Katharina Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, now in its Fourth Year at Bayreuth
Richard Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Musical Direction – Sebastian Weigle
Stage Direction – Katharina Wagner
Set Design – Tilo Steffens
Costume Design – Michaela Barth, Tilo Steffens
Lighting – Andreas Grüter
Choirmaster – Eberhard Friedrich
Hans Sachs, Schuster – James Rutherford
Veit Pogner, Goldschmied – Artur Korn
Kunz Vogelgesang, Kürschner – Charles Reid
Konrad Nachtigal, Spengler – Rainer Zaun
Sixtus Beckmesser, Stadtschreiber – Adrian Eröd
Fritz Kothner, Bäcker – Markus Eiche
Balthasar Zorn, Zinngießer – Edward Randall
Ulrich Eisslinger, Würzkrämer – Florian Hoffmann
Augustin Moser, Schneider – Stefan Heibach
Hermann Ortel, Seifensieder – Martin Snell
Hans Schwarz, Strumpfwirker – Mario Klein
Hans Foltz, Kupferschmied – Diógenes Randes
Walther von Stolzing – Klaus Florian Vogt
David, Sachsens Lehrbube – Norbert Ernst
Eva, Pogners Tochter – Michaela Kaune
Magdalene, Evas Amme – Carola Guber
Ein Nachtwächter – Friedemann Röhlig
I won’t even say that I wish that, in beginning with Katharina Wagner’s production of Die Meistersinger, I was starting on a cheerful note. Nothing of the kind. Katharina has studiously avoided her great grandfather’s romanticized Nürnberg, where great artistic, literary, and musical achievement lurked around every corner, where the citizens dressed colorfully, where the men engaged in witty exchanges, while the girls joyfully gave themselves over the dancing, if not to their young men, at every opportunity. She has, rather, chosen to focus on the repressive nature of this conservative society, as embodied in the guild system, the obsessive power of routine in daily life, its neuroses, and, yes, its nightmares. Having a certain penchant for black humor and oddity, I entered with pleasure into my five-hour visit to this frightening and pitiable world, and I laughed, quite a bit, which, I should hope, is the desired result of any Meistersinger production. If my laughter was a trifle sour at times, it’s not entirely alien from the sarcastic wit of Wagner’s libretto. Hence, I am pleased to say that Katharina Wagner won her war, buoyed up by a splendid vocal, orchestral, and comedic performance, which had its own vigorous life, no matter how strange the goings-on on stage. And, if one is open-minded enough not to resist these, one can expect to gain a fair bit of insight into human nature, history, and Richard Wagner’s comic masterpiece.
In discussions of other Wagner performances, I’ve mentioned the baggage that German directors inevitably bring with them. Wagner built Die Meistersinger on the foundations of his own nationalistic view of society and art. Certain elements in Die Meistersinger reflect, if only allusively, the form and content of Aristophanic comedy, making it clear that he intends to amuse and to teach his German contemporaries in a similar way. The Germans have learned bitter lessons through Nationalism, and it is impossible for them to take this aspect of it at face value, without ambivalence and critique. Hence, in treating Richard’s creation as a living work of art and attempting to engage her audience as her great-grandfather did, she must evaluate his message in her own way, as a child of her generation. Some Germans may share her point of view, but it’s reasonable to assume that they will be in the minority. Opera-goers tend to be a mature sort, and Wagner attracts a certain conservative type: hence there is a strong nostalgia for the lush traditional productions which began to wane over a generation ago, and are now something of a rarity. The average German opera-goer is caught between a feeling of reverence for a national cultural icon and a desire for entertainment, even escapism, just as Wagnerians of any cultural background might feel a reverence for the traditions of opera and for one of its great composer-dramatists. Hence there is nothing surprising in the outrage which has followed this production since its premiere in 2007. There is plenty of outrageous stuff in it, too, but I have to say that enjoyed it, and I found Katharina’s particular sense of humor, when she sets out to épater les bourgeois, rather appealing.
