As much as I might enjoy the paradox in seeking out real situations that recall a work which is for many the ultimate in escapism, I admired Tankred Dorst’s efforts to bring Wagner’s mythology into our own world. Dorst recognizes that mythology and the divine are present everywhere, largely because of the consistency of human behavior.
I won’t even say that I wish that, in beginning with Katharina Wagner’s production of Die Meistersinger, I was starting on a cheerful note. Nothing of the kind. Katharina has studiously avoided her great grandfather’s romanticized Nürnberg, where great artistic, literary, and musical achievement lurked around every corner, where the citizens dressed colorfully, where the men engaged in witty exchanges, while the girls joyfully gave themselves over the dancing, if not to their young men, at every opportunity. She has, rather, chosen to focus on the repressive nature of this conservative society, as embodied in the guild system, the obsessive power of routine in daily life, its neuroses, and, yes, its nightmares. Having a certain penchant for black humor and oddity, I entered with pleasure into my five-hour visit to this frightening and pitiable world, and I laughed, quite a bit, which, I should hope, is the desired result of any Meistersinger production. If my laughter was a trifle sour at times, it’s not entirely alien from the sarcastic wit of Wagner’s libretto. Hence, I am pleased to say that Katharina Wagner won her war, buoyed up by a splendid vocal, orchestral, and comedic performance, which had its own vigorous life, no matter how strange the goings-on on stage. And, if one is open-minded enough not to resist these, one can expect to gain a fair bit of insight into human nature, history, and Richard Wagner’s comic masterpiece.
I had originally planned this commentary simply to let you, our readers, know about the changes in our usual coverage for the remainder of the summer: Larry Wallach, Seth Lachterman, and Keith Kibler will bravely continue their coverage of summer festivals in the Berkshires and Hudson Valley, while I visit Bayreuth, to review the entire 2010 season: Tankred Dorst’s production of the Ring, along with the controversial productions of Parsifal (Stefan Herheim, 2008), Die Meistersinger (Katharina Wagner, 2007), and Lohengrin (Hans Neuenfels, 2010). I left my rat-catching gear at home, not wishing to incur overweight charges and thinking it might be cheaper simply to purchase the necessaries here, but all the ratting supply stores in Bayreuth are sold out of equipment, and I realize that I simply have to remain unrattled, while the rodents run free.
Simon Rattle Conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the Love Scene from Roméo et Juliette and Wagner’s Tristan, Act II
Point taken. Whenever period orchestras venture far beyond the Baroque, they have something to prove. But at last night’s concert of Wagner and Berlioz by the esteemed Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, some of the proof was self-evident. Banished completely are the intonation problems that plagued such ensembles in the past; one felt secure in the technical abilities of every section; the wind soloists played as expressively as anyone could wish. London is a center for period performance, which has become beloved. Sir Simon Rattle has conducted Act II of Tristan, in concert with the forces of Berlin and Vienna, but it’s good to be flexible, and since he enjoys a long-standing rapport with the OAE, they were a comfortable fit.
“Sachs, mein Freund!” Bryn Terfel has sung extracts from Hans Sachs’s music for years, and the character always seemed well suited to his warm voice and air of easy humanity. But he didn’t unveil the complete role until this season, in the very production of Die Meistersinger that visited the Proms last night. Terfel proudly puts Welshman after his name, and he promised the country’s National Opera that they would get his first Sachs. Six thousand listeners in Albert Hall spent most of the afternoon and evening for the privilege, just over six hours (imagine the ones in the arena who had to stand), with scarcely a handful leaving early. Terfel raises sheep at home, and it takes a golden fleece to hear him in Covent Garden, the Met, or Salzburg. Here he was cheap as chips but musically priceless.
Although Wagner, never able to give up his bitterness over the failure of Tannhaüser, may have taken nothing but bitter memories of Paris to his grave, his later music, including the Ring, enjoyed a devoted and extensive following in France. At last year’s Bard Festival André Dombrowsky explored the popularization of his music through simplified piano arrangements for domestic use, and Larry Bensky discussed Wagner’s role in Proust’s life and imagination. The French can look back to distinguished tradition in Wagner production, and today Wagner is as alive in Toulouse and Lyon as it is in Paris. Nonetheless, productions of the Ring have been rather sparse at the Paris Opera: the first, sung in French translation and conducted by André Messager, did not occur until 1911 (Rheingold 1909). The second, this time in German and conducted by one of the most authoritative German Wagner conductors, Hans Knappertsbusch, came forty-four years later, in 1955! There was Peter Stein production of Das Rheingold in 1976 under Solti, which never developed into a full Ring Cycle. The Ring production initiated by this Rheingold is a historical first, as the first production of the work for the Opéra Bastille, which opened in 1989, and the first complete Ring by the Paris Opera since 1957. With a German production team and a Swiss conductor, Philippe Jordan, 35, who is now concluding his first season as Music Director, the Paris Opera continues its post-war tradition of gathering its Wagnerian talent east of the Rhine. (It is worth noting at this point that Pierre Boulez, one of the great living Wagner conductors, has never conducted the Ring in his native France.)
This full realization of the Ring as drama became the unifying principle of the production, as it was perhaps meant to be, but unified musical direction was lacking—the greatest challenge the participants faced—since the Music Director of the Staatskapelle, Fabio Luisi, who is now basking in adulation in New York—justifiably, as it would seem from his sensitive reading of Berg’s Lulu—summarily cancelled his engagements with the orchestra, following a set-to with the Intendant, Gerd Uecker. (We are interested in music drama here, and this is not the place to tell this unpleasant story.) In the end, Luisi was not greatly missed, although the most significant shortcomings of the Ring as a whole stemmed from the weaknesses of one of the three conductors who took over the Maestro’s responsibilities. On the contrary, the audience had ample reason to rejoice in Asher Fisch’s energetic and visceral Siegfried, and, even better, in the discovery of an extraordinary new talent, Jonas Alber, who, at 41, is little known outside Germany
Schopenhauer’s saying that “a man can do as he will, but not will as he will” has been an inspiration to me since my youth up, and a continual consolation and unfailing well-spring of patience in the face of the hardships of life, my own and others. —Albert Einstein, The World as I See It (1940)