Tuesday, 18 September 2007

where's Runnicles in Bayreuth (Guest Review)

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Sadly, no, this is not the news that Donald Runnicles will be conducting the next Ring cycle at Bayreuth, that hallowed wooden theatre, with its fully covered orchestra pit which all those who admire Wagner's music dream of attending. In truth, such news would probably be rather annoying (since I have little chance of getting out there any time soon).

However, by a remarkable stroke of luck, having met some very nice Germans in the B&B while down at Glyndebourne, our parents managed to get tickets to this year's rather controversial production of Meistersinger. As you read what follows, it may, perhaps, become evident why they were able to obtain tickets at such short notice. So, we break from normal service as Lucy relates their experience on the 5th of August.

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This was an extraordinary experience: I don’t think I’ve ever heard quite so much noise from an opera audience at the end of the performance, mainly boos. It’s also hard to think of any other production which has made me as angry as this one. I felt cheated of the music, because the production fought both the music and the text every step of the way.

The basic idea wasn’t a bad one: Sachs was a rebel from the start, appearing in informal clothes, bare-footed, and refusing to put on his master’s gown, so that he was a natural supporter for Walther. But then again, this meant that the force of Sachs as one of the great and the good coming to see that the freshness of Walther’s approach had something to be said for it was lost. In the course of the opera, while Sachs and Walther moved from iconoclasm to respectability, Beckmesser moved the other way, ending up as a T-shirted performer trying to wow the stage audience and failing lamentably – something that might have worked if the production had been simpler and more disciplined. But there was never a second when there wasn’t some business (or busyness) going on on the stage – the music was never allowed to speak for itself.

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Some of the action was plain bizarre. Why did what appeared to be candles (carried by the apprentices dressed in school uniform) turn into table legs? Why did Beckmesser, instead of serenading Eva/Magdalena, deliver his serenade as a lecture to the apprentices/students? The set provided a perfectly good balcony, with flowers, but nobody used it. Why did Walther and Eva hide in full view of everybody on top of a huge statue of a hand which had started off upright but had fallen over (yes, overthrow of the established order, I can see the symbolism of that, but it was a funny place to hide). The production also made a point of equating music with visual art, so that when Sachs helped Walther to improve his song, the song was actually a piece of scenery from a toy theatre, and when Beckmesser gleefully picked up the ‘song’ it was this piece of scenery which he picked up.

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There were some nice touches: Sachs interrupted Beckmesser with his typewriter rather than his anvil. For the wonderful quintet between Sachs, Eva, David, Magdalena and Walther, the two couples were arranged with their future children in two enormous photograph frames, and for once there was almost stillness on the stage – but this was spoilt by one of the children squirming about and clutching his crotch.

Musically, it was a very lacklustre performance (though I do wonder how even the finest of conductors would have coped with what was happening on stage). Sachs’s voice was simply not up to the part, and showed the strain badly, but he did at least try to convey the humanity of the man. The only singer who really came through with flying colours was Walther, and he was a good actor too. The theatre is not a very sympathetic venue, in part because its shape gives you the impression that you are a long way from the stage, though I wasn’t troubled by the legendary discomfort of the seats.

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I'd add just one thing to all that. Apparently they lock you into the wooden theatre stopping latecomers from getting in. Staff of the Festival Theatre here in Edinburgh: take note!

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