Monday, 5 January 2015
Onwards to Nuremberg
The masters await next Monday afternoon (12 January) as my Opera in Depth course at the marvellous Frontline Club sails on, with loyal as well as new students on board. The outcome will be 10 glorious (I hope) weeks on Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Various Wagnerian organisations have proved incredibly supportive in offering me publicity, which means that you can see the full flyer via this excellent site. As well as The Wagner Society, The Wagnerian and Wagner Opera also helped out: thanks to true Mensch Barry Millington for pointing me in the right directions. Thanks too to the Goethe-Institut London which has also been supportive. I hope to see a few more folk signing up as a result. You can contact me via the e-mail given in all three links if you're interested in coming along.
Not all my loyal followers are 'doing' this term as we went through the opera five years ago, when Richard Jones (now CBE, if he really has accepted it) launched his great production at Welsh National Opera with Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs (the original pictured above). I have huge confidence in Iain Paterson who takes over the role as Jones reworks his production for English National Opera in February: at the very least Paterson should be rock-solid with the stamina to get through the part.
Limbering up over the half-quiet, half-social days since 2015 began, I've been listening to a Meistersinger Prelude a day, doing a mini Building a Library so that I can serve up a compound of the best next week (by the way, having on the last occasion dealt with the toughest BaL of them all, Parsifal, I have another coming up in March concentrating on a work of much lesser length but made of very tough stuff; not sure I can reveal what it is yet). There's so much warmth and humanity in the Beecham and Strauss recordings of the Vorspiel (the latter taped in Vienna in, ahem, 1944). And what a splendid thing it is to follow the C major of Bach's Christmas Day Cantata BWV63, an early work from the Weimar years no whit less stocked high with invention than the later Leipzig works, with Wagner's.
I've also plunged into the rather awkardly printed English translation of E T A Hoffmann's second story compendium, Die Serapionsbrüder (The Serapion Brethren, ostensibly about a group of artistic friends which gathers to tell tales). The impetus came from the best substantial Wagner biography I've come across, by Joachim Köhler. As usual there's not enough about the music, but where Köhler scores is in unearthing so many of the literary sources which Wagner rarely acknowledged.
Hoffmann (selfsketched above the previous paragraph) would seem to be the most important of them all. Would Wagner have hit upon the theme for his Meistersinger and its central character Hans Sachs without Hoffmann's pointer in the direction of 'Johann Christoph Wagenseil's work on the glorious craft of the Mastersingers'? He cites it at the beginning of 'The Singers' Contest [on the Wartburg]'. Needless to say that's the root of Tannhäuser, though Wagner's eponymous minstrel is nowhere to be seen. His counterpart is the devilishly inspired Heinrich von Ofterdingen, whose true opponent is indeed Wolfram von Eschenbach (illustrated here in a medieval manuscript).
As a story, Hoffmann's is preferable to Wagner's typical fusion of three different tales, to me at any rate - I like all the spooky-supernatural stuff, though it's perhaps a bit too close to the hell-trafficking of Weber's Der Freischütz. 'Master Klingsohr' is the major magus of unearthly powers here, too. For the high spirits of Meistersinger, and the pitting of handsome young suitor versus pedantic nincompoop, I'd hazard a guess that the very lively tale of 'Albertine's Wooers' is a source. It's a wonderful fusion of bürgerlich Berlin with the fantastical, ending in a spectacular denouement based on the three caskets of The Merchant of Venice. The pedant's compensation prize is a book which, when lodged in his pocket, will come out as whatever special edition of whatever work he desires to read at the time. Wouldn't mind that myself: infinitely preferable to the intolerable Kindle.
