The Frog Prince is sodomising an apprentice, while Hansel and Gretel get up to no good. For the briefest of moments, Stefan Herheim’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg permits a glimpse of chaos – right where it belongs, in the street fight on Midsummer’s Eve. For Hans Sachs, and for Wagner, “Wahn”, or madness, was a necessary element of the creative process.
Herheim’s long-awaited Salzburg Meistersinger is the first to hit the boards of the summer festival since 1938. Back then, Wagner’s music had served dubious ends. After the rich fantasy with which Herheim’s Bayreuth Parsifal worked its way through the opera’s reception history, expectations were high for his take on this most historically abused of pieces.
Instead, Herheim and his team present a Biedermeier doll’s house. The story is told as composer Hans Sachs’s dream, its actors miniature figures on his writing-desk or in his cupboards (design: Heike Scheele). Every detail is meticulously choreographed, and not a finger moves without a clearly discernible relation to the score. Lilliput meets The Borrowers; even the brief moment of anarchy runs like clockwork. The whole is superbly made, but disturbingly toothless.
Herheim’s dramaturg, Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach, argues that Wagner’s tribute to “sacred German art” was subsequently misunderstood, and cannot be held responsible for what the Nazis made of it. And so Herheim has produced the last thing you would have expected of him: a posthumous exoneration, a painstaking account of Biedermeier conventions and values. In the end, Wagner’s characters can all crawl safely back into the closet. The only hints of subversion are the interpolated Grimm figures’ misbehaviour, a dramatic lighting change for Hans Sachs’s German monologue, and a revealing instant when Beckmesser and Sachs realise that they are mirror images of one another (read: when Wagner sees himself in his critical parody).
The effort expended is formidable, but the high standards of execution demanded by the production team are not matched musically, except by Michael Volle’s superlative Hans Sachs. The performance is rich, nuanced, well-paced and profoundly moving – none of which can be said for Daniele Gatti, who from the first notes of the overture draws playing of distressing sloppiness from the Vienna Philharmonic. Much of the casting is not top-drawer. Anna Gabler’s Eva, when you can hear her at all, is often off pitch; Monika Bohinec is an inadequate Magdalene; Peter Sonn, though sweet-toned, makes a wooden David. While Markus Werba is a surprisingly winning Beckmesser, both unusually young and unconventionally lyrical, Roberto Saccà is horribly out of place as Walther von Stolzing. Eva is, understandably enough, more drawn to Sachs; Saccà is vain, strained and tasteless.
With Bayreuth failing so spectacularly to make a meaningful artistic contribution to Wagner’s 200th birthday, the field was open for Salzburg, a festival with both the means and the clout to trump its Bavarian neighbour. But means and clout are evidently not enough, and this lavish Meistersinger, which will go on to the Paris Opera, must be chalked up as yet another missed opportunity.