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Bayreuth Festival [2] Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg:  Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival. Conductor: Sebastian Weigle. Bayreuth Festspielhaus, 27.8.2008. (JPr)


Katharina Wagner’s production of Die Meistersinger was the undoubted ‘scandal’ of last year’s Festival. It appears not to have done her chances of succeeding her father as the Festival’s director any harm and even if that has not been decided at the time of writing then at least one major new Bayreuth production has still been announced for her during the next decade. Dagmar Kraus’s film Baptism of Fire (Clasart Classics) can also be obtained that charts the genesis, rehearsal, first performance and reaction to Katharina Wagner’s Die Meistersinger as well as many revelations about the inner workings of Bayreuth. In several cosmetic changes at this year’s Festival – particularly involving corporate entertainment and more souvenirs - this was the first Siemens Festspielnacht at the Festplatz in Bayreuth where the first performance this year on 27th July was shown free and has been available for a fee streamed on the internet. This recording will be available on DVD from November and people who have not seen the production will be able to make up their own minds.

I had similar reactions to last year,  when I saw this staging for the first time, and for me the evening has much dramatic strength that outweighs the weaknesses. Act I is the best and most coherent and for the majority of Act II it all works too,  at least as far as the riot. Undoubtedly Ms Wagner and her dramaturg, Robert Sollich, lose their way in Act III but since I was gripped by the last scene and entirely bought into their concept by then, however simple it might be and however long they take to get to their conclusion.

So what is the ‘Konzept’? Well,  that from failed rebellion comes dictats and fascism. Hitler was rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and look what happened aftewards; simplistic this may be but it is not far form Ms Wagner's mind. If they had accepted him as a painter (he was not particularly good actually) how the course of the twentieth century may have been altered. Katharina Wagner has Hans Sachs go from the barefoot non-conformism of the stuffy educational establishment to which he belongs to become if not Hitler himself then certainly Goebbels as he spits out ‘Habt Acht’ against the foreigners who might dilute what is German; he is iconically spotlit and flanked by two huge Third Reich statues. This is clearly not what Wagner meant because he was concerned with German art with a small ‘a’,  yet we know how Wagner’s words and music were (ab)used for propaganda purposes in WWII and it is important to reflect on this from time to time.

To complement Hans Sachs’s journey Beckmesser derails from the collar and tie and the stuffy conservatism of Act I to become a performance artist with his ‘Beck in Town’ T shirt in Act III. Walther does the reverse and the free-thinking, paint splashing rebel pop artist realises he will win the prize by joining the orthodox masses because he cannot defeat them. As the ‘riot’ shows him, chaos and destruction may not be the way to go as paint reigns down from Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. Change is coming but it could easily go too far and create the inevitable backlash.

Yes,  we are light years away from an opera than has been described as ‘The longest single smile in the German language’, Wagner’s only mature comedy, but of course it is much more complex than that,  containing as it does Wagner’s views on historical events and his reflections on his ideals and artistic aspirations. The incipient ‘irony’ that caused the composer to abandon the work for a while after his first prose sketch in 1845 is played up by Katharina Wagner so that in Sachs’s Wahn monologue not only does he accept his part in the violence for of the riot as usual, but here he relinquishes his ideals to restore order for the greater good. This is also in an unimaginable way different to what Wagner expected and is a warning to us all. Past generations have not heeded this warning yet, so it is up to us to do so.

Act I is set in the grand hall of that prestigious ‘educational establishment’ and Walther emerges from a piano and starts painting everything he can find - which includes musical instruments, walls and eventually even Eva. The Mastersingers live their lives ‘by the book’,  in this case the yellow Reclam edition of libretti found on sale at the Bayreuth bookstall. David is clerk to the guild. It is not Walther’s song that is rejected but his modern art. Act II involves a large upright hand on stage to make do for an elder tree and eventually lowers to shelter Eva and Walther. Sachs does not make any shoes and taps away at a typewriter to the annoyance of Beckmesser who has no lute of course. Beckmesser lectures his students and tries to impress a sleeping Magdalene. The mistakes in his song are signalled by trainers falling down onto the stage. The masters (it is difficult to call them ‘mastersingers’) lose their gowns and mortars boards and are in their underwear. Busts of great German figures of the past that have been lining the walls come alive and the paint strewn riot ensues with all its implications for Sachs and Beckmesser.

