For Lucky Opera Lovers, A Vibrant Munich Festival

When the great German bass Kurt Moll came out for his curtain call after the second act of Die Meistersinger

When the great German bass Kurt Moll came out for his curtain call after the second act of Die Meistersinger at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich a few evenings ago, the audience gave him a hero’s ovation. Mr. Moll had appeared only fleetingly as the tipsy Night Watchman in old Nürnberg, but this was the 68-year-old singer’s last performance on any opera stage and the good people of Munich were not about to let him go gently. What was most extraordinary was not that the cheers lasted for a good 10 minutes, but that they were so palpably felt. For these operagoers, Mr. Moll wasn’t just an artist delivering his swansong; he was more like a departing relative who would be personally missed.

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More than any of Europe’s summer music extravaganzas, the venerable opera festival in Munich, which began in 1875, is like a cozy family reunion. Salzburg gets the glitterati, Bayreuth the Wagner flagellants. Munich, except for the few outsiders fortunate enough to land a ticket, draws people for whom attending opera in the lovely, neoclassical National Theatre on Max-Joseph-Platz is a way of life. I was lucky enough to catch the final performances of this summer’s festival—a heady mix of Handel, Verdi and Wagner—and I came away with contradictory feelings: at once exhilarated by four evenings of operatic vitality such as I have rarely encountered and depressed by the realization that, by comparison, so much of what I see and hear back home is stuffy, timid or both.

Radical updatings of Handel operas are plentiful on both sides of the Atlantic, but Munich’s production of Xerxes by the British director Martin Duncan is perhaps the most successful I’ve seen. The spectacle of robotic stagehands sweeping the bare stage before the music began wittily signaled the central conceit: Handel’s operas, first and foremost, are elaborate constructions for the theater. Throughout the evening, prosaic stage mechanics intruded on the work’s dramatic progress—which by some paradoxical sleight of hand served only to enhance the allure of one of Handel’s most inspired scores. A fine cast of seasoned Handelians furthered the joke by never deviating from the fervent self-absorption required by the High Baroque.

The next three productions—the culmination of the festival’s astonishing bounty of 27 different operas, a program that began in mid-June—were on the same level of trenchant inventiveness. Peter Konwitschny’s staging of Parsifal started from the sensible premise that murky medieval trappings risk trivializing Wagner’s most solemn score. By transforming the unhappy knights of the Grail into prisoners of some stark Cold War gulag (they were incarcerated under the stage boards), the East German director brought the fairytale into disturbing contemporary focus. From a stage naked except for a gigantic, spectral white tree, which had the capacity to evoke both death and rebirth, Wagner’s awesome music blazed.

Jürgen Rose’s rigorously uncluttered production of Don Carlo, which set the action in a black cave-like box, rigorously dispelled any tendency of Verdi’s most multilayered political drama to sprawl. The giant statue of a shadowy, crucified Christ-figure served as dreadful witness to the clash between church and state, love and family. The conductor, Zubin Mehta, whipped the principals and beautifully trained chorus into a riveting fury.

Munich, of course, is permeated by the titanic ghost of Wagner, whose patron, King Ludwig II, came close to building his idol a new opera house on the banks of the Isar before the composer stormed off to Bayreuth. Fittingly, Wagner’s sole convivial work, Die Meistersinger, closed the festival in a cheekily updated production by Thomas Langhoff. In this Nürnberg, the shoes in Hans Sachs’ cobbler shop might have been designed by Mario Batali. The patrons for the Prize Song contest were stylishly overdressed, as if for a contemporary wedding in Munich’s English Garden—just like the bourgeois operagoers who grinned back at them like mirror images. Indeed, the production seemed designed to show that despite all the rebuilding that Munich is still undergoing after the devastation of World War II, fundamentally not much has changed since Bavarian burghers organized that songfest 500 years ago.

Adding to the evening’s sense of occasion was the fact that the performance marked the end of an era. For Mr. Mehta, who conducted a flawless cast, this Meistersinger was his final appearance as music director, a post he had held with distinction for eight years. For the company’s artistic director, Sir Peter Jonas, it was the last hurrah in a career that for sheer verve probably outstrips that of any opera intendant of the past several decades.

Thirteen years ago, Mr. Jonas came to Munich from London, where he had reinvented the English National Opera and made it Europe’s most irrepressibly theatrical troupe. He brought with him such antic non-Germanic directors as Mr. Duncan, David Alden, Nicholas Hytner, Richard Jones and Tim Albery, all of whom were determined to strip opera of all mustiness. He introduced the conservative Munich audience to the virtually unknown Baroque masterpieces of Monteverdi, Cavalli, Purcell and Handel, many of which were revived for his last festival.

A tall, angular man with the figure of Ichabod Crane, Mr. Jonas exudes theatricality (he impersonated one of the onstage stagehands in Xerxes) and bristles with prescriptions for operatic vitality. A few years ago, the Metropolitan Opera’s trustees approached him to succeed Joseph Volpe as general manager. He turned them down: He wasn’t interested in producing spectacle for the sake of spectacle or being saddled with the challenge of fund-raising that the Met (unlike the heavily state-supported Bavarian State Opera) requires. For him, opera isn’t mere entertainment, but an exercise in total engagement—not just musical and visual, but intellectual and philosophical. He once remarked that a successful staging is the product of “taste and love …. [T]he adding of love constitutes the strength of the Intendant and his co-workers, who follow its vision. It shields them from the destructive effects of subsequent arguments which, if they are to fulfill their purpose, ought to be sharp and lively.”

Love was the operative feeling at the post-Meistersinger party, when 1,000 or so celebrants gathered to say goodbye to Maestro Mehta and Mr. Jonas. The setting was the immense backstage area of the opera house, and the guests included virtually everyone who plays a role in the company, from ushers and electricians to musicians and divas. An enormous amount of pasta was consumed. Bavarian beer flowed. Before leaving—about an hour after midnight—I asked one of the stage guards how long he thought the party would go on. “Oh, until 7 or 8 in the morning,” he said. “Nobody’s in any hurry to go home. For us, this is home.”

For Lucky Opera Lovers,  A Vibrant Munich Festival