I have to report that Don and Kasper Holten have lately been moving in opposite directions. Kasper is the respected and departing Director of Opera at Covent Garden. Die Meistersinger von Nürmberg is his swansong and his work done, he has left for his native Copenhagen. Don is a know-nothing gobby bloke from Muswell Hill, recently travelled with Mrs Don from Copenhagen to London after a very pleasant few days sightseeing. Two cities, two journeys, one mind. And its Kasper’s. Nevertheless, no point being gobby if one isn’t opinionated and so Don gives his personal insight into the latest controversies down Covent Garden.
Don likes Slaven Bilic. Who wouldn’t? In much the way that one likes or is at least in awe of the cool guy at the bar with the earing, guitar and no beer belly. Oh how we wish these were the only credentials required to manage in the Premier League. Alas not. The plot has gone a little wobbly lately in the Olympic Park. Don considers why, what is to be done and how much of David Sullivan’s money can we waste in doing so.
Firstly, Die Meistersinger. Don’s ardent fan will recall Don’s introduction to it some months back [here]and in a subsequent post, his take on the controversies; particularly the nationalism and potential or otherwise, anti-Semitism [here].
It is by any standard, a magnificent opera and stupendous piece of art. Some get carried away. Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the Polish pianist, considered it the greatest creation of art in all humanity. That’s quite a statement but in any event, its pretty good; probably Don’s favourite. At least this week.
Don has had two opportunities to consider the Holten production; the final rehearsal and then a proper performance this week. Indeed in a bizarre few minutes, Don booked tickets for Sunderland away (accompanied by Little Don), set off for the opera house and learned of the terrible events on Westminster Bridge. Let me add my words of comfort to the bereaved and grateful thanks for the heroics amidst this monumental act of nihilistic barbarism on the part of (as background begins to emerge), a pathetic little man. Hannah Arendt wrote that the best rebuttal of totalitarian acts was active engagement in society by ordinary people. Later that night, on the packed streets of Covent Garden, it felt a little like that. Londoners were not cowering, they were re-claiming the streets of their city, Don’s city.
The benign gloss on Die Meistersinger is that it is primarily a music drama about Art, specifically music; yes Art in German society but also the role of Art in society generally. After that it is about German nationalism. The less charitable, place it the other way around. One can make a good case for both. The enduring fascination with Wagner is one doesn’t have a nice night out, enjoy the music and move on to dinner; Wagner compels one to think deeply about what one has seen.
What we saw was DM in a modern setting. This immediately presents challenges which Holten of course intended. In Don’s humble opinion, DM works best set well before the 20th century. Its nationalism can then be (easier) set in context and Sachs’ final speech (easier) dealt with. The modern setting places a national socialist burden upon the end of the opera that is difficult to shift. The question is, does it deserve to be shifted? Of course Wagner cannot be blamed for the Nazi co-option of the opera, beyond all other art, just as Haydn cannot be blamed for the subsequent adoption of his music as the German national anthem, which also had gruesome overtones during the Nazi era. Whereas that music has been rightly redeemed, people remain uncomfortable with Wagner.
I think with justification. The representation of the intended new Germany as a romantic Nuremberg idyll, was bound up in wonderful essences of purity, heroism and modesty but also fear of the outsider and worse yet, the dispatch of the outsider. By outsider Wagner certainly meant free of French influence but also undoubtedly Jewish influence. Whilst he could not have anticipated the horror of future decades (and I do not believe he would have been a Nazi supporter), the lineage from Wagner’s 1860’s romantic and heroic ideals to the 1930’s is clear and when Hitler heard Wach Auf in 1932 (or thereabouts), one can understand he thought not (or not only) of Luther, Beethoven, Sachs or Wagner but of himself and of the dawning of National Socialism. Goebbels said as much.
One assumes Kasper intended to meet this challenge head on by setting it in modern times. Directors of opera tend to want to direct, especially in their parting shot.
So lets look at a couple of challenges this presented.
- Unlike the timeless mythical essence of most Wagner drama, DM is set in a real place, involves real people and so should at least to some extent ring true. That a father might give his daughter’s hand in marriage as a prize in a singing competition is barely creditable even in the 16th century. Passing it off in 21st century London/Nuremberg (I’m not sure which), unduly stretches the credibility threshold, which in turn undermines some of the serious themes of the piece, including the feminist one.
- Don considers the greatest aspects of the opera to be Sachs’ humility and his modest heroism in renunciation. He recognises he must supress his desire (if not his love) for Eva because he has lost her to the younger man; and rightly so. He understands and wonderfully conveys the concept of Wahn; how it is natural to the human condition but that maybe it can be harnessed as a force for good and order and not simply chaos. The pivotal and for Don, the most moving scene is in Act 3 where Eva pours out her heart to him and love for him but is still drawn away to the younger man. It is so Tristanesque, they say so! In short, Hans Sachs up until the final scene is a role model for all generations, certainly for Don. Wagner then does him no favours in whatever century, by the final racist monologue. The vigour of which is unnecessary in any context and I wish he had not done it. It confirms nationalism as the thrust of the piece however much we may want to laud the other aspects.
One has to admire how Holten tries to handle this second point. Eva is equally disgusted with all three; Walter for accepting the honour of the guilds, her father for the original misogynist concept and with Sachs for his unsavoury comments, that she strikes the feminist blow and storms off. The audience, certainly those hearing the monologue for the first time, is metaphorically right behind her. As the final moment in the opera, it is unforgettable, if nothing else. But it is problematic. She has hitherto not been disgusted with her father (albeit the misogyny was obvious from the outset) and she was previously upset when Walter was not accepted by the guilds. Fundamentally however it undermines Sachs and all the emotion, love and respect that has previously passed between him and Eva and between him and us. Kasper may say it was Wagner that lost Sachs that respect by adding the final passage. Hard to argue but we’ve invested a lot of emotion in the previous 4 1/2 hours only to be told in the last 30 seconds it counts for nought. If one undermines Sachs to this degree, I fear the whole piece becomes at best, messy and at worst, fatally flawed.
