Editorial Board

London Editor:
(London UK)
Melanie Eskenazi

Regional Editor:
(UK regions and Worldwide)
Bill Kenny

Bill Kenny

Music Web Webmaster:

Len Mullenger


Classical Music Web Logs

Search Site With Google 

WWW MusicWeb

MusicWeb is a subscription-free site
Clicking  Google adverts on our pages helps us  keep it that way

Seen and Heard International Festival Review

Bayreuth Festival 2007 (1) Wagner,  Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg:  Soloists, Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Sebastian Weigle. Bayreuth Festival, 16.8.2007 (JPr)


Producer: Katharina Wagner,
Sets: Tito Steffens
Costumes: Michaela Barth
Lighting : Andreas Grüter


Katharina Wagner’s first Bayreuth production has resulted in a very brave attempt at what is a notoriously difficult work to get right.  What causes constant problems in Die Meistersinger is Hans Sachs’s final paean to the Nurembergers to ‘honour your German masters’. It is undoubtedly ‘cultural purity’ rather than ‘military strength’ that is  advocated here but the nationalistic themes were unfortunately distorted by a regular Bayreuth visitor, Hitler. 

A simplified plot outline gives us an ‘American Idol’, ‘X Factor’ or German equivalent idea of an eager untrained outsider (Walther) being coached to win his prize (Eva) by the wise old-head of Hans Sachs (the impresario and upholder of all that is good in German art) against  the advice of the anally-retentive conservative Beckmesser,  who wants to vote the callow youth off the show. Any director of this  music-drama needs to keep the audience interested for 4¾ hours whilst always  remembering that Wagner composed it as a comedy.

Such comedy as there is  usually resides in the character of Beckmesser. Elsewhere  there has been an attempt to ‘out’ him as a Jewish caricature and though  this should not concern us here, he is supposed to be based on the Viennese critic, Eduard Hanslick, an opponent of Wagner’s music, whose retort to the jibe was ‘He would reckon it an honour to be a Jew, but he was not’. Anyhow, Beckmesser’s wooing of Magdalene, his tuning his lute, the beating he receives from the people of Nuremberg, his humiliation at the end is where all the usual hilarity resides … apparently!

Katharina Wagner, her father  Wolfgang and his wife  Gudrun, have the planning of the Bayreuth Festival  firmly in their hands into the next decade and towards the 2013 Ring. The successor to 88  year old Wolfgang is the concern of the members of the Richard Wagner Foundation, the nominal supervisors of the festival who are preparing to gather this autumn to consider this matter once again. For Katharina, Wolfgang’s chosen heir, this production was unofficially her interview task.

To her credit, she did attempt to bring some quirky comedy to the opera: Eva and Magdalene’s girlish giggling and fooling around over Walther’s attentions in Act I and the whole concept of the Mastersingers as ‘masters’ in some stodgy Academy of Arts. Sachs, a shoemaker, appears as a chain-smoking shoeless alternative poet, very much the outsider in this group who wear mortars, gowns and suits; he is also suffering from writer’s block.  Walther is portrayed as a rock star-like graffiti artist,  daubing everything he finds with white paint. At  the end of one phrase at ‘mir zu Hoff’ he literally spits the consonant into Kothner’s face,  which was certainly funnier than it sounds.

During the Quintet in Act III  in another fleeting moment better seen than described, Katharina Wagner brightens up a passage where sometimes things  just halt in many productions. Here,  the separate future families of Magdalene/David and Eva/Walther are united and to Eva’s obvious delight she has two sons and a daughter compared to one of each for the other pair. Down come two frames, Eva amusingly shuffles her entire family sideways to get to the centre of theirs. Then her son becomes in obvious urgent need of a toilet and they all rush off.

