Sunday, 12 March 2017

Die Meistersinger: Holten departs with soaring (and pointed) triumph

Holten & Co on opening night

It was the rapturous success of Kasper Holten's Copenhagen staging of Wagner's Ring Cycle that propelled him to the helm of Covent Garden in 2011. It is thus a neat and rather sardonic bookend that Wagner again provides his swan-song with the company, in the form of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, the classic exposition of living art triumphing over the academic. 

A bold farewell, it was rewarded and garlanded in every way that Hans Sachs - and indeed Wagner -  holds in high esteem.

Kunst! Wahn! Liebe! This is Holten's Meistersinger in more ways than one; this is the twitch of the thread designed to draw all fractures from his short tenure to that orphic conclusion to which Hans Sachs also guides the blind, structured and obstinate. Music is the solace and the escape. Politics, tradition and the insular have no command here - here, we draw in broadstrokes, where power lords over finesse.

Terfel's Hans Sachs is a creation of immense control and beauty. More importantly, he is entirely human. Under Holten's direction, he does not embody the martyred wisdom many directors seem to interpret as divinely Schopenhauer. His renunciation of courting Eva is not as beatific as it is wry and Walther's song does not so much affirm his belief in kunst as it perplexes him. He too journeys to reject form and the apotheosis of reason through the three act behemoth; a realisation most delicately shaped by Terfel, who never mistakes pathos for sentiment. The famous Act 3 quintet, the emotional heart of Die Meistersinger, touches precisely because the conclusion is not glorious and inevitable. This Hans Sachs is no saint and his renunciation of wille to overcome madness (Wahn! Wahn!) is not so much an adherence to an overarching philosophy as it is an acquiescence to the system of things and exigencies of life. Rather than simply changing the two lovers and popular opinion, Holten places Sachs' own demons on the frontline, with the famous Act 2 brawl of tempered madness seemingly drawn out of his subconscious, with a cloven-hoofed Nightwatchman standing silently sentinel. Terfel's Sachs is a creature of the era as opposed to the wizened overlord, an interpretation which ties in with the maniacal dogma that colours Sachs' closing aria; a uniquely nationalist defence of German aesthetics.

Willis-Sorensen's Eva is also unpredictable. There is a pervading sense that she would accept the cobbler, and her love for Walther is neither final nor exact. This Eva doesn't undertake a transformation; or if she does, it is internalised. She is modern in the way Eva normally is not and her indignant departure at the end, renouncing Sachs' grand orchestration of events is entirely political and devoid of romantic sensibility.

Here, Holten's staging achieves curious genius. The seed has been sown; Hans Sachs is unsaintly and Eva is unsure. Holten overcomes the barbed and problematic closing section by not appeasing at all - he revels in the extremity of the Meistersinger's national pride with macabre and glee that warns uncomfortably at the geopolitical reality of current times. In this production, Sachs' loving and guiding influence does not result in a happy German union. Rather, though touched by supreme song flouting the rigidity of academic reason, Sachs falters at the final barrier by choosing to channel this euphoria towards collective sentiment. What he achieves is hysteria, pride and arrogance to which Eva, the most modern of all constituents, blanches. She has also been touched the Meisterlied and emerges changed - but, impervious to tradition, she understands at last the unfailing ways of the guild and man and chooses to flee. It is subtly done, but this addition is rather remarkable.

Vocally, the depth of the cast is staggering. Terfel's vocal ability remains unchallenged, but nearly stealing the plaudits is Kranzle's Beckmesser, that long abused creature. Surely absurd, even hateful, his song nevertheless retains majesty beneath its comic trills. Onstage, his presence is unmatched. But there is gravitas to every member of the guild and I have scarcely, if ever, heard a cast of this magnitude which is so equally matched and united in vocal fortitude. Another delectable surprise is the affinity Pappano seems to have suddenly developed for Wagnerian repertoire, in which he has rarely achieved such authority and wit as that eked out of the orchestra on Saturday evening. It is a monstrous task to pace the Act 3 just right, so the climatic quintet wrenches as excruciatingly as it did.

The only place where energy perhaps flagged was the odd gloom inspired by the set for Act 3, Scene 1, set backstage at the festival pageant. This setting did not conjoin easily with the abstract concept preceding it, a versatile mahogany set, oppressive and austere with occasional glimpses of art deco elegance (but might it be possible to reduce to clinking of cutlery during Act 1?) We do away with the church, the street outside Sachs' abode for this delirium inducing ode to rigour, with pleasing effect. No doubt, the traditionalists will rail and rage as the Guild themselves are wont to do (indeed, as I type, the first broadsheet review is out and predictably miffed) but if you read it as I do, and love it as I did, this tension is the lifeblood of Holten's greatest creation at Covent Garden to date.

Kasper, we shall be sorry to see you go!

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