If you’re leaving an important job it’s natural to make some kind of statement as you go; and Kasper Holten’s statement on stepping down as director of the Royal Opera is an opulent, in parts magnificent, in parts a complete mess, staging of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg with an interesting if questionable sting in the tail.
The magnificence is largely musical. It’s an impressive cast, led by Bryn Terfel who takes the central, hugely taxing role of Hans Sachs in his stride – managing to sound almost as fresh, unflustered and perversely youthful (in a role that isn’t about youth) in the closing bars as he did at the start, five-and-a-half hours earlier. There’s no bigger sing than this for his voice-type and he handles it superbly – with miraculous assistance from Antonio Pappano, who conducts the score as though it were some great, immersive lovefest, tempering control with radiance.
But the staging? Holten’s big idea is to update the action to our own times, so the 16th-century Mastersingers guild becomes a modern livery company engaged in bygone pageantry. It sort of works, but only if you gloss over the fact that 16th-century guildsmen actually performed the crafts their guilds proclaimed and that Hans Sachs is actually a cobbler. Something Holten all but sweeps aside.
In doing so, his update falls apart in Act II, which provides no sign of Sach’s shoe shop, nothing visually to tell you what on earth is happening. That’s the mess. And it takes time for Act III to get back on track – which, to be fair, it does.
Then comes the sting. The opera’s basic plot – about an outsider figure who upsets the traditions of a staid cultural community with a new kind of art that wins him a bride – raises issues of artistic vision and the need for old rules to make way for new ones: issues Holten understands and handles well. But there’s invariably a problem at the end when Sachs (wise mediator between old and new) delivers a great hymn to the supremacy of German culture that would prove a gift to the Third Reich and an embarrassment to stage directors ever after.
Holten’s solution is to show the outsider suddenly seduced by all this German culture business, buying into its medieval fantasy (much like the Third Reich) to the horror of his bride, who runs off. Happy ending spiked.
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