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Wrestling with ghosts of the past: Beckmesser in Act II of  Barrie Kosky’s new Bayreuth “Meistersinger” (©Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuther Festspiele)



A decent interval after the Second World War — in 1951 — Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival restarted. It was a tricky moment because Hitler had been a great fan during the war, and became a personal friend of Wagner’s daughter-in-law, the English-born Winifred, who ran it. With her sons Wieland and Wolfgang now taking control, the festival severed its connection with their mother, safely ignoring Wagner’s own anti-Semitism, to say nothing of Winifred’s. Yet there was still a need to come to terms with the past, so a few years ago they put up monuments to the Jewish musicians who worked at Bayreuth, recording with taste and honesty what happened to them, many perishing in concentration camps.

This year they took a further step. Wieland Wagner (1917–66), eldest of the composer’s grandchildren, and a brilliantly creative opera director, was the excuse for a hundredth anniversary that served not only to celebrate his life but make further amends for the failings of the Hitler years.

The night before the festival opened they organised a special concert featuring three speeches: two short ones by family members, and a 40-minute address by Sir Peter Jonas, former general director of ENO and subsequently of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. Apart from praising Wieland Wagner, his task was to help lay to rest some not fully exorcised ghosts. Hitler’s name he mentioned numerous times, particularly in connection with Winifred, who wanted the great leader to be an “ersatz father” to Wieland. It was a bold speech, and as a friend of mine said, it could never have been given by a German.

Ghosts of the past were also laid to rest another way, this being the first time in the festival’s history that a Jewish director has staged a new production. Productions stay in the repertoire for about five years, with a new one almost every year, and this season was the turn of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. As Wagner buffs know, this ends with the great poet Hans Sachs delivering a paean to the Mastersingers of Nuremberg as guardians of German art, warning against foreign rule, and ending: Zerging’ in Dunst/ das heil’ge röm’sche Reich,/ uns bleibe gleich/ die heil’ge Deutsche Kunst. (Even should the Holy Roman Empire dissolve in mist, for us there would still remain holy German art.) I’ve never found this the least controversial, but some do, and directors handle it in different ways.

One recent British production shows portraits of the great and the good from German history, but Barrie Kosky, the Australian artistic director of the Komische Oper in Berlin and self-professed “gay Jewish kangaroo”, created a brilliant coup de théâtre. Everyone leaves the stage except for Sachs in 18th-century clothing, Wagner-style with a black velvet beret on his head.

Slowly the rear wall of the stage rises, and from nowhere appears a full-scale orchestra, while the theatre orchestra continues to play from below. Sachs himself takes a baton and conducts the onstage orchestra, creating a very clear message — it’s the music, stupid.

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