A few clever touches, some worthy singing: yet a general inconsistency

 

DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NURNBERG

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

November 17

Hans Sachs

                                                                  Hans Sachs

Wagner’s long comedy opera made a welcome step up in stature from a year’s work in Melbourne by the national company that raised few anticipatory frissons.   Yes, this co-production between Opera Australia, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts came with a controversial reputation but there’s no absolute disadvantage in that; Bayreuth itself opened the directorial floodgates in the post-World War Two years, not least with a startling reworking of The Mastersingers by Wieland Wagner which worked against the historical pageantry that coloured the composer’s original vision.

Kasper Holten’s direction, Mia Stensgaard’s sets and Anja Vang Kragh’s costumes were intended to fuse coherently, offering new situational and temporal situations through which to filter a libretto that is one of the composer’s more satisfying literary products and a score that rarely falters in its warm fluency and burnished brilliance.   But the new look didn’t work as well as it might have and all attempts at following Wagner’s overpowering resolution disappeared with a dumb-show that was probably meant to offer a sharp comment on the opera’s innate sexism but impressed me as dramatically under-cooked and theatrically inept.

In the central role of Hans Sachs, the Nuremberg civic father-figure, Michael Kupfer-Radecky coped laudably, given that he came into the production at a week’s notice.   OA’s own Shane Lowrencev had to withdraw, he himself a replacement for the scheduled American bass-baritone James Johnson.   Third time more-or-less lucky although the German singer got off to a pedestrian start, taking an easy ride through the conclave in Act 1 where he alone takes up the cause of the stroppy young knight.

He showed to better effect in the second act, although Sachs has the great advantage of interacting one-on-one with several of the main players, if in short bursts with some.  Nevertheless, the Wie duftet doch der Flieder musing on his own situation made for a moving and convincing hiatus in the action and Sachs’ dialogue with Beckmesser came across without the usual heavy-handed jocularity, the two cobbling verses – Als Eva aus dem Paradies and O Eva! Hor mein Klageruf – impressing for their irony more than irritating because of the customary superficial bluster.

Luckily, Kupfer-Radecky kept his best for Act 3; not just the Wahn! soliloquy, although I have to say he moved through that with more ease and impulse than many a more famous interpreter.   But the arc from Sachs’ opening distraction to the wise resolution in the character’s words during the moving quintet made a gift of the first scene.   Further, Sachs’ none-too-subtle machinations leading towards the Preislied‘s final statement came across with a happy naturalness, Kupfer-Radecky leading the whole corps to the blazing C Major triumph of the final bars with resonant insistence, even through that unpleasant nationalist stanza beginning Verachtet mir die Meister nicht.

As Walther, Stefan Vinke played a down-at-heel aristocrat with little grace.   The disaster of his initial gambit, So rief der Lenz in den Wald, worked well enough as the singer tore the passion to tatters with a delivery that stormed along its way with a fine lack of concern for subtlety.   That’s quite comprehensible; the young man is all emotion and unalloyed vapouring at this point.   Still, the lack of dynamic interest was worrying and you felt somehow on the side of the dismissive collegium.

Vinke had little to deal with in the central act and coped with its lack of demands manfully, sustaining in his few lines the personality of a young noble sprig who shouldn’t get his own way because of an inbuilt selfishness.    With the help of Sachs, of course, he manages to cobble together a song for the climactic competition and the many verses that Walther gives us betrayed a voice getting more and more tired.   In the first scene of Act 3, Vinke attempted a soft high note with unhappy results; he was much happier belting out the later, more hectic strophes of each third to his popularly-acclaimed Preislied.

Of course, the point where the assembly hears Morgenlich leuchtend in its final form is a superb passage, the crowd’s enthusiasm growing until it erupts in an irrepressible furore.  Vinke’s high As rang out with a firm clangour and he contrived to stay on the right side of rhapsody.    Yet the song lacked an underpinning sympathy; it seemed to be subject to strain, occasionally hurled out with a lack of even delivery across the phrases.   A good effort, I suppose, but with the emphasis on the noun.