Act I overall was the best of the three and had not curtain calls been banned by the festival due to the ‘unusual nature of the staging’ there might have been great jubilation. Admittedly,  there had been no church, no chalk marking by Beckmesser and no judgement on Walther’s song.  What there was instead, involved the putting together of a jigsaw of old Nuremberg which Walther naturally failed to do properly. The act ended covered in white paint  but crucially, it is at that point where Sachs begins to reflect on the dangers of such freedom of expression.

This scene becomes the key both to the path that Sachs will take during the other two acts and to the effect that his actions will have on Walther and Beckmesser. At the start of Act II we have not really left the confines of the Academy:  Sachs hammers away at a typewriter and  Beckmesser has no musical instrument. Eva and Magdalene have been dressed similarly so far, and swapping places for Beckmesser’s lecture (as it turns out) is not too difficult.
 Busts of  German artists, writers, thinkers and musicians line the sides of what may be the library throughout the opera and they show the first signs of  coming to life in the rumpus that results from Beckmesser upholding traditional values and from Sachs’s criticism at the typewriter keys. Post-modernism breaks out during the ensuing riot and Beckmesser, his ‘students’, Sachs, Walther (who has been busy painting away on Eva) are all covered in paint thrown from Campbell’s Soup Cans, the iconic symbol of 20th century pop art.

At the beginning of Act III,  Sachs is beginning to realise everything has gone too far and he must put an end to what he has started. During his ‘Wahn’ monologue he is haunted by the large ghostly heads of the German ‘great and good’ including Wagner who seems to be very attentive to a swan. Sachs is clearly beginning to accept that complete freedom to express oneself however one wishes, is all well and good but people must be given boundaries not to cross :  censorship in other words. The dark shirt he has been wearing so far is replaced with a white one and  he soon conforms,  becoming suited and booted like the others in the ‘guild’. The 'song' Walther has dreamed up is a set design for a tableaux and he prepares a conventional one on the basis of if you can’t beat them, then join them. It is this concept that Beckmesser steals, he now has turned from conventional suit to T shirt (‘Beck in Town’) and jeans,  and will arrive to sing at the end as a performance artist complete with sex doll, naked man and balloons – yes,  it becomes that sort of evening in the end.

Hans Sachs’s journey ends with him as a morally tortured, artistically compromised man. The latter I have given some explanation for, the former becomes clear through his repressed desire for Eva who teases him continuously in their encounters and the one in Act III is redolent with foot fetishism. After the Quintet,  Sachs is taken captive by his nightmarish artistic lineage, the large heads in Third Reich style (Schiller, Goethe, Dürer, Beethoven, Bach, Katharina’s great-grandfather Richard Wagner, and others) disport and expose themselves during the ‘Entry of the Mastersingers’ with some equally outlandish large female dolls. German art is in meltdown. We then realise that we have been witness to a theatrical presentation:  a curtain closes, the German ‘masters’ take their bows and exit. Then a ‘conductor and production team’ take a curtain call but are bound and gagged by Sachs colleagues who are now acting as his henchmen in an authoritarian backlash. The captives are consigned to a large bin and in a chilling scene with many historical references,  they are immolated; finally being reduced to what looks something like a golden stag. The shadows cast at this point, fall  just a little short of suggesting a Nazi salute from those observing the conflagration. The ‘stag’ is presented to Walther after his prize-winning ‘musical play’ and the award is accompanied, to Eva’s obvious delight, by a substantial cheque.

Katharina Wagner’s courage then deserts her just a little, I believe. As  Hans Sachs metamorphoses into a brutal fascist - probably Hitler -for ‘Verachtet mir die Meister nicht’ and further Third Reich statues symbolically represent the supposed best of German art,  she denies us the ironic use of Nazi banners that Wieland Wagner once used in another context. These are  clearly needed here and  might have silenced some of the booers who had checked in their brains at the Garderobe along with their raincoats. We see how the wishes of the mob for what is conventional and popular wins out in the end.

