THE MASTER SINGERS – OPER FRANKFURT
REVIEW THE MASTER SINGERS: FORMIDABLE FRANKFURT PERFORMANCE IN BRILLIANT STAGE DESIGN
The most entertaining and intelligent stage design I’ve seen in an opera house for a long time. That’s what Wagner’s somewhat sultry The Master Singers is gifted with in this Frankfurt performance, which ranks straight into the top three of the best operas I’ve seen this year.
The tale of the Master Singers is Wagner’s only comedy. The focal point is high-octane gasoline on the Me Too bonfire. Adorable Eva has been offered as a prize to the winner of the Master Singers’ joust in Nuremberg.
However, Eva has met the handsome Walter in and lost her heart to him. Walter is prevented from entering the singing competition as he is unfamiliar with the rules. It therefore seems that the conceited Sixtus Beckmesser will run away with the victory and thus also Eva.
A series of intrigues, masterminded by the shoemaker Hans Sachs, thwarts the accident and results in Walter’s victory and the young couple’s marriage.
The point is a tribute to the German cultural heritage, which is only strengthened by renewal from within, with respect for tradition and the great masters. Hitler was enthusiastic about The Master Songs and referred eagerly to the story’s points.
When I saw Kasper Holten’s production at the ROH in London a few years ago, I actually worried whether the audience would put up with this almost 6-hour-long contemplation of cultural Germanic excess, or whether riots would break out in the opera house.
Here in beautiful Frankfurt, director Johannes Erath and set designer Kaspar Glarner have placed Wagner’s opulent tale of respect for the masters, and the duty of youth, in a universe oozing with creativity and entertainment in alternating tableaux that accelerate the narrative’s themes without being the kind of contrived fun one often encounters and overlooks for the sake of entertainment.
Quite ingenious is the set design in the first act, where the Master Singers in their self-proclaimed exaltation, dressed in unassuming but not unrealistic, starched suits, are placed on what look like classic bistro chairs, but with legs 10 feet high and being circulated between each other by young minions.
All the while, a semi-transparent curtain and delicate, bedroom-like backlighting make the whole place look like a Renaissance painting by Rembrandt or Caravaggio, with deep, warm, colors surrounded by black.
A visual device that is both aesthetically pleasing and conceptually reinforcing at the same time. You sit with your lower jaw down on your chest and a huge smile on your face. World class. Just saying.
Hans Sachs is the big star as the leader of the self-made masters of the singing guild, but who, unlike the rest of the bitter know-it-alls, is endowed with openness and empathy in his effort to cherish the cultivating factor of art, balanced with the desire to continually develop it.
Things get completely out of hand towards the end, when it is said that the Masters’ ability to stand guard over the True Cultural Values will manifest the superiority of the pure Germanic superculture on the day when all else has collapsed.
The ghosts of Nietzscheand the Nazis rumble in the back of our minds, but it’s all deftly dismantled in a grand final scene that leads up to the present day, with the stage crammed with perfectly costumed look-a-likes – cultural icons from Madonna to Marilyn Monroe, Kiss, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Liza Minelli, the Beatles, Pavarotti, Sinatra, you name it.
A giant neon sign with the text GERMANIA is lowered over the whole thing as a kind of declaration of origin, seemingly taking ownership of the (Germanic) origins of modern culture, or at least the principle that new trends and tendencies always stand on the shoulders of the previous ones, thus leading back to the honorable office of the Master Singers as zealous guardians of the ethical/aesthetic code of art.
And just as one gets puffed up in the spectator’s seat and wants to shout what the hell is going on in? Turns off the first three letters of the sign, leaving only MANIA to remind us how bad things can get if the philosophical trail of the Master Singers is followed uncritically.
Quite simply, it’s one of the most gifted takes on an opera I’ve seen in recent memory.
That said, it’s also okay to be angry with Wagner.
The Master Songs takes a play over five hours including two 20-minute intermissions, and that’s twice too long. Especially in the last act, you get the feeling that it ends all over again 7-8 times, when the tenor has long since fallen.
One wonders why there was no adult present to curb Wagner’s urge to go off the deep end.
In essence, he betrays the very DNA of the narrative by blowing the whistle on that part of the creative process called dramaturgical efficiency. So it’s not the length that matters, Herr Wagner.
I feel like giving six stars, but because of hesitation it ends up at five for an absolutely formidable staging of a monumental work that delights in an intelligent and entertaining staging.
And which, with distinguished vocal performances, not least by the likeable young American tenor Nicholas Brownlee, places itself on the very top opera shelf.
MY FRANKFURT QUICK TIPS
After theatre time, dine at the Fundus theatre restaurant on the corner of the theatre building itself.
The food is excellent, without being cusine or otherwise showy, but the atmosphere is lively and the service is on point. Creamy spinach soup with Riesling and rump steak with Rioja have never gone wrong, as far as I know.
It’s funny when some of the stars from the evening’s performance tumble in to applause and shouts of bravo.
Frankfurt is Germany’s 7th largest city with just 700,000 inhabitants. It is the home of the Euro and houses the European Central Bank as well as a number of other big business headquarters.
The city was so unfortunately bombed to pieces in 1944 but has risen as a German and international financial center with a Manhattan-like skyline along the River Main (a tributary of the Rhine) that is utterly un-European and beautiful in its own way.
The slightly unglamorous but also affluent middle-class modernity is reflected in large, exceedingly busy shopping centres, while a pretty, rebuilt area of old merchants’ houses in romantic half-timbering near the cathedral and town hall provides a welcome breathing space.
The large Christmas market in December is very similar to the one on Kgs. Nytorv in Copenhagen or Alexanderplatz in Berlin. I found a really good Frankfurter Stadtwurst and enjoyed it unreservedly before rushing inside to drink beer at the old brewery around the corner.
Frankfurt is a congenial acquaintance that I look forward to revisiting, preferably in slightly warmer months.
For example, when Barrie Kosky revives Handel’s Hercules in April/May 2023.