This is one of those opera performances that draw notice more
for the production than for the musical goods. Not that the
singing and orchestral playing are substandard — indeed, all
in all, the performances from the singers, conductor, chorus
and orchestra are reasonably good. It’s just that the happenings
on stage are, shall I say, a bit radical, especially for Wagner.
This 2008 Bayreuth Festival production was a repeat, with a
slightly different cast, of the previous year’s effort that
created a good measure of controversy, prompting many to question
the intentions of the production director Katharina Wagner,
great-granddaughter of the composer and now co-director of the
To give you a capsule view of the production, let’s start with
the characters. First, you have the cocky, rebellious pop artist,
Walter von Stolzing, who by the opera’s end becomes a conformist.
He dabbles at playing the piano and paints almost everything
during the first half of the opera, including Eva’s dress. But
when you see him enter in the Fourth Scene of Act III, you see
a Wagnerian Babbitt, albeit a dashing one. Then there is the
main character Hans Sachs, a cobbler who wears no shoes, smokes
heavily and often sits at a typewriter hitting away at the keys,
sometimes quite annoyingly. He will transform, too: he becomes
a fascist symbol near the end, his new nature underscored by
the appearance of Third Reich statues flanking him on stage.
Beckmesser is a nerd whose pants are too short and whose comical
manner works well. In accordance with the pattern here, he evolves
into a hip, garishly dressed character in the final act. Because
of the downward evolution of the other two, he becomes, by default,
the hero. Eva and Magdalene may be the most conventionally portrayed
characters: they are sort of pawns, not used to make any major
statement but then not going against the grain either.
As for the treatment of Wagner’s story, there is so much symbolism
employed throughout, it’s hard to catch it all. Much, however,
can’t be overlooked because it isn’t particularly subtle: if
the meanings behind the big cheque awarded to Walther near the
end and the golden calf placed on stage immediately afterward
don’t hit you over the head with their obviousness, then maybe
the huge Warhol-esque Campbell’s soup cans that spew paint in
the riot scene will. Historic German characters, presented as
statue-like figures - Wagner himself is one of them - are used
in the riot scene and elsewhere in the opera, and their presence
is a rather too convenient way to make social or political commentary.
By the way, there is one rather ribald scene near the end of
the opera, when the historic figures parade on stage with a
topless dancer and with phallic prostheses on view. And there
is another scene later on with full frontal nudity.
By the end of the opera everybody, including the hip Beckmesser,
seems robotic, taken over, controlled. Suffice to say, the overarching
message here appears to be that radicalism on one end might
produce reactionary radicalism on the other. Not exactly a new
or profound idea, not exactly Wagner’s intentions either. Yet,
the production, for all its warts, is quite intriguing at times,
if a bit juvenile. And, personally, I think that if anyone can
take an opera by Wagner — let’s face it, one of the most anti-Semitic
artists ever — and allude to anti-Nazi, anti-Fascist sentiments,
then one must acknowledge such an attempt as noble. In a sense,
it’s a rather fitting irony, as Wagner’s art is turned against
him. I will say this, however: if I were a composer who wrote
an opera with some specific moral or political message, I don’t
think I would feel comfortable if Katharina Wagner were in charge
of the production.
Klaus Forian Vogt is excellent in the role of Walther and probably
the strongest singer in this production. He has an attractive
voice and sufficient power to stand out in heavily scored passages.
His Morgenlich leuchtend in rosigem Schein is beautifully
sung and he rarely disappoints elsewhere in the opera. Michaela
Kaune as Eva is also fine, as is Carola Guber’s Magdalene. The
David of Norbert Ernst is especially compelling, too, and Michael
Volle as Beckmesser is also excellent: not only are his voice
and diction outstanding, but his dramatic skills are fully convincing,
both as nerd and hipster.
What of Hans Sachs? Franz Hawlata’s voice is attractive and
powerful, and if he becomes a bit tired and a tad hoarse by
the end of this 4-hour-plus opera, then we can understand, because
the size of his role is gargantuan, and who gets through it
unscathed? Anyway, he makes a good Hans Sachs overall.
Conductor Sebastian Weigle draws fine playing from the orchestra
and splendid singing from the chorus. The sound is admirable
and the camera-work imaginative. Sets and costuming are far
less radical in their generally modest look than most everything
else in the production. Also included is a half-hour documentary
track about the making of the opera. There are some excellent
Die Meistersingers available on DVD, and mostly more
traditional ones, including the splendid Bayreuth production
on Unitel led by Barenboim, with Robert Holl as Sachs, and the
Vienna State Opera production also on Unitel (Medici Arts),
led by Christian Thielemann, with Falk Struckmann as Sachs.
You might want to stick with recordings like these, if the more
radically modern approach of Katharina Wagner might turn you
off. Otherwise, this production is probably worth your while.