As the curtain rises on the first act, we see hardly any traces of a church. The behavior of most of the people we see — soberly dressed in grey skirts and grey suits — is reverent and ritualistic, as befits church attendance, and a picture gallery, separated by something resembling a rood screen, seems to function rather like the sanctuary of a church. Candle-like objects are set up on this barrier (it only became apparent to me later that these were in fact table-legs.) Behind them in the gallery there hang a number of paintings of a conventional sort: portraits, a still life, landscapes. A woman enters and views them respectfully. On the side walls there are galleries. The highest of these is lined with busts of distinguished men. We can’t yet see who they might be. On high at the right, a group of painters are painting a Dürer drawing on the vault, or perhaps restoring one. These spaces belong to an arrangement of small rooms devoted to one kind of artistic activity or another. Above the gallery there is a room with a cello resting against a chair. To its left another room contains a grand piano. A single individual busies himself with restless abandon with the musical instruments and other things — and in a highly unconventional way. He appears restless and frustrated as he daubs white paint all over the piano, as well an on the cello, walls etc. He also displays several rolled-up canvases, all showing the signature eye-like pattern with which he has decorated the piano and the cello (does this have anything to do with Achim Freyer’s designs for the LA Ring?). He has tried to play them both, without much success. The young man, who sports long blond dreadlocks and white trousers decorated with stenciled fleurs-de-lys. This is obviously our Walther von Stolzing, who says the familiar words to Eva, who is virtually indistinguishable from Lena, as they both wear the standard outfit of the young women: the grey skirt, heavy, mannish black shoes, and a red wig.
We are in a secular temple, in which the great art and thought of the past are worshipped, much as they were in the GDR as in West Germany. The setting could be an old Gymnasium of great tradition. Here everything emerges from that tradition, and the young people move about in calculated, ritualistic movements. Everyone walks in straight lines, turning at right angles and turning again, until they reach their destinations. A group of girls line up in front of the “candles,” and remove them from the screen. Their comilitones bring out large rectangular “trays,” which they arrange in a strict grid across the stage. As they begin to attach legs to them, we realize that they are in fact tables, which will be assembled into a board-room table for the Master Singers. Their mechanical movements make it clear that the slightest task is executed according to Vorschrift, and we eventually begin to understand the insanity of their world. We are in a kind of Wonderland, in which its drabness and uniformity attest to its madness as eloquently as the March Hare or the Mad Hatter. Further on, I began to feel profoundly sorry for these poor misguided people. Their life is truly and profoundly horrible. By contrast, Walter’s more obviously eccentric behavior, begins to make sense as a healthy reaction to a mad society. As he converses with David, who wears a grey suit and is totally humorless, and as the Master Singers arrive and discuss matters, including his own situation, he lapses rapidly into total disinterest, suggesting a bad case of ADD and a lot of seething, only barely restrained rage.
Eventually the Master Singers appear, and, following their dry, automaton-like rituals, don their academic gowns and caps. Untraditionally, some of the Masters are not so old, and as a group they stretch pretty much evenly across the life span. Sachs appears, a bit stout, but youthful, looking barely forty. He refuses to wear the cap and gown, slinging the gown petulantly over his shoulder. He’s not even wearing a suit or tie, like the others, or wearing shoes, acting out the old proverb about cobblers. Beckmesser is a fussy little man, wearing a checked suit and a striped bow tie (Princeton colors…for what it’s worth). His apprentice provides him with a tall stack of the Reclam Universal- Bibliothek, the most common and most complete edition of classical German literature available today — sadly the only source for much of it. (A couple of decades ago, more substantial alternatives — both physically and academically — were available.) In any case these small, flimsy texts prove an excellent source of secular wafers for a fine mason-like ritual with which the Masters introduce their meetings. Members greet one another around the table by holding up a Reclam volume between their faces. The first Master to receive the volume tears out a wafer-sized fragment and lays it on the tongue of the Master to his left. Then he holds the book up between their faces, and they both kiss it simultaneously. This is funny enough in itself, but at the end of the ceremony the hostile behavior between the fussy Beckmesser and a truculent Sachs bring it to a peak, as Sachs suddenly lowers the book at the moment of the kiss — much to Beckmesser’s disgust. I must say Katharina Wagner’s witty insight into the phenomenon of bibliofetishry — a subject of great interest to me since my research on the obscure Spam® artist B. F. Kiefrich some years ago.