This has been a long exposition of what I think the production meant but I should explain that it did not convey the great themes well enough:  after Act I there were too many ancillary ideas, too much imagery and action to comprehend so that the path the production took meandered all over the place. Nobody stayed still on stage for long and the eyes of the audience never really knew where to look for the best. A species of opera animal called a dramaturg haunts opera production these days and particularly those of Wagner. They whisper intellectual contextual and conceptual notions into the ear of the director which may or may not cloud their original vision if they have one. This type of 'ideas person' has  been generally little unknown to opera in Britain until Keith Warner’s current Covent Garden Ring which is the result of such collaboration and is a similar mess in parts. Katharina Wagner’s favourite dramaturg is Robert Sollich.

Equally problematical is the musical side of the performance,  which is such that if the artists were a bunch hand-selected by Katharina herself,  then she is more in need of a musical advisor than a dramaturg.  Sebastian Weigle’s conducting seemed to have little light and shade. The major vocal disappoint was Amanda Mace’s Eva:she was a superb actor in the character she was given but that was not good enough, her ill-tuned ‘Selig, wir die Sonne’ needed to be ‘blessed’ and not have the audience reaching to stick their fingers in their ears.
 Another singer the audience disliked was Franz Hawlata as Sachs. At the performance I saw he did have some voice left at the end of the opera but his singing been a problem earlier  I understand.  Yet I have heard worse vocal performances at Covent Garden boisterously cheered and it is possibly that he has not got this role completely sung into his voice as yet. It  may come with more performances.  Norbert Ernst was a sober, serious David and Markus Eiche a gloriously obsequious Kothner, and both had solid if not outstanding voices. The veteran Artur Korn now in his seventieth year, brought great experience to the role of Pogner whilst spending his first summer at the festival. These soloists were backed up by a reliable group of mastersingers and supported by the incomparable festival chorus under the direction of Eberhard Friedrich.

Robert Dean Smith was programmed  to be Walther but evidently found himself in artistic disagreement with the production. His replacement, Klaus Florian Vogt went from a love-sick, unheroic, pop star-like Walther to conventionality in a suit very well indeed and deserved the ovation he received. Most importantly,  his voice gave me the most lyrical and secure Walther I have ever heard live - and I have heard a few. He was only surpassed in casting by Michael Volle's caustic and effectively sung Beckmesser another singer  whose committed acting appeared to be completely at ease with Katharina Wagner’s new realisation of his character.

It would be interesting to see the financial balance sheet for this Die Meistersinger as a lot of money seems to have been thrown (sometimes literally) onto the stage. If Katharina Wagner wanted to create a bit of a scandal before the Foundation meets,  then she succeeded,  but the production does  have within it the potential of a significant achievement. What she has done so far is very brave indeed:  I hope and believe she will be equally courageous to learn from her experience this year and use Werkstatt Bayreuth and the opportunity it affords, to revise her ideas next year to bring more clarity to Acts II and III. I for one will be eager to see what she does then and to see more of her stagings in the future whether or not she succeeds her father.

Jim Pritchard

Pictures © Enrico Nawrath 2007 (www.enonava.de)


Back to the Top     Back to the Index Page

Seen and Heard
, one of the longest established live music review web sites on the Internet, publishes original reviews of recitals, concerts and opera performances from the UK and internationally. We update often, and sometimes daily, to bring you fast reviews, each of which offers a breadth of knowledge and attention to performance detail that is sometimes difficult for readers to find elsewhere.

Seen and Heard publishes interviews with musicians, musicologists and directors which feature both established artists and lesser known performers. We also feature articles on the classical music industry and we use other arts media to connect between music and culture in its widest terms.

Seen and Heard aims to present the best in new criticism from writers with a radical viewpoint and welcomes contributions from all nations. If you would like to find out more email Regional Editor Bill Kenny.


Search Site  with FreeFind


Any Review or Article

Contributors: Marc Bridle, Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling,  Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, John Leeman, Sue Loder,Jean Martin, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, Raymond Walker, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)

Site design: Bill Kenny 2004