Opera Australia mounts Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg trading comedy for grandeur
By Leeor Adar
One can rarely prepare for the grandiosity of a Richard Wagner opera; it takes the gargantuan ego of Wagner and elongates into a brilliance so exhausting that one is both awed and thankful by the time the curtains close. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is no exception here, and instead of gods and monsters, Wagner takes a club to the club, so to speak. Old establishment meets the radical ego of a young man, and ultimately the radicalised eventually succumbs to the powers of the masters.
The story unfolds in Nuremberg, an intensely patriotic front of the Germans, and follows the competition amongst its musical poets for the hand in marriage of a young and well-connected maiden. The tale is simple enough, however Die Meistersinger reflects the innards of Wagner at differing stages of his own life. At first, Wagner is Walther Von Stolzing, rebelling against the gates of the establishment to be seen and heard. Like Walther, Wagner despised the conventions of opera in his youth, but by the time Wagner was composing the opera he was Hans Sachs, the wiser and far more desirable hero for the tale whose heroism is deeply entrenched in his love of art and Germany.
It is easy to see in the final act of Die Meistersinger how the Third Reich was so enamoured with the composer and his work. Where Gioachino Rossini’s lead in Guillaume Tell (recently performed by Victorian Opera) is bolstered by community and the fight against larger forces, our ultimate hero, Sachs, in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger strongly desires to maintain the masters, even when he questions their methods.
To bring us this extravagant opera Australian Opera partners with the Royal Opera House Convent Garden and the National Centre for Performing Arts, Beijing. It is mammoth in length and mammoth in the scale of its staging. Much like the Ring Cycle, Die Meistersinger contains larger than life characters and spaces. Set designer, Mia Stensgaard, created the crowning jewel of Die Meistersinger with a set design so stunningly elaborate and intricate it looks as though the characters inhabit the insides of an organ – a very fitting world for the Mastersingers.
I was thrilled to learn that Kasper Holten would be Directing Die Meistersinger, as his ground-breaking approach to his previous work had the potential to be fantastically imagined in Wagner’s world. I had the pleasure of seeing Holten’s direction of Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger in 2017, and can see how his style weaves through the old-world costumes of designer, Anja Vang Kragh. It is also pleasing to see composer Pietari Inkinen return after an astonishingly successful Ring Cycle in 2016 to conduct this production.
As for the performers, Natalie Aroyan makes for a strong Eva despite the constraints the role provides to a voice as rich as hers. Stefan Vinke as Walther is not so exciting in his Meatloaf moonlighting as a ’70s dad getup. Unfortunately, Vinke’s vocals struggled to bring the requisite intensity to the role, however by the second act, he was in a stronger stride. Die Meistersinger’s real hero, Sachs, is performed by baritone Michael Kupfer-Radecky with an intensity and composure that surely sent many hearts fluttering. Kupfer-Radecky had the opportunity to previously take on the role of Sachs in La Scala in 2017, so it is Australia’s great fortune to have him reprise the role for Opera Australia.
There is very little comedy to be had in Wagner’s famed comedy. Most of the “humour” is reserved for the humiliation of what is ultimately an abysmally treated Sixtus Beckmesser, a Jewish caricature that reflects only the surface of Wagner’s equally grandiose anti-Semitism. However, Warwick Fyfe certainly electrifies the role, making Beckmesser a fabulous (and yes, funny) villain despite what our historical gaze will affix to the character.
In the scheme of Wagner’s work, Die Meistersinger is not particularly as palatable as the Ring Cycle, but if this is your first foray into Wagner’s world, Opera Australia’s production makes for an excellent entrance.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is being performed at Arts Centre Melbourne 13 -22 November. Tickets can be purchased online.
Photograph: Jeff Busby