A Musical Summer

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About this time last year, I was composing my first blog, which celebrated the “glorious summer” of TV programming which we had enjoyed. No such luck this year – hardly a thing worth tuning in for on a regular basis – so, apart from catching up on some of my film collection on DVD, I have been more than usually reliant on music to keep me going. Of course, it is Proms season, and we have been even more frequent visitors than usual to the Albert Hall this year. Many of the concerts have been belters and there have been a lot of Mahler symphonies to enjoy – a rare performance of the 8th(which is perfect for the RAH, with its space for five choirs and a spectacular organ) and I’m really looking forward to the Boston Symphony doing the 3rd next Sunday.

 

However, I have also been enjoying music, especially opera, on Blu-ray and would like to describe two recent additions to my collection which, for me, exemplify how such releases are now an essential way of experiencing (or re-living) the best productions and performances from around the world. Back in the day, we would have relied on BBC2 on a Saturday night for rare and precious glimpses of such things – nowadays, Sky Arts provides the main broadcast platform, albeit with a much lower profile, but it is DVD and Blu-ray which have long since become the prime source for the opera lover and the number of productions recorded has rocketed.

 

A few weeks ago, Deutsche Grammophon released a Blu-ray of the 2017 Bayreuth imagesproduction of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. Not only was this a welcome opportunity to experience a very new and exciting production, but it is available at a rock-bottom bargain price (still under £15 last time I looked) and, when you consider that a ticket to see it in the Festspielhaus, if you were lucky enough to get one, would set you back upwards of two hundred (plus, of course, the cost of getting and staying there) the importance of such recordings being released is clear. Incidentally, though I hate to hear productions or performances being booed, the astronomical cost of attendance does make it a little bit understandable if someone feels they have been short changed.

 

This production of Die Meistersinger, by the Australian Jewish director Barrie Kosky (and it is significant that those two descriptors are both firsts for a production director at Bayreuth, the latter considerably more significant than the former), does, indeed, get some negative audience reaction, but I found it completely brilliant. It is one of those productions with a strong concept, which, in this case, is setting the work in the historical context of its creation and subsequent history, and that means putting Wagner himself on-stage. Act 1 takes place in Wagner’s house in Bayreuth, Wahnfried, where the composer is having a read/play through of the work, as he regularly did. Family and Unknownguests are given roles while other characters emerge (many in full reformation-era costumes, based on Durer) from his piano. Wagner himself plays Sachs (of course), though Walther and David clearly also represent himself at different stages of his artistic development, which fits perfectly with the theories of art he is exploring, as well as his own vanity. Cosima plays Eva, while her father, Franz Liszt, plays … her father. The Jewish conductor, Hermann Levi, is cajoled into the role of the comic villain Beckmesser, much as he had to endure Wagner’s antisemitism in order to be an important part of his artistic endeavour. The effect of this is to allow the director to explore issues raised by and concerning the work while not, as often happens with high-concept productions, working against what the music and the words are telling us – everything fits perfectly. The singers are historic characters playing operatic characters and are thus able to play those (operatic) characters much as they may in a conventional production.

 

At the end of first act the drawing room in Wahnfried is replaced by the 1946 Nuremberg trials courtroom (complete with allied flags and American MP guard), Wagner takes up a position in the dock and the stage is set for the second and third acts – the work and its composer are on trial in the city of its setting (a city which also hosted the Nazi rallies of the 1930s, and I wonder if Kosky thought, maybe just for a moment, of using that setting for the final scene?). Wagner’s antisemitism is, of course the key focus, though the way in which his works were used by the Nazis is also in play – don’t forget that every Nuremberg rally was preceded by a performance of Die Meistersinger. The city was also the stamping ground of the notorious Gauleiter Julius Streicher, whose newspaper, Der Sturmer, contained the sort of grotesque Jewish caricature which literally fills the stage at the end of the second act and haunts Beckmesser in the third. Nuremberg rallies, Nuremberg laws, Nuremberg trials – it all fits.

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The courtroom becomes an apt setting for the “song trial” and Wagner/Sachs is back in the dock at the end to deliver his call to preserve holy German art, even in times of foreign occupation, before conducting an orchestra and chorus (on stage!) in the final bars. It seems he is acquitted and that his music is what has saved him, though a more ironic interpretation is also possible – the best productions, it seems to me, are those which look completely right, yet can be interpreted in a number of ways. Music triumphs also in the quality of the performance and the genius of this production is that it allows the work’s traditional values to be seen despite the unconventional staging. A great example is the scene in Act 3 where Sachs coaches Walther to compose his dream song and at the same time expounds his (and Wagner’s) theories on the balance between tradition and innovation in art. It takes place in the courtroom but is shot in tight close up for the recording and is so well sung and acted by Michael Volle and Klaus Florian Vogt (and subtly directed by Kosky) that it could be part of any production, traditional or innovative. The direction of the recording is also impressive – it is a production full of interesting detail, all of which is conveyed. Here’s a link to the trailer to give you some idea:

Unlike Die Meistersinger, the staging and music of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach have been inseparable as a theatrical experience, because the contribution of Wilson, the director and designer, as well as that of choreographer Lucinda Childs, is integral to the work. It is a landmark of theatrical, musical and Unknown-2operatic creation in the 20thcentury, and the 2012 touring revival, which I saw at the Barbican, was essentially the same thing as first seen in 1976. That production (recorded in Paris and released by Opus Arte) has been available on Blu-ray since late 2016 but somehow the sophisticated algorithms employed by Amazon and others failed to notify me, despite the internet knowing full well that I am a big Philip Glass fan. I had assumed it would remain an unforgettable theatrical experience only and was delighted to find otherwise.

 

But Blu-ray is the perfect format for re-creating that experience and, under the sensitive direction of Don Kent, it does just that, from the gradual introduction as the audience enters and continues to chat amongst themselves, to the beautiful final Knee Play, four and a half hours later, which draws this vibrant and hypnotic work to its serene conclusion. In the theatre, the performance is continuous and audience members allowed to come and go during it. On Blu-ray, you can pause it when you need to, which somehow isn’t the point. Indeed, despite the temptation, the grip of the work is so strong that I only did so in the moments of greatest need.

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For those unfamiliar with it, there is no narrative – just a series of lengthy tableaux, some of them tangentially inspired by Einstein’s life or theories, in which music, action and words seem highly repetitive, change very gradually (though change is actually constant) and have little obviously decipherable meaning. You would imagine that would make it difficult to watch, but it is quite the opposite and it seems to pass much more quickly than it actually does – which I guess is as good a way of illustrating concepts of relativity as any. To give an example, a section of over fifteen minutes involves a couple on the footplate at the end of a receding train at night. They sing a duet involving just “fa-so-la” sounds and repeated numbers. The train does not move but the moon changes from crescent to full and back in the course of the scene. It’s beautiful and mesmerising.

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One small production detail is shared by the two works I have described here: a courtroom clock going backwards. I’ve no idea if this is homage, theft or coincidence, but it is a striking image and a neat link between these two great pieces of musical drama which have enthralled me during this televisually arid Summer.

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