Monday 19 November 2018 (Arts Centre, Melbourne)
Royal Opera’s then house director, the notorious Kasper Holten, originally designed this production. The Spectator’s Michael Tanner declared of the London version, “Nothing could prepare me for so deep an abyss of idiocy.” We know what he means, but speaking personally, apart from some (very large) grumbles, we were not overly bothered by the sets or the “reinterpretation,” no doubt due to a combination of our own jaundiced lethargy and contempt. Also, Meistersinger is perhaps the only Wagnerian piece which is impervious to Regieoper, even when the Guild Hall in Act I is reconstructed as a men’s health club (all that sauna-like wood) and Hans Sachs’ workshop is fashioned as an industrial-scale factory, with giant automata straight from the world of steam-punk – at the close of Act II, two chaps dangled from a spinning wheel most impressively.
What was lost was any sense of Nuremberg as an actual village of actual people. And when the fight was supposed to break out it looked more like a casting call for a Fellini film, complete with the night watchman (earlier seen on his rounds with what seemed to be a prosthetic heel) reincarnated as Pan, fully cloven-hoofed! We will give the direction one tick, however – at the conclusion of Act I, when Walther von Stolzing, the knight errant (Stefan Vinke) spurns the Guild Hall in fury and frustration, charging up the stairs to the door while the Mastersingers and their retinue are immersed in hubbub, all of a sudden, as the orchestra swells, the light changes from a warm gold to a metallic blue strobe, and all but Walther freeze as if in an old-fashioned daguerreotype (emphasising that the old order passeth, giving way to new). It was highly effective, a brilliant touch. Alas, they tried something similar at the close of Act II, without success.
Act III had problems too. The first half was rather anodyne; the second had colour and pizzazz, yet lacked emotional resonance because Hans’ longing had been a little too muted, the setting lacked cohesion and the pomp was too redolent of a night at the Grammys. But the greatest error was yet to come. When Walther has won the contest (Hanslich’s…sorry, Beckmessers’ disastrous rendering of the prize song had pretty hilarious adulterated lyrics) he is prevailed upon to accept the laurels and enter the Mastersingers’ guild. But Eva, whom he has also won, spurns him as though he has joined the Hitler Youth. It is a piece of textual vandalism; not because Herr Holten has changed the libretto – even Wagner could stomach that – but because the new scenario is simply ludicrous. Eva has reluctantly bowed to her father’s wishes to marry the winner of the songfest – she has wanted Walther to win, or failing that, widow and Mastersinger Hans Sachs, as a consolation prize – so why at the successful realisation of her hopes does she turn and run? Why the sudden contempt for tradition? Is this some dumb #MeToo / New Feminist trope, or worse, an adaptation of Godwin’s Law? If so, it shows once again how some progressives fall into the trap of believing we’re all as stupid as they are. ‘Enjoy other people’s pain: go to the opera’ was a Staatsoper Stuttgart tagline that Holten adores: he seems to wear it as a personal badge of honour. Only he’s the one having fun: we suffer.
We can’t much criticise any of the musicians or players (full list below). Conductor Pietari Inkinen and an expanded Orchestra Victoria were first class, as were the members of the Opera Australia Chorus. Michael Kupfer-Radecky wasn’t quite up to Sachs, his voice at times smothered by the goings-on and his acting daftly muted – the performance of Shane Lowrencev in the concertised version of Act III in Adelaide struck us as superior. Natalie Aroyan was splendid as Eva (she had the good grace to look a little dazed at her absurd exit at finale), Stefan Vinke gave us a cardboard knight but sang extremely well, and Nicholas Jones was droll as the Master’s Apprentice.
Warwick Fyfe was the hit of the evening in the comically villainous role of Beckmesser. Fyfe is the Peter Lorre of contemporary opera, creating a burgeoning gallery of operatic rogues and rascals: Klingsor in Parsifal, Alberich in The Ring, Falstaff, and Dr Bartolo in The Barber of Seville. He was perfect here in his malice, paranoia and isolation. He also had to deal with mock-playing of a celeste, a trickier matter than playing ‘air-lute.’ His “song” was a laugh riot and his pedantic adherence to old rules and forms would have even made Wagner chuckle. Another great turn from Mr. Fyfe.
CAST & CREW (Thanks to Opera Australia’s website):
|REVIVAL DIRECTOR||Dan Dooner|
|SET DESIGNER||Mia Stensgaard|
|COSTUME DESIGNER||Anja Vang Kragh|
|LIGHTING DESIGNER||Jesper Kongshaug|
|ASSISTANT DIRECTOR||Matthew Barclay|
|WALTHER VON STOLZING||Stefan Vinke|
|HANS SACHS||Michael Kupfer-Radecky|
|SIXTUS BECKMESSER||Warwick Fyfe|
|VEIT POGNER||Daniel Sumegi|
|FRITZ KOTHNER||Luke Gabbedy|
|KUNZ VOGELGESANG||John Longmuir|
|BALTHASAR ZORN||Joshua Oxley|
|AUGUSTIN MOSER||Kanen Breen|
|ULRICH EISSLINGER||Robert Macfarlane|
|KONRAD NACHTIGALL||Andrew Jones|
|HERMANN ORTEL||Michael Honeyman|
|HANS FOLTZ||Gennadi Dubinsky|
|HANS SCHWARTZ||Richard Anderson|