As Walther introduces himself to the Masters and sings his disastrous trial piece, he stands churlishly on the table, unrolling canvases and sheets of paper, as if there were a natural visual extension of his singing. It is entirely arbitrary to make him a painter as well as an artist, but I found it an especially effective way of unfolding Walther’s chaotic creativity (no one would call him an artist) and letting him butt heads with the masters.
I should add at this point that there is a huge amount of detail in this production, and I have simplified some of the descriptions and left many out, for example how Walther enhanced a bust with the Masters’ table legs. This immense amount of detail was also visual. For the first time in my life at the opera, I wished I had a pair of glasses, although I was not especially far from the stage.
The second act finds Nürnberg’s youth sitting listlessly in an outdoor café. They hold beer bottles to their lips and swing them joylessly back and forth in a uniform mechanical jerk. Eva sits dismally with an equally depressive Magdalena, who obsessively combs a red wig on a mannikin head (as I said, this is a mad world, with many reminiscences of the kind of neuroses that flourished under Communism). Magdalena is very much Eva’s keeper, perhaps not only within the family (one could easily see her as an informer). Eva keeps the cello Walther has decorated by her side. A bronze sculpture of an uplifted hand, its forms recalling Dürer, rises in stage center. The thumb and index finger are raised, but not quite in a gesture of blessing. There is something menacing in this hand as well, as if it might grab you by the shoulder and arrest you, or simply swipe irregular people off the board like chessmen.
When Sachs appears and Eva approaches him, we discover the passion that has been seething under her profound boredom: she throws herself at him with unrestrained, even aggressive passion. If Eva’s advances are so much more overt than we are used to, Sachs makes a proportionately weaker effort to resist her advances. He could even be accused of making a pass at her. Her feelings are very much the fixation of a restless adolescent on an older man, and there is an air of malaise in her behavior, just as Sachs remains in a brooding state of mind. He puts her off, and eventually she is distracted by Walther, who courts her in his own odd way. Walther expresses his frustration with the Master Singers by throwing the many shoes which are lying about the stage with unrestrained fury. If I remember correctly, Eva even has to duck once or twice. Walther increasingly appears an unpromising mate for Eva or any woman.
The monumental hand has fallen on its side. The couple mount it and Walther begins to paint the hand and Eva with the white paint he has been so liberally daubing over the set. This strange interaction is quite erotic — an intense liberation for Eva, which goes beyond the sexual into near-totality. It puts Sachs somewhat into the background for her, although not entirely, as will appear in the third act. The cobbler himself occupies himself with reading from a stack of Reclam classics, while Beckmesser appears, strangely clad. He has put on jeans and a tee shirt with the inscription “BECK IN TOWN” boldly written across it in yellow letters. Clearly he has decided to eliminate his rival. This implies that his second act serenade for Eva is a musical compromise with Walther’s, and Sachs’ many hammer blows support that. The row made by the two Master Singers, as usual, brings out a crowd on the balconies on the sides. The busts of distinguished men in the side galleries now come to life and join the fray most obstreperously. These neighbors are armed with institutional-sized cans of Campbell’s Soup. These contain the white paint which Walther has already distributed liberally about the stage, and the renowned fugal free-for-all is prodigiously doused in it.
