, make their way into the mythology of the opera. More controversially, however, he seems to suggest that the opera is taking place inside the imagination of Hans Sachs, here re-imagined as a more universal type of great German figure. Sachs’ study is the first thing we see during the overture, and Acts 1 and 2 take place on enormous upscalings of his furniture — Act 1 on his writing desk, Act 2 in his store — and we regularly see him scribbling furiously. To underscore Sachs as a great German thinker, several classic works of German literature, which also appeared in this period, feature heavily in the stage scheme. A massive volume of Des Knaben Wunderhorn
dominates David’s scene with the apprentices, as does a copy of the Brothers Grimm’s Tales
for the second act, out of which troops a whole cast of characters including Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood. To reinforce this heritage, three busts are placed at the front of the stage: Goethe, Beethoven and a veiled one who is later revealed to be Wagner himself. Schopenhauer’s bust plays a big part in both the second and third acts. After the Quintet, the characters retreat to the side to play with puppets, and we soon see that they are enacting their own version of the Festweise scene that takes place alongside them on a much larger scale. Sachs’ own personal life is explored, too. His true love for Eva is displayed, not least through a portrait of her which he has done himself, and various points suggest that his dividing line between dreams and reality is blurred. More controversially, there is even a suggestion that Sachs and Beckmesser are two halves of the same person, not unlike Wotan and Alberich in The Ring
, or even, perhaps, that the whole opera has been Beckmesser’s dream.
All of which is very clever indeed, and Herheim does pay his audiences the marvellous compliment of treating them as intelligent beings who can decipher his allusions. The problem, though, is that, for me, it strips the opera of its warmth and humanity. This is Wagner’s warmest creation, perhaps one of the most lovable operas of the whole nineteenth century, but here it seems transformed into a combination of an academic exercise and a cleverly worked puzzle. Herheim’s admirers praise him for his willingness to lay several narratives before the audience and allow them to make their own story. Here, however, the effect comes across as rather obscure. Some gestures and devices which are erudite to the point of archness collide with slapstick moves, such as the Masters falling off their stools in the first act when Walther starts to sing, and the effect is jarring. More dangerously, I didn’t think that these were characters I really identified or sympathised with, and, for me, this robbed the opera of most of its heart.
The character who is best drawn, and with whom, I suspect, Herheim has the most sympathy, is Beckmesser. His portrayal is genuinely sympathetic, not smoothing over the unpleasantness, but also drawing out the more pitiable aspects in a way that, more than in any other interpretation I’ve seen, made me feel a little sorry for the way he is treated. He is also given a brilliantly successful musical characterisation from Markus Werba, who approaches the part with long-lined legato and beautiful lyricism, a world away from the meddlesome monster portrayed by many singers. He is also rather funny in the second and third acts, and not above portraying some genuine sanctimoniousness. Roberto Saccà may not be the last word in lyrical beauty, but he makes a good fist of Walther and is far preferable to the likes of Marco Jentzsch at Glyndebourne. Anna Gabler, on the other hand, is finer than she was at Glyndebourne, more inside the notes and, seemingly, happier in the production, too. Peter Sonn sounds good as David, even though much of his stage action makes him rather annoying, and Georg Zeppenfeld radiates authority as Pogner.
The biggest problem in the casting is Michael Volle, who just doesn’t sound comfortable in the role of Sachs. That the voice is still young-sounding is not a problem: his lack of ease with the tessitura is, though. He is particularly stretched in the low writing in Act 3 and he sounds noticeably tired by the end of the evening, sometimes snatching breaths or breaking up the musical line because he cannot hold it. Daniele Gatti uses the Vienna Philharmonic like a chamber ensemble, and they respond very well, producing some glorious sounds, as do the chorus who sound magnificent throughout.
hat’s not enough to redeem what remains a rather cold look at the opera; more a window into how well-read and clever Stefan Herheim is than an exploration of the world Wagner creates. I love Meistersinger
more than I can say – it’s my favourite opera – but I had to force myself through this DVD. Interesting, but not a success.