The 2019 editions of Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg during the 136th Wagner Festival in Bayreuth were reminders why the Festival is famous for outstanding singing and controversial staging.
Richard Wagner, born in 1813, arrived on the musical scene after the disappearance of enlightened absolutism with its great princely sponsors such as Esterhazy and Lobkowitz. Wagner, himself a protagonist of the bourgeois revolution of 1848, hailed the rise of the middle-class, and its implications for the appreciation of art and music. As his creation and alter-ego Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger says, “art is no longer aristocratic, as it was when practiced by princes, yet it remains clear and true.”
By character, though, Wagner was an absolutist, always having to have his way. He pursued his work and career with obsessiveness: in over 50 years the Master (as he was known) managed to compose only 13 works. Alone among the great composers of the period, he wrote his own librettos and added painstaking staging directions. To provide the perfect setting for his works, he even needed to have his own opera house.
One would have thought that 19th-century Bavaria would not have needed a new opera house. Those in Munich and Nuremberg were already impressive. Wagner would not have hear of them. The Bavarians, eager to accommodate the prestigious Master, proposed the court theatre of Bayreuth. Wagner immediately fell in love with Bayreuth but lamented the unsuitability of the court theatre. One must build a new theatre, with all the cost this entailed.
The Bavarian state, encouraged by Wagner’s enthusiastic supporter but far from absolute monarch King Ludwig, agreed to subsidize the building of the new Bayreuth theatre, on a green knoll above the city. The initial performances attracted audiences from all over the world, but the whole project bled red ink from the beginning.
Wagner died in 1883. No other composer of the 19th century left such a burden on his heirs, his wife Cosima Lizst-Wagner and her children. The theatre on the knoll was limited to performing Wagner’s 13 works exactly as the Master prescribed them. The theatre’s finances required continuous life-support from increasingly impatient sponsors, following King Ludwig’s early death.
In 1933, Wagner’s English daughter-in-law, Winnifred Wagner, found the providential sponsor who could secure the future of the theatre and enable the growing Wagner family to continue to live in the style in which they were accustomed. Like the absolute monarchs of old, he was answerable to no one. That sponsor was the new German chancellor, Adolf Hitler.
The Bayreuth Wagner theatre has been atoning for that unhappy choice by Winnifred ever since 1945. All of Wagner’s work have been retrospectively examined with a fine-tooth comb to find evidence of the composer’s proto-Nazism.
This intellectual soul-searching has gone beyond the lecture hall and permeated many German productions of Wagner’s works, especially in Bayreuth. It is a fine irony that Bayreuth has become the locus par excellence for Germany’s atonement.
While a French or American audience will listen to the Ring Cycle with fascination for its combination of myth, music and spectacle, a German audience will watch and wonder about Siegfried as the Übermensch, about the elves as concentration camp inmates, and the Valkyries as female SS personnel.
German drama directors and set designers, have, over the years, competed for the prize of the most unsettling scenic representation of Wagner’s works. At Bayreuth, one has watched a Tannhäuser set in a gas factory, a Parsifal sung in the 1945 zero-hour, and most recently, a Meistersinger in the Nuremberg Trials courthouse.
Tristan and Isolde is less susceptible to re-interpretation in light of Nazism. The 2016 production reprised this year highlights another tendency of Bayreuth’s directing which departs far from the Master’s original intention.
Admirers of this work will admit that while the music is exquisite, almost nothing happens. Like a Bergman movie, the characters sing about dramatic events that occurred before, or off stage. It is the most undramatic theatre imaginable. To follow the narrative further requires a mastery of Wagner’s ersatz-Medieval German poetry, difficult even for Germans, and out of the question for the many Chinese, Americans, French, Koreans and Japanese in the audience. Desirous to keep the theatre unchanged from Wagner’s design, Bayreuth offers no supertitles.
As a result, Tristan und Isolde can feel like 6 1/2 hours of boredom interrupted by the sublime singing of “So stürben wir um ungetrennt” and “mild und leise wie er lächelt”.
Christa Wagner, a great-granddaughter of the Master, sees the need and feels authorized to abandon the inherited stage directions. Tristan and Isolde no longer stare soulfully past one another. They frantically embrace one another, well before they drink the magic potion. Petra Lang plays a wild Isolde, as she threatens to castrate Tristan and cut Kurwenal’s throat. Stefan Vinke’s Tristan is suitably regretful of transgression, with a tireless voice. The singers prowl on stage around a gigantic frame of chutes and ladders inspired by Piranesi, which fills the entire proscenium.
In the second act, the Master’s directions call for the lovers to meet in a hunting tent in the forest by night. Christa Wagner locks them up in a Guantanamo-like prison where their enemies spy for proof of their suspected adultery. Their singing about light and dark, night and day, sun and stars, is punctuated by the flood lights with which the interrogators blind the prisoners, penetrating the privacy they seek under a poor prison blanket.
The third act illustrates Tristan’s dying, feverish visions with apparitions lighting up in mid-air out of the total obscurity of the stage, with an endless flickering of imagined Isoldes. This is the most poetic, most picturesque and least incongruous element of Christa Wagner’s reinterpretation.
The director allows Isolde to sing the final “Liebestod” without distraction. When music is this beautiful, the audience needs no distraction, even though they have heard it sung many times before. They have come around the world just to hear these notes on a warm, late summer evening in Bayreuth. But a reinterpretation closes the scene: instead of dying in her lover’s arms, Isolde is dragged off by a bad and mad King Marke.
Barrie Kosky’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg the following night contains even more surprises: some good, some bad. The majestic overture is not played curtain down, but accompanies a witty pantomime showing the Wagner family, Richard, his wife Cosima Liszt, her father Franz Liszt, their servants and the conductor Henri Levi enjoying tea while Richard holds forth on his upcoming Meistersinger. Avatars of Richard appear: a child, a boy, a youth, and a young man. As the overture ends, with at least some of the audience a little annoyed that they have not been left in peace to enjoy the familiar, stirring music of the overture, the Wagner family falls to their feet to sing the hymn in the opening of the first scene. Henri Levy is embarrassed because, as a Jew, he does not know the hymns nor how to pray. Wagner imperiously obliges Levy to kneel, to cross, and to stand.
Before we know it, each of the family characters has become a role in the Meistersingers. Liszt turns out to be Pogner, the father of Eva, in turn incarnated by Cosima. One young avatar becomes the apprentice David. The older avatar becomes the knight Walther. Gradually, in a metamorphosis worthy of Ionesco, Wagner becomes Hans Sachs. It is remarkable how well suited Günther Goisbeck is to playing Liszt/Pogner, and Michael Volle is to playing Wagner/Sachs. So the stage is set for Wagner to be the wooer, the father and the older friend and admirer of his own bride Cosima. Henri Levy becomes the unlikeable and scheming Beckmesser.
Is Beckmesser Jewish? Of course there were no Jewish meistersingers. Some writers say Beckmesser is Wagner’s payback to Eduard Hanslik, a half-Jewish music critic who had the temerity to express reservations about Wagner’s music. It should be noted Hanslik enjoyed the Meistersingers. When asked if Wagner demonstrated explicit antisemitism in his works Christa Wagner admitted, “probably a bit in Beckmesser”.
The staging continues with distracting but amusing actor’s tricks. The meistersingers, richly dressed in silks and velvets, greedily feed on typical Nurnberger lebskuche (cookies). Throughout the action they continue to steal cookies out of the tin, but they haughtily refuse them to the outsider Sir Walther. As with the previous night’s Tristan staging, these tricks offer distraction for an audience that cannot follow Wagner’s clever but dated libretto. they take our attention away from the magical music. Volle’s Hans Sachs is a powerhouse of emotion, wisdom, humor and political nous. Klaus Florian Vogts holds back his voice so he can shine in the final scene.
At the end of act one the entire stage set of the Wagner house (familiar to all the visitors to Bayreuth) is swallowed up into the courtroom of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, complete with the Soviet, American, British and French flags. Hans/Wagner stands alone in the box of the accused. It’s really not clear what is the accusation. His biggest crime is narcissism, the crime of the Selfie-generation.
The second Act shows the Wagner house during the American occupation: the furniture, paintings and art objects piled in the middle of the otherwise empty room. All the action of the Nuremberg streets is, not ungracefully, played out by climbing over the furniture. In the street riot which ends the act, Nazi-like thugs beat up Beckmesser, who is then masked by an enormous Jew Süss mask, long crooked nose, blood-shot eyes, forelocks and yarmulke. As though this is not enough, a balloon of the same face fills the entire scene. Then lights out. What are we supposed to make of this?
Act 3 takes us inside the War Crimes Court Room. This seems like a particularly incongruous setting for the happy midsummer’s pageant performed by the people of Nurnberg: hymns sung, banners waving, dancers showing off, young people flirting. Then Beckmesser performs a strange ballet with children wearing stereotypically Jewish masks. This writer feels that the masks picture prominent German-Jewish personalities like Marcel Rein-Ranicki the literary critic—but it may only have been an impression.
Beckmesser’s singing performance goes badly and he is ushered off stage. Sir Walther sings his prize song—here Klaus Florian Vogts pulls out the stops. Again, one comes from all over the world to hear him sing “Morgenlicht leuchtend in rosigen Schein”. Then he refuses to become a Meister, and Hans Sachs must sing his infamous ode to German art. Volle’s artistry as an actor fills the entire stage, indeed the entire theatre.
This moment is uncomfortable for the Germans because it reminds them of the chauvinism of the Nazis, who relentlessly exploited this scene to whip up hatred of non-Aryans. The actual words do not really bear this reading.
Sachs sings that the Germans must preserve their art as a national treasure. He looks into the future and sees the dissolution of the German empire, when sword and spear will not suffice to protect art—that only the poet can accomplish. Wagner was probably alluding to the fate of Germany after the Thirty Years War, when its brilliant Renaissance cultural life almost completely perished. If Wagner was looking forward as well as backwards from his own time, he might have been predicting Germany’s second experience with near-annihilation. It’s hardly an argument for Nazism, but guilt-by-association weighs heavily on this scene.
In the ruins of post-war Bayreuth, grandson Weiland Wagner, started up the performances again, using expressive lighting in place of the sets which had burned in the bombings. He focused on the human characters in each work, not on ideology or myth. He truly preserved Wagner’s art for the coming generations, fulfilling Hans Sachs/Richard Wagner’s prophecy.
That that legacy can now only be enjoyed in Bayreuth with the attendant self-examination of Wagner’s complicity for German history after his death, is one of the ironies to reflect on during this beautiful August night.