‘I don’t like being booed, it hurts every time.’ This behind-the-scenes
documentary about Katharina Wagner’s Meistersinger production
at Bayreuth in 2007 treads a fine line between celebrating its
originality and acknowledging the negative publicity it generated.
Most of the footage however was shot during the rehearsal process,
so the reaction of the press and the opening night dignitaries
is mostly discussed in anticipation rather than retrospect. And
momentous as the production was - it was Katharina’s first for
the Festspielhaus and the prelude to her later appointment as
its co-director - the preparations and behind the scene activities
were fairly run-of-the-mill. She has some grand set-pieces – dancing
statues, a paint fight, the entire chorus rising though the floor
in the last act – and most of the interviews are with the technical
staff who are charged with pulling these effects off. Most of
the discussion therefore focuses on the impracticality of the
staging rather than its historical significance for the house.
tensions are apparent from the start. On the first day of
rehearsal - or the first that the cameras attend - the lead
singer, Robert Dean Smith as Walther, pulls out of the production
in protest at Katharina’s approach. He is replaced by the
more compliant Claus Florian Vogt, who apparently toes the
line. Vogt is later shown fielding awkward questions from
a roomful of journalists and assuring them that the atmosphere
in rehearsal is relaxed and friendly. It is clear from his
body language that he would rather be somewhere else.
format of the programme intersperses the chronology of the
preparations with the acts of the opera. Katharina is regularly
interrupted in her work to explain to the camera the rationale
of her interpretation. And the sheer number of interpretive
ideas that this staging applies to the piece means that a
large proportion of the documentary’s generous 82 minutes
is given over to these explanations. Fortunately, the brief
excerpts from the performances show a very clear, visual symbolic
language, suggesting that such explanations would be unnecessary
for the live audience.
paraphrase Katharina’s approach in brief: the idea of ‘Sacred
German Art’ is set in opposition to creative artistic activity.
The Meistersinger are old-fashioned and bureaucratic.
Walter is a cool ‘performance artist’ whose appearance in
Nuremberg upsets these traditions. The fight at the end of
act 2 represents the people rebelling in favour of funky new
art - hence the paint fight. The most radical reinterpretations
are of the characters of Hans Sachs and Beckmesser, the former
becoming more conservative in reaction to the changes - hence
his paean to German art at the end - and the latter transformed
into the work’s hero, the artist who actually gets it and
starts producing something genuinely new.
autobiographical dimension for Katharina is hard to ignore.
As a young innovator challenging deeply ingrained orthodoxies
her surrogate in the story passes from Walter in act 1 to
Sachs in act 2 to Beckmesser in act 3. But the documentary
leaves that point unsaid. It is also light on the historical
significance of the production, concentrating instead on the
details of the staging. Its radicalism is regularly mentioned
and Franz Hawlata, who sings Hans Sachs, points out in one
interview that Meistersinger is one of the few core-repertoire
works not to have been presented in a modern staging, giving
the team extraordinary interpretive freedom. Among the cast
and crew, Hawlata is the face to appear most frequently in
front of the camera as defender/champion of Katharina’s approach.
Conductors Christian Thielemann and Sebastian Weigle also
do so on a number of occasions. The point is made towards
the end of the documentary that support for her amongst the
senior music staff is crucial to her long-term future with
the house. This comes as part of the closing sequence, which
is already outdated, in that it speculates about succession
to the directorship of the festival. The programme was made
in 2007 before the issue was settled in the autumn of 2008
with Katharina and her half sister Eva Pasquier sharing the
post. Katharina was the first choice for Wolfgang Wagner,
their father, who was then in charge. His presence in the
documentary is as a silent observer of the preparations, regularly
attending rehearsals, but making sure that he does not give
a hint of what his opinions might be as to this radical reinterpretation.
I have one grumble with the programme, it is with the post-production.
It has been edited to look like America’s Next Top Model
with John Williams soundalike library music. There are cuts
where a halo appears around everything, which then expands
to fill the screen with white. The originally German voiceover
has been dubbed into very annoying American. The programme
does everything in its power to get the audience on Katharina’s
side. We are told at one point that ‘she loves rock and roll
and working out’. She comes across as likable enough, but
radicalism and ambition are the personality traits that come
through most strongly. One criticism of Katharina’s Meistersinger
that this documentary inadvertently supports is the excess
of ideas; there are just too many reinterpretations, visual
gags and cultural references. On the other hand, this augurs
well for the future of the festival - its new co-director
is clearly going to be an abundant source of new and original
concepts. It is also clear that she is going to annoy a lot
of people along the way.
Footnote: Seen and Heard's
Jim Pritchard has reviewed Katharina Wagner's Bayreuth Meistersinger
twice. Once in 2007
(review here) and again in 2008 (here).