The human worlds of Hoffmann's tales and Meistersinger may not overlap with the giant canvases of Anselm Kiefer*, but Wagner's metaphysics certainly do. I'd been bowled over by the two huge paintings in Basel's Fondation Beyeler - I realise more than ever that Renzo Piano's interior spaces must be the best possible for them - and thus keen to get to the Royal Academy (pictured above with one of two Kiefer installations in the courtyard), which I only just did in time before the exhibition closed. But I was unprepared for the deep structures which Kiefer and Wagner share, beyond the obvious references in the series of works Kiefer painted in the wood-lined attic room of his studio in Hornback throughout the early 1970s. What better setting for Nothung
and the Parsifal series (bloody spear replacing sword)?
I'd better point out immediately that the small reproductions here do especially poor service to the giddying scale of the canvases, which you simply have to experience in the flesh, as it were (even the catalogue doesn't come close to the 'live' sensation). In one way these look like forecloths or backdrops to fill an entire stage, and as I wandered from room to room I found the ideas for what's behind or beneath each of the Ring operas. In fact to adapt these overwhelming, fluid statements as operatic sets would be to reduce the level of discombobulation they induce. Kiefer adds diverse materials or lets them decay when he feels too comfortable with the first finished product. The weathering and the additions make them more sculptures than canvases; each needs to be walked in front of and seen sideways from both ends.
Least reproducible of all are the lead sheets studded with diamonds sparkling as you pass, which immediately brought to my mind for some reason the slate-clearing at the end of Götterdämmerung. The notions of blossoms rising from the rubble, of atoms constantly reforming, of a beginning inherent in an apparent end, is what it seems to me the Wagner of the Ring and Kiefer have most in common.
In addition, I can at least evoke my constant amazement at the deep-veined parallels. The exhibition room of surprising colour suggests the prelapsarian Rhine at the start of Das Rheingold , even if nature here is all above the surface of the earth. The hanging stone of Hortus Conclusus could even become the lump of gold gleaming in the flux. I can't find a reproduction of it, but something of the same effect is to be seen in the Morgenthau Plan (pictured above), somewhat more threatening due to the Van Gogh-derived crows above the wheatfield.
The building of Valhalla could be suggested, if only just above the level of the river, by the Rhine collages of woodcuts on canvas with acrylic and shellac executed between 1982 and 2013. One of Kiefer's constructions has the polyhedron from Dürer's Melancholia hovering above it.
Siegfried's woods meet their dark, disturbing mirror-image in Kiefer's
and the artist prone beneath sunflowers reminds me of Siegfried meditating on nature, death and the stirrings of love in the 'Forest Murmurs' sequence
while the hall of the Gibichung could be any one of the decayed Speer-like spaces such as this one - Interior, 1981.
If only there were some way of bringing Wagner's music and Kiefer's art together without reducing the significance of either. An impossible task except in the viewer's mind, perhaps. What matters is that, for all his manifold faults, Wagner caught the apocalyptic tones of one era just as Kiefer has so much to say, at the most profound and troubling level, about the world, and not just specifically the German one, since 1945 (the day after he was born, an allied bomb destroyed the house next door in Donaueschingen and he grew up playing in the rubble). I've not often been so shaken up by works of art as I was here, and above all by Isis and Osiris, with projecting lead books hinting obliquely at the monstrous burning and a possible rising from the earth, which nearly finished me off. Again, reproduction in much reduced form does little for its impact, but you may get the gist.
Curiously only the week before I also shed tears in the last of the exhibition rooms devoted to Rembrandt's late works at the National Gallery's great 'show': such a look on Bathsheba's face, such tenderness in Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph.
This is timeless humanity, both a corrective and a counterbalance to Kiefer's metaphysics. And of course Rembrandt is as capable of embracing near-darkness as Kiefer is of diving into colour. Chief of my favourites among the etchings is a Nativity where you really have to accustom yourself to the light to see what's going on.
I loved both exhibitions and can't think of any I've seen that have moved me more.
*Copyright tangles with the Kiefer images left me confused as to whom I should credit in many instances. I plead 'fair use' , but shall remove or (preferably) credit if asked.