3. Did the change of setting obfuscate important themes?
a) The opening scene in Church was transplanted to a gentleman’s (men only) club choir rehearsal. The hymn (of course) was still about John the Baptist (so setting the redemption credentials crucial to any understanding of the opera), so I think that worked.
b) Act 2 was not the traditional street scene but was somehow still in (was it??) the gentleman’s club. Poor old Sachs was some sort of portable cobbler dragging his tools around and trying not to smudge his tux. Little wonder he was pissed off at the end of Act 3. I’m sorry but this Act needs to be outside; the scent of the Elder tree, the Linden tree, the balcony scene, the alley, the houses. Most importantly, the outside space for the Midsummer Night mischievous spirits to take hold. Well it was kind of outside-ish; we had a lilac plant and if it wasn’t, the night watchman and half the town were trespassing but I must say, even after the second viewing, Act 2 left me confused.
c) a fight scene with no fighting? Well Beckmesser was the sole recipient of a beating (plot essential), there was some slow motion pandemonium and we did get some fornication thrown in, so one shouldn’t complain.
d) Act 3, scene 1 is not in Sachs’ house but rather at the back of the Festival auditorium. But sure enough, cobbler Sachs is there..with his tools. This bloke is the traveling cobbler par excellence. More St Christopher than St Crispen. It all seemed a bit darker than it should have been for the glorious full swathes of strings when Sachs’ Johannes Nacht gives way to Johannes Tag (and can Beckmesser “steal” a bit of paper left in a public auditorium?) But generally Act 3 is such a musical wonder of the world, its hard to go far wrong.
- The orchestra and choir. Simply magnificent. If I’d had my hat on, Wach Auf would have blown it off. The horns from the upper amphitheatre resonated a little with the SS guards doing same from the Bayreuth balcony in the 1930’s but lets not dwell.
- Beckmesser. The role is such a comedy show stopper and Johannes Martin Kränzle has it down to a tee.
- Pogner. Don is not over technical music wise (!) but even he could hear Stephen Milling has a proper voice. Look forward to more.
- Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s Eva. Really came into it in Act 3 when that scene with Sachs is the only game in town. She nailed it so that by the time of the five-way Dream Song baptism we are utterly wrecked. Moreover she has been nice enough to respond to some of Don’s tweets so what’s not to like?
- Bryn. A very acceptable if not astonishing Sachs but he’s been there, done it, got T-shirt etc etc and hey, what does Don know?
- Kasper Holten. He’s pushed the boundaries, did something and of that I suspect Wagner would approve and so probably would Hannah Arendt.
(reproduced with kind permission of whoever this belongs to. Much appreciated)
We can’t keep dining out on last season and we can’t keep blaming the pitch, the new ground and Payet. It is also not acceptable to say how well we played for most of the Leicester game. We did; I accept that but its not acceptable. (If you want tautology, this is the place). In the Premier League if you have an off 10 minutes you are very lucky not to be punished. To be 2-0 down after 8 minutes is either pathetic or really unlucky. We seem to concede goals in short bursts on a regular basis; West Brom and Spurs away this season, Leicester (again) and Bournemouth at home last season spring immediately to mind and I’m sure there are a host of others if Don bothered to look.
We famously tracked a world beater of a striker for most of the summer; indeed several of them. We got none.
We obviously needed a right back (since Jenkinson got injured, in what seems years ago) and famously did no tracking at all. Ok Arbeloa (rests case).
We clearly are still in dire need of both after another fruitless transfer window. We still have none. We are scoring with reasonable regularity but concede alarmingly so; often exposed where a decent right back should be, which makes otherwise half decent central defenders look fools.
I like Byram but he’s definitely better going forward. Its obvious to all (including Slaven) that he’s not yet ready at this level (though I think he’ll get there). I completely dislike Antonio, Kouyate, Noble, Carroll or any other non-right back at right back. Again obvious.
Up front, aside from Carroll, have any strikers even scored this season? I don’t count Antonio as a striker. Whisper it at risk of general bombardment but I don’t rate him that much as footballer. Top marks for effort, is a tremendous athlete, has speed and strength in abundance and seems an absolute top bloke. But his first touch and decision making are not great. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating selling him but if he’s our first team striker, then lower mid-table is about as high as our aspirations go and if he’s England standard….He is a right winger or nothing in my view and he’s not the best out there.
The ground does us no favours but what can we do? Get on with it, that’s what. Never mind increasing capacity to 66,000, Don would focus on 50,000 fans that actually stay the 90 mins and have more than a passing interest in the final score, as opposed to giving little Johnny a fun day out. If you think that’s fun son, you’re a bit bloody odd. We may even generate a bit of atmosphere if fans were still there towards the end.
No-one needs Don to tell them we need a decent right back, a proper striker and an Obiang quality midfielder to play alongside or a little in advance of Pedro. I fear maybe a goalie as well but only if in Joe Hart class or we’re simply juggling around for the sake of it.
And the $64,000 question. Having hardly excelled in previous two windows (though the lovely Pedro was his first purchase??), will Slav be there to spend Dave’s money? The harsh view is, if he’s not done enough to warrant a contract extension, why are we messing about? We are not yet safe from relegation this season which means under Slav, we’re among the dreaded runners and riders for next. So lets do better. The benign view is, he wore an earing, plays the guitar and seems a top bloke…
Will be an interesting next few weeks and have it sorted by Sunderland away Slav, its a bloody long way for nothing.
If you have been, thanks for listening.