Sachs, Walter, Eva, David, Magdalene as well as Pogner and assorted children pose for happy family portraits during the Quintet in Act III. Then to  ensure Sachs reversal to arch conservatism further,  he is visited, bound and gagged by the great German artistic figures on the past (including Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, Bach, Dürer, Beethoven and Wagner himself) this time with ghostly outsized heads. At one point they form a chorus line and the ‘production within a production’ has them eventually don horns and prosthetic phalluses to cavort with some doll-like chorus girls. Beethoven is last to leave the stage,  straining to hear imaginary booing before the ‘production team’ takes its bow, is captured and consigned to flames to generate the ‘Golden Calf’ as the prize for the final contest at the end of the opera -  along with the large cheque that is later brought on stage. The wealth of Katharina Wagner’s symbolism had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer here yet somehow I was transfixed.

For the final scene we are in a TV studio and Beckmesser - in a change from last year’s inflatable sex doll - ‘moulds’ a living naked  ‘Adam and Eve’ couple from clay who proceed to pelt the studio audience with apples. Walther’s song wins because of his traditional Elizabethan depiction of a plumpish maiden being wooed under a flowery bower. Walther rejects the prize before Sachs/Goebbels/Hitler gives his final dire warning.

Reviews about this Meistersinger will always be more about the production than the music because, truth be told, it is not a great performance in that respect. Under Sebastian Weigle, a former first horn for Barenboim in Berlin, the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra sounded a lot coarser than it did during the previous night’s Tristan. With so much going on to look at,  the orchestra were mere accompanists to the stage pictures. Orchestral colour and balance came to the fore in the more introspective moments such as Sachs’s Flieder and Wahn monologues and Walther’s ‘Morgenlich leuchtend’;  elsewhere the crowd scenes were rushed as simply something to get over wth,  because really in this production there is no sense of community at any time. Nevertheless the chorus whether seen - or as often here unseen – were in their usual stunning form.

Carola Gruber repeated her schoolgirlish Magdalene alongside newcomer Michaela Kaune's equally playful Eva; which she is at least until she discovers Walther. Neither have outstanding voices but Ms Kaune was a significant improvement on Amanda Mace last year. I warmed to Nobert Ernst’s David and Markus Eiche’s irrepressibly fussy and fey Kothner. All the smaller masters seemed  well cast too. Regrettably Franz Hawlata continues to disappoint as Sachs: do we not expect a Sachs to have the voice to get through the entire evening? Of course, even the great John Tomlinson never truly got to end in full, secure, voice in any performance I saw of his as Sachs at Covent Garden but the Bayreuth audience should expect better. At least Hawlata’s hoarseness was only really apparent during his final peroration this time and actually seemed quite apt in the dramatic circumstances. Michael Volle acted what Katharina Wagner asks of him superbly and energetically. This Beckmesser is on stage at the end longer than most and whether singing or not seems very committed to his director’s ideas. His sang with great resonance and impeccable diction throughout the long evening and is clearly a Sachs of the future himself.

Vocal honours however go to Klaus Florian Vogt’s Walther; full of ardent lyricism it is the product of an excellent technique. He completed this challenging high-lying role sounding as fresh as when he began it. He will be worth seeing in Lulu (alongside Michael Volle) at Covent Garden next year  and it is a pity that it is not any of his Wagner repertoire that brings him, another former horn player, there for the first time.

im Pritchard

Picture: Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Enrico Navarath

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