In Act III, scene 1, Sach’s workshop appears as a sleek 1980s vintage bachelor pad with a white and stainless steel couch and matching furniture. Sachs’ Master Singer’s cap sits on the floor in front of the couch. To its left one of the Campbell’s soup cans serves as a waste paper basket, and to the left of it there stands a bookcase well-stocked with Reclam classics. Sachs’ monologue becomes a conversation with a variety of eighteenth and nineteenth century luminaries: Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, Kleist, Schinkel, Dürer, Hölderlin, Schadow, Von Knobelsdorff, Beethoven, Bach, and Wagner himself (I shall call them the Authorities). Walther’s Preislied emerges as he and Sachs discuss the classics. To celebrate, Sachs breaks out a bottle of pink bubbly. Later Beckmesser appears, wearing a checked yellow suit, and perhaps recalling a silent-era comic: Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton. The bookcase is eventually anthropomorphized with Beckmesser’s jacket, Walther’s shoes for feet, the Campbell’s Soup can for a head, a bunch of ropes for hair, and Walther’s scarf as a membrum virile. In this way the Reclam Universal-Bibliothek becomes a character in the story, if a silent object of discussion — and observer — worthy of Ernst or early Buñuel. Sachs has put on his black suit for the St. John’s Day celebrations, as well as the uniform black shoes. Beckmesser is down to his black tee shirt. Hence, in their altercations Beckmesser appears as the countercultural figure and Sachs as the authoritarian. He and Sachs converse over a double-sided easel with a Waltheresque daub on one side and a representational view of Nürnberg on the other. They cross paint-brushes. Beckmesser jumps on Sachs desk to make an aggressive point, while Sachs types the Preislied on his manual typewriter.
When Eva enters to make her final attempt to seduce Sachs, the chemistry between them reignites. In complaining about her shoes, the ubiquitous black unisex footwear, they sit together on the couch, where Sachs begins to caress her calves and feet. When he appears, Walther finds an unpleasant surprise in this, as he sits on Eva’s other side, forming an uncomfortable triangle scene. A miniature stage, which has previously played its role in the action and shows a typical romantic landscape, is then set up as a lectern, behind which Walther sings the Preislied a second time, as Sachs plays the advocate for it — in some intimacy on the couch with Eva, as he puts on her shoes for her. For his answer — with its famous reference to King Mark in Tristan — to her (subjunctive) proposal of marriage, Sachs rises and sits at his typewriter. Eva follows for a painful leave-taking. Sachs’ renunciation is of course not so easy for him in this production, and, following his donning of his suit and tie, begins a process of transformation in him from a critic of the establishment to an authority figure. Here Sachs’ renunciation is more like Alberich’s: he has chosen power — in this case artistic influence — over Eros.
Sachs’ summons to a baptism breaks the mood and provides him with a pretext to stand up straight before the landscape on the easel — a fully colored woodcut of Nürnberg. To the music of Wagner’s great Quintet, we get a vision of the future: to the left David and Magdelene stand as for a family portrait with their two children, dressed in the same sober grey outfits as their parents and holding the musical instruments they will dutifully master. In the family group to the right Walther and Pogner stand in black suits behind two identically clad sons, while Eva, looking rather middle-aged, stands in a peach-colored suit behind her clone of a daughter. Their children’s attributes are nothing so useful as a recorder and a violin: one son holds a bouquet of flowers, while the daughter stolidly clutches a fluffy white poodle to herself. Is there a class difference here, or is this East and West Germany, as the clothing styles suggest, or are the two equivalent? Gilt frames of the sober shape that might encompass a Giotto, but with tasteless rococo patterns on them, descend to enclose and celebrate the couples and their families.
We now hear the festive tones from the meadow, but instead of the merry guilds we confront once again the Authorities against a background of men in academic gowns who wear red clown-noses, much in the spirit of Katharina Wagner’s own self caricature, which decorates the program. The Authorities have seized Sachs and bound him to his work-chair. We see him from behind as he impotently sits, contemplating the menacing spectacle. The figures with their enormous masks create a certain disturbance and begin to dance in couples, some of them sporting erections, as David and Lena, blindfolded, wander among them in confusion. (Here, in introducing these ithyphallic “unpadded” dancers, Katharina displays on stage her version of her great-grandfather’s rather more indirect and chaste vision of Aristophanic comedy.) Wagner himself, his great nose and trademark cap broken, appears in despair. The first thing that occurs to one is that Sachs has gone mad. He may have been able to resist the insanity of human society, but the dementia of culture is too much for him.
