Die Meistersinger in Wiesbaden

Die Meistersinger in Wiesbaden? Understandably, most Wagner-lovers prefer performances at the bigger, more prestigious, opera houses, but there are sometimes benefits from attending those in – shall we call them – the second division. Of course, one is unlikely to encounter in such theatres internationally experienced, and heavy, Wagnerian voices but, with the notable exception of Sachs, this work does not require them. Then the local orchestra may not, in terms of quality, be the equal of the Leipzig Gewandhaus or Dresden Staatskapelle but, in the hands of an inspiring conductor, can still generate a musically satisfying performance. This was certainly the case with the Hessen State Orchestra under Patrick Lange. Although he abstained from too ostentatious an interpretation, everything that happened on the stage, the picture-painting, the emotional conflicts, the humour and the pathos, flowed from and with the sounds from the pit.

All of the principal singers offered engaging, committed performances. Oliver Zwarg, as Hans Sachs, began somewhat uncertainly but was soon in his stride and, although there were occasional lapses in intonation, and he tired in the second scene of Act Three – which singer of Sachs does not? –  he was vocally assured, varying colour and expression to meet the dramatic context: sardonic bravura for his encouters with Beckmesser; gentle lyricism with Eva; gruff intensity for his inner feelings. And to fulfil the vision of director Bernd Mottl, who placed the role at the centre of an ongoing conflict between new and old, youth and age, order and disorder, conformism and rebellion, he was dramatically superb.  The experienced baritone Thomas De Vries did his best to make something of Beckmesser but could do little to assuage my impatience with this tedious character (along with Baron Ochs my least favourite in opera). Both Marco Jentzsch and Betsy Horne added interesting details to their portrayals of Walther and Eva, and sang strongly with pure tone, though they too tired towards the end. Erik Biegel was a lively, fresh-voiced David, Margareta Joswick an alert and sympathetic Magdalene, while Young Doo Park had the necessary resonance for Pogner. Among the other Mastersingers, Benjamin Russell deserves a mention for his Kothner; his incantation of the rules was sung with malicious relish.

Bernd Mottl’s production was one of the best I have encountered for grappling with the central themes of the piece, while at the same time casting a sceptical eye on its apparent nationalistic thrust and optimistic ending. In this staging, Sachs does not triumphantly reconcile tradition and creativity. Instead, after Walther has rejected membership of the guild, and he and Eva have departed to go their own way, Sachs’ call for those assembled to preserve what is “deutsch und echt” is met with deaf ears and, as the curtain descends, he sinks crestfallen to the ground. In a contemporary setting (designer Friedrich Eggert) the polar forces of tradition and youthful novelty are most clearly delineated. Walther is a long-haired biker who has to accept grudgingly compromise after compromise, culminating in having to don Bavarian jacket and hosen, to win his girl. The Mastersingers are a decrepit bunch of old fogeys clinging on to what is familiar and, in opposition, the apprentices constantly lurch into jazzy and frenetically danced rebellion.

To underscore the conflict, the production contains a number of striking, insightful images. Let me conclude by picking out two of them. In Sachs’ house, after Walther has composed his Prize Song and he and Eva realise there is hope for them and the future, they throw themselves on the bed to make love. Sachs who, after all, has engineered this outcome, has to turn away in his aversion to this “modern” way of behaving. In the final scene, the jubilant crowd’s reaction to the pompous ceremonials is to bring out their mobile phones and capture themselves in front with “selfies”. A radical re-interpretation of Wagner’s intentions? Maybe, but oh so true to the heart and soul of Die Meistersinger.