As Beckmesser, Warwick Fyfe worked with considerable insight by making this unpleasant character quite human, particularly in Act 1.   Usually, the Marker’s pedantry contrasts poorly with Walther’s gallantry and high-mindedness but you could find excuses for Beckmesser’s spite, in particular when Fyfe made it clear that the man was offended and nonplussed by the neophyte’s complete disregard for the Mastersingers’ Tabulature.  Beckmesser’s attempt to serenade Eva was carried through without resorting to the whining silliness that European houses have tolerated for far too long.

Of course, both here and in the disastrous attempt to sing the text he inveigled from Sachs, Beckmesser is handicapped by Wagner’s pointless melismata and his own uncomprehending mangle of Walther’s poem.   But Fyfe did a commendable job of singing pretty straight, not indulging in much distortion or conscious vocal slapstick, holding his own when confronting Sachs on his ‘dishonesty’ and then trying to ensure that there would be no repercussions or public revelations that would counter his run at the prize.    Almost alone among his colleagues, this Beckmesser brought an animation to every line; you were faced with a personality, if an unattractive one, that expressed the baser emotions without resorting to cheap effects.

Nicholas Jones’ David appealed as attractively buoyant, at his best in that instructional dialogue in Act 1 where the apprentice aims to teach Walther ‘the rules’ of writing a song. This young tenor’s German came across very clearly, a model for some of his colleagues. He stayed just the right side of bearably put upon in the solo and consequent dialogue with Sachs that opens Act 3, later holding his own in the Selig, wie die Sonne quintet.  Mind you, he had to put up with much of his character’s comedy cut or barely credible because of the updating wished upon him by director Holten, but his sharp-as-a-pin characterization lit up some pedestrian pages in the outer acts.

She gets to appear in all the acts and has some contributions to make in each one, but the heroine Eva gets very little solo exposure.    Natalie Aroyan made each line count with an admirable clarity, sticking to the conductor’s beat with more consistency than some of her colleagues.    But Eva’s output is often restricted to quick dialogue as she admits to her love for Walther in Act 1, tries to glean information from Sachs in Act 2, although she enjoys a shining moment when eulogising the old man and trusting that all will turn out for the best.   Not a performance that attracted attention but persuasive for its bursts –  often just a quatrain – of ardour.

Eva’s nurse, Magdalena, has less to do; even so, Dominica Matthews was hard to fault, particularly as her most extended passage of play came during a weighty ensemble.   Like several others in the cast, she laboured under directorial and costuming constraints, not to mention a clumsy entrance and exit in the apprentices’ Johannistag! scene.

Among the other ten Mastersingers, many familiar names showed up – Luke Gabbedy, John Longmuir, Kanen Breen, Robert Macfarlane, Michael Honeyman, Gennadi Dubinsky – but to my ears the performance’s outstanding male voice belonged to Daniel Sumegi, who gave sterling service as Pogner.

Sumegi served notice of his pre-eminence in a powerful and warm reading of Nun hort, und versicht mich recht where the character gives notice of why he is putting his daughter up as prize for the final of Nuremberg’s Got Talent.   From here on, you could take pleasure in every line from Pogner: his introduction of Walther, the later post-attempt vacillation, and the self-doubts and justifications  at the start of Act 2.   Even the singer’s few solo apostrophes in the last scene added to the opera’s humane breadth.

Inkinen brought out the best in an expanded Orchestra Victoria, especially the high strings which generally sound thin but, even faced with Wagner’s hefty brass, soared through the overture with an unexpected clarity and precise articulation that was rarely found wanting in the long hours ahead.    Being seated on the State Theatre’s left side, I enjoyed plenty of exposure to the horns, but flaws from that section proved remarkably few.    Above all, the conductor exercised firm control over his pit, even if some principals found themselves behind the beat on occasions, while the chorus showed a tendency to rush forward at animated moments.

So, a fairly satisfying vocal and instrumental outlining of the work with no signs of fatigue except from Vinke, over-energised in the last act.   But, as soon as the curtain rose, the production’s viewpoint(s) raised many questions.

You weren’t faced with St. Katherine’s Church but the interior of a gentlemen’s club – well, maybe.   No congregation sang the opening chorale but a group dressed in business suits – even the females – who belted the hymn out with little subtlety.   An onstage conductor led them and an unidentified man sitting at a desk took the choir’s plaudits after the piece had finished.  This latter could have been the chorale’s putative composer, but you were not sure.   The choir went off.  Were they club members?  An ensemble that used the place for rehearsals?   No reason presented itself and this was only a few minutes into the opera proper.

Unlike the original staging, Eva is not hanging around the church waiting for Walther to approach; she’s being fitted for her wedding dress in this catch-all venue, while Magdalena supervises – not so much a nurse as a secretary, and not confined to Eva’s concerns, it seems, but the club’s as well.   David is not top dog among the apprentices but a head of staff for the club.   Walther enters, looking like a 1960s Woodstock scruff.   The declarations of love are made while the staff busy themselves primping and prinking the club’s surrounds.  Tables are set up for the Mastersingers’ meal.    The men themselves enter, dressed as masons, complete with gauntlet cuffs, aprons and medallions of office.

So far, you’ve been asked to face nothing too ridiculous.   You can easily take on board the concept of the guild as a secret society, an idea reinforced by the insistence on rules and regulations., and later on, the rejection – with the exception of Sachs the Tolerant – of Walther’s new art.

When Act 2 gets under way properly, it has none of the staging that the original requires: no corner houses of Pogner and Sachs, only symbolic trees/shrubs, no divided door for the cobbler’s workshop, no elder tree, no windows.   We’re a long way from a street scene; indeed, it’s hard to conceive exactly where we’ve been transported.    Jesper Kongshaug’s lighting design starts to move from Act 1’s light-filled space to darkness; so it should, as the opera’s temporal progress requires.   But the background shifts almost imperceptibly as the action heats up.

The act culminates in a riot, during which Beckmesser is attacked by David who thinks that he’s serenading Magdalena; Sachs disrupts the eloping party and sends Eva back to her own house while taking Walther into his own; the chorus whips up a state of ferment as fighting breaks out.   Not for this production.   The whole thing becomes a nightmarish orgy, complete with horse-headed men simulating sex with willing women across front of stage.    When the Nightwatchman comes on, there is a general freeze, which rather undercuts the point – and humour –  of the scene.    But then, Adrian Tamburini in this role has entered into the spirit of things by now being dressed as a barrel-chested satyr.

In the final scene, we’re back to a central staircase and tiered semi-circular rows of steps.  A pair of choruses enters, dressed in modern-day evening wear and takes up position on the risers.   But. when the procession begins, we’re back with orthodoxy.  The apprentices/staff have reverted to 16th century apparel, complete with tabards; even the girls from Furth have taken on the fashion of 1550 Germany.   When the Mastersingers enter, they have collaborated in turning back time, wearing large quadrangular hats and embroidered robes, and carrying the gleaming symbols of their crafts on poles.

So the gentlemen’s club business has disappeared; now we have what amounts to a dress-up party.

Beckmesser sings disastrously, Walther shows how it’s done and eventually accepts his status as one of the Mastersingers’ company.   But in this version, Eva is not happy; she applauds his initial rejection of Pogner’s welcome to the guild, delighted by her man’s contrariness; when Sachs changes the knight’s mind for him and the accoutrements of office land on his head, shoulders and neck, she turns away from him, mounts the stairs and disappears from the scene while Walther basks in having made the grade, becoming one of the fellows.

Whether this is a statement about the objectification of women and/or Eva’s rejection of her father and all he stands for, your guess is as good as mine.   But it fails to ring true, whatever interpretation you try, when faced with the final pages of Act 3’s first scene, from Eva’s O Sachs! Mein Freund! Du Theurer Mann! onwards, in particular Eva’s final couplet in the great quintet.   I might have missed the signs, but I saw nothing on stage which prepared me for this deviation from the expected outcome.

Does it all make you think twice?  Will this version cause a refashioning of your interpretation of a great opera?   Not this time.   You’re faced with a lack of consistency that saps at the director’s premise because the updating and the complete change of ambience are inconsistent or perhaps applied with too much subtlety to travel.   For sure, you will find whole passages in this version where you forget the setting; the less detail visually exposed, the more moving is the drama.   But then, abruptly, you experience a shock of incomprehension as to why the production looks like it does and the cross-bred staging that tries to meld our time with that of Sachs does little more than distract.