Following this, Sachs presides over a ritual conflagration of three figures representing the creators of the production with David and five others dutifully at his side. They stretch out their arms in an angular, mechanical pattern, as they warm themselves on the fire (aren’t bonfires traditional on St. John’s Day?). From the fire Sachs produces gold (Alberich again), moulded into a statue of a very German stag, not unlike the animal in Dürer’s Vision of St. Eustace. Sachs’ grey-suited companions, now wearing yellow gloves, kneel to worship the graven image, which he proudly holds over the furnace.
The characters’ efforts in the musical and poetic arts have been constantly glossed — most effectively, I think — by visual parallels from painting and sculpture. Beckmesser may have discovered “cool,” which he has sorely misunderstood at the beginning, but by now he is alone and the sole representative of counter-culture and the liberation it supposedly brings. He appears before the citizens of Nürnberg, who are seated on bleachers and are dressed just like the crowd on the other side of the proscenium. (This is of course not the first time an audience has faced its mirror-image or Doppelgänger on stage. Katharina’s particular brand of Publikumsbeschimpfung is to place us on stage as full participants in the action. Sachs’ authoritarian role not only has unsavory political associations, it has nurtured the exclusivity and self-satisfaction she is trying to undermine in her production.) A positivist to the end, Beckmesser wears a coroner’s apron, as he rolls on a gurney covered with a mound of earth. As he sings his prize song, he brings to life a naked male body from under the dirt — a frightful spectacle which arouses disgust among the Nürnberger, as well it might. Beck’s disgrace is deep, and, as he sits forlornly astride a chair, as the chorus praise Sachs, we can only feel a twinge of pity for him. Yes, he recalls Woody Allen in his pathetic moments here, presumably an allusion to the old belief that Wagner intended Beckmesser as a caricature of a Jewish critic.
The third and final return of Walther’s Preislied is an exercise in Urkitsch. In his black suit and yellow tie, he appears in the halo of a spotlight, and his delivery is as slick as Dean Martin ever was. As he sings, we witness a dumb show of lovers in Renaissance costumes of the tackiest sort, as they mime the tritest gestures of love. This caricature is all we ever see of Die Meistersinger’s traditional trappings. Walther’s efforts are duly rewarded. His bride joins him in her suit, with its oddly low hemline and the standard issue clodhoppers, while his father-in-law to be appears with two scantily clad girls, who carry an enormous check with his signature on it.
Sachs delivers his patriotic admonishments, Wagner’s Aristophanic parabasis, lit horrifically from below, as he stands behind the Golden Stag, and gigantic statues of Goethe and Schiller emerge from the stage to loom over it and intimidate poor Beckmesser into a jelly — a chillingly sinister conclusion to the final celebration, as the chorus repeat Sachs’ concluding lines:
Ehrt eure deutschen Meister,
dann bannt ihr gute Geister;
und gebt ihr ihrem Wirken Gunst,
zerging’ in Dunst
das heil’ge röm’sche Reich,
uns bliebe gleich
die heil’ge deutsche Kunst!
Nürnbergs teurem Sachs!
Any performance of a stage work must necessarily be a critique of the text on which it is based, even, perhaps especially, if the author is standing at the director’s side in rehearsal, and Richard Wagner was palpably present in Katharina’s genetic makeup, perhaps contributing something of his youthful revolutionary fire. Yet, in most performances we experience the text first and the critique in the background. In this case, we see the text through the critique, and a very potent — one might say corrosive — critique it is, too. Still, Die Meistersinger is quite a sturdy construction, and it easily penetrated Katharina’s overlay, especially since she respected the basic story line and the relationships of the characters. The steamy interaction between Eva and Sachs is only a heightened expression of what lies sheathed under a decorous veneer in the original. Her cynical view of the family life that awaits Eva and Magdalene is natural enough for a contemporary women of a freely creative bent, and, while it is in intention an undermining of a scene supported by some of Wagner’s most beautiful music, in practice, as experienced on stage, it enhances this familiar music, as if it were an innovative, more highly spiced treatment of a classic recipe…at least for this member of the audience: plenty of others have been horrified.
