Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868)
Franz Hawlata (baritone) – Hans Sachs; Artur Korn (bass) – Veit Pogner; Charles Reid (tenor) – Kunz Vogelgesang; Rainer Zaun (bass) – Konrad Nachtigall; Michael Volle (baritone) – Sixtus Beckmesser; Markus Eiche (baritone) – Fritz Kothner; Edward Randall (tenor) – Balthasar Zorn; Hans-Jürgen Lazar (tenor) –Ulrich Eisslinger; Stefan Heibach (tenor) – Augustin Moser; Martin Snell (bass) – Hermann Ortel; Andreas Macco (bass) – Hans Schwarz; Iógenes Randes (bass) – Hans Foltz; Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor) – Walther Von Stolzing; Norbert Ernst (tenor) – David; Michaela Kaune (soprano) – Eva; Carola Guber (mezzo) – Magdalene; Friedemann Röhlig (bass-baritone) – Ein Wachtwächter
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus/Sebastian Weigle
Production: Katharina Wagner; Stage Designer: Tilo Steffens; Costume Designers: Michaela Barth, Tilo Steffens; Lighting: Andreas Grüter; Dramaturge: Robert Sollich; Chorus Master: Eberhard Friedrich; Television Director: Andreas Morell
rec. live, Bayreuth Festival, 7 August 2008.
1080i High Definition/16.9; 2.0 LPCM + 5.1(5.0) DTS Digital Surround
OPUS ARTE OA BD7078 D Blu-ray [Opera 276:04; Documentary 29:16]

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 festival.

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.

Robert Cummings

Performances reasonably good but the happenings on stage are a bit radical, especially for Wagner.