Hitler’s favourite opera, composed by music’s greatest anti-semite, ending in an extended racist rant, set in the city of retribution against Nazism. Opera directors shift uneasily in their seats when trying to plot their path through the minefield that is Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; most opt for ignoring the racist aspects altogether – after all, it’s all about the music, isn’t it?

Anne Schwanewilms (Eva), Klaus Florian Vogt (Walther) and Michael Volle (Hans Sachs) © Enrico Nawrath
Anne Schwanewilms (Eva), Klaus Florian Vogt (Walther) and Michael Volle (Hans Sachs)
© Enrico Nawrath

The label “most opera directors” does *not* apply to Barrie Kosky.

Kosky’s new take on Meistersinger, the highlight of this year’s Bayreuth Festival, starts and ends with the point – obvious when you think about it – that Meistersinger is brim filled with the composer’s wish-fulfilment. The central figure of Hans Sachs (ultimate arbiter of good taste and musical progress) is obviously an author proxy, but so is Walther (an instinctive artist who breaks all the rules yet creates the greatest music) and even young David (an impetuous, full-hearted lover).

Warning - many spoilers follow! In the Act 1 Prelude alone, we are treated to more ideas, more brilliantly executed than in many a full-length opera that I’ve seen. We are in Wagner’s mansion Wahnfried, and Kosky is drawing on the equivalence between the characters in the opera and the people in the composer’s life, perfectly costumed and made up to look like their contemporary portraits. Wagner is Sachs, of course, Cosima is Eva, Cosima’s father Franz Liszt is Pogner, Hermann Levi, the conductor who was Wagner’s friend but whom he abused horribly, is the hapless Sixtus Beckmesser. The composer’s favourite things are brought as gifts: fine shoes, silks, perfumes. As Wagner elbows Liszt away from the grand piano and starts to play, the piano lid lifts and the other characters in the drama emerge from inside, clad in full mediaeval costume, and the action begins.

Johannes Martin Kränzle (Beckmesser) © Enrico Nawrath
Johannes Martin Kränzle (Beckmesser)
© Enrico Nawrath

Kosky has bigger resources than usual with which to display some of his directorial talents, most notably his ability to create tableaux and his skills in crowd control: the chorus can be in freeze-frame, there can be restless shuffling or full scale mayhem. It’s in mayhem at the end of Act 2 that Kosky pulls off the biggest shock: as Beckmesser is being mercilessly beaten by David and his buddies, a giant Jewish head inflates to fill the whole proscenium, before being beaten and bowed. Let no-one be in any doubt, the director is telling us, that this is anything but an anti-semite rant. Another tour de force comes at the end of Act 1, when we are made to realise that we are in the city of the Nuremberg trials and that Wagner himself is in the dock.

Michael Volle (Hans Sachs) © Enrico Nawrath
Michael Volle (Hans Sachs)
© Enrico Nawrath

One expects musical standards to be high here, but even by Bayreuth standards, this was an outstanding cast. The audience favourite – to judge by the curtain call decibel meter – was Klaus Florian Vogt’s Walther, and it’s easy to see why: there’s an unstrained clarity and freshness to his voice that can’t fail to seduce, with bewitching control of line in Walther’s many cantabile passages. On the cantabile-Sprechstimme scale, Michael Volle’s Hans Sachs veered closer to the latter than I might have liked, even tending to shout at times, but I can only admire Volle’s huge stage and vocal presence. If others have brought more humanity to Sachs, I have never heard more authority. Günther Groissböck provided a contrasting bass voice, bringing great lyricism and true tenderness to the role of Veit Pogner, as well as looking the spitting image of portraits of the elderly Franz Liszt. Anne Schwanewilms gave us some fine acting as Eva, particularly good in her cat-on-hot-coals impatience in Act 3, as well as giving a clear, pure, well weighted soprano. The Act 3 quintet – Schwanewilms, Volle and Vogt with Daniel Behle’s David and Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s Magdalena – achieved rare send-you-off-into-dreamland beauty. Johannes Martin Kränzle was superb, sympathetic Beckmesser.

Günther Groissböck (Pogner) © Enrico Nawrath
Günther Groissböck (Pogner)
© Enrico Nawrath

Bayreuth’s unique layout does wonders for balance between orchestra and singers, but tends to create a blended orchestral sound rather than bringing out individual elements. Given that starting point, Philippe Jordan led a strong orchestral performance, the pace neither flagging nor too rushed, the musical beauty allowed to shine through.

But what about that notorious ending? Kosky pulls off another of his surprising tableaux: a full orchestra appears on stage, and Sachs-as-Wagner conducts it, riding off into a sort of musical sunset. Kosky has said that this was his starting point for his whole concept, but personally, I don’t buy it: after the intensity of the depiction of Beckmesser’s victimisation, letting Wagner off so lightly smells of a cop-out, and there’s the most egregious violation of the Chekhov’s Gun principle when the Nuremberg Trials set disappears in a puff of smoke, taking the allied flags and the solitary Military Policeman with it, having served for two acts as nothing more than a backdrop.

But make your own minds up. This extraordinarily inventive staging and musically sublime production deserves to be seen.