The real problem with Regieoper is that it is improvised more often than not by egotistical directors who consider themselves above studying the work they are putting on stage. On the contrary, Katharina Wagner’s mise en scène (like the other current Bayreuth productions as well) is the product of a more than thorough knowledge of the work, its creator, and its transmission. Apart from this fundamental advantage, it was brilliantly imaginative, witty, and literate — all on multiple levels of interpretation. Along with its sassy iconoclasm, there comes a certain vulgarity, but we’re all used to that, especially on the German stage. What’s more, she has opened the gates to Richard’s ancient Greek models. I found myself constantly stimulated and amused. This is of course not a production for newcomers to Wagner or Die Meistersinger, but then Bayreuth, with its eight to ten year waiting list, is hardly teeming with neophytes.
The second key to the success of the performance was the technical precision and artistry with which the extremely complex stage business was carried out, and the third, the very high quality of its musical execution (both were true of all the Bayreuth productions this season — an uncommon blessing, it is said).
As fine as all the secondary singers were, James Rutherford’s Sachs and Klaus Florian Vogt’s Walther stood out as among the most impressive performances one could find today. Rutherford, at thirty-eight, could easily be the son of John Tomlinson or James Morris, to name two outstanding mature exponents of the role, and he makes no effort to conceal the fact. His Sachs is young enough to show his peevish impatience with the establishment (that is, early on, before he joins it, or, in fact becomes it), and he is young enough to become fully immersed in Eva’s charms. Mr. Rutherford’s repertoire is broad, well-grounded in British composers, as one would expect, and, although he hardly seems to be a Britten specialist, I couldn’t help thinking that he must be exceptionally perceptive in his Britten roles, and that this British sensibility, full of nuance and details of character, informed his Sachs. His voice encompasses both a dark, textured low register and a warm, lyric, almost vulnerable upper end, and this gave him the command of an impressive range of feeling and expression in his truculent, brooding Sachs.
Vogt’s unusual tenor voice combines the tawny color of a lyrical tenor with a great deal of physical power. He was able to wend his way through his Walther with the security of a Botha, but with a much more youthful tone. It is an exceptionally beautiful voice, even a bit pretty, and this contrasted sharply with his antisocial behavior in the first two acts. It’s not so much that Walther’s lineage and bearing swept Eva away, because her passion was directed at Sachs, but that she found in this maladjusted artistic type a release from the rigid social order in which she had grown up. As conceived by Katharina Wagner, his role was a highly physical one, with much activity, climbing from level to level, and daubing away with his brush, but this didn’t seem to drain energy from his singing. His phrasing was intelligent and elegant throughout. Either he or Maestro Weigle chose a fairly active tempo for the Preislied, which he translated into a flowing, robust line, in an exceptionally felicitous account.
Michaela Kaune brought a resplendent silvery tone to her Eva. As in all the major parts, she had to fill an exceptionally complex concept of her role. Through the first act and some of the second, Eva is weighed down by repression and anomie, but when Walther begins to paint her (literally), she goes through a profound transformation, as she is sexually liberated. Her libido, however remains focused on her old adolescent crush, and Sachs almost has to force her to accept her younger suitor. Then, beginning with the Quintet, she becomes a proper West German Hausfrau. Kaune managed all this admirably, and even seemed to enjoy it. Her musical contribution to the Quintet was quite lovely, belying what we liberated souls view as a change for the worse in her life.
As Beckmesser Adrian Eröd was perhaps no Michael Volle, the great baritone who had been stealing the show in earlier iterations of this production, but he sang very well indeed, and fully entered into Katharina Wagner’s revisionist conception of his role, in which he becomes a sympathetic character in the end. