Art isn’t easy, a composer wrote once. Especially art about art.
At least Stephen Sondheim wrote about a real artist and a real masterpiece. If the audience is supposed to believe the art in your story is great, you have to produce art that is, well, genuinely great.
Take A Star Is Born. No, not that one. No, not that one either. The new one. When a skittish Lady Gaga is summoned on stage by supposed rock god Bradley Cooper to sing her unrecorded future hit, we’re supposed to believe this remarkable banger will launch a megastar on the world. Now, Shallow is a perfectly serviceable pop duet, but it’s hard to buy into the hype.
No such problems in the hands of one Richard Wagner.
When our hero Walther steps up to the mic in act three of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Wagner’s musically sublime, vaguely autobiographical, uncomfortably nationalistic “comedy”, his prize-winning ditty, Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein, raises the roof. The meistersingers, a guild of craftsman who really know how to belt out a tune, are immediately convinced the knighted outsider is worthy of their exclusive club.
You won’t understand every scene. You will grow impatient with it at times. But you didn’t love every minute of that last Netflix series you binged, either. There is joy in the journey.
And so are we. After some four hours of intricately woven opera, Wagner somehow lifted the bar when it mattered. As truly great artists do.
This is certainly great art, all 375-odd bum-numbing minutes of it (including an hour and a half of intervals), a masterpiece restored with respect and confidence by Opera Australia in a co-production with the Royal Opera House and Beijing’s Centre for Performing Arts.
To unpack it all is to have the space and intelligence I lack. The marvellous mosaic of leitmotif. The rolling, rumbling, roiling orchestration. The patriotism and authoritarianism in the libretto (it was Adolf Hitler’s favourite opera for a reason). But ultimately, a celebration of human achievement, more naked and more personal than the mystical, otherworldly operas he wrote before and after this, including his four-part Ring Cycle masterwork.
Its scale, alone, makes this day and night in the State Theatre a rare experience. Too big for the puny pit at the Sydney Opera House. Too expensive to perform anywhere, really, for any length of time. You won’t understand every scene. You will grow impatient with it at times. But you didn’t love every minute of that last Netflix series you binged, either. There is joy in the journey. Power in the persistence. A true life experience in having the wave crash over you and drag you out to unknown places. To feel perfectly small and stupid next to a towering work of genius. To succumb.
This new production, helmed by the Dane and Royal resident director Kasper Holten, smashes through the tradition before our eyes. Not unlike his previous Opera Australia import, King Roger. The set from Mia Stensgaard (also the divine Eugene Onegin), a palatial clubhouse for the mob of meistersingers and architectural wonder in itself, gives way to something more starkly modern, exposing the mechanics of performance. And a medieval world of knights and cobblers collides with tuxedoed waiters taking iPhone selfies. It doesn’t always work. And the staging, lit by designer Jesper Kongshaug, can lack intimacy in smaller moments. But it doesn’t get in the way, either.
The Wagnerian firepower on stage is formidable, world beaters all at the top of their game.
Baby-faced Pietari Inkinen, who conducted both of Melbourne’s recent Ring cycles, conjures the necessary exuberance and precision from the Orchestra Victoria players. This is more tender than the Ring operas, more buoyant, and the endurance athletes of the pit are responsively supple.
As are the meistersingers, an incredible 17 of them listed as principals. Another Melbourne Ring impressor, German tenor Stefan Vinke returns to Australia as the triumphant Walther, with a flowing mane and florid voice in tact. Compatriot Michael Kupfer-Radecky, as amiable cobbler and vocal coach Sachs, sits at the heart of the piece, with an easy-listening bass-baritone instrument finely tuned. He’s a unaffectedly convincing presence on stage, too.
The women have grossly little agency, but sing perfectly sweetly. OA regular Natalie Aroyan, an impressive Aida earlier this year, plays Eva, the woman put up as a prize by her father. The winning singer wins her hand (the plot is essentially The Voice crossed with The Bachelorette, and almost as long as the finales of those shows). Mezzo-soprano Dominica Matthews is Eva’s feisty maid Madeleine. Tenor Nicholas Jones is Madeleine’s beau David.
In the middle of act three, the five of them sing a magnificent extended quintet (Selig, wie die Sonne meines Glückes lacht) in spotlights front of stage. It’s a break from the chaos and a stirring focus on musicality, something the production could have done with more of.
Of the other principals, you can’t ignore Warwick Fyfe as the scheming, stupid Beckmesser. A buffa specialist and now celebrated Wagner fool (he almost stole the Ring as Alberich), it’s another full-body performance of pratfalls, pathos and powerful baritone singing.
But that’s Wagner for you, demanding total conviction by performers and audience. This art isn’t by no means easy. And all the more exciting for it.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg plays the State Theatre, Arts Centre for three more performances on November 17, 19 and 22.
Photo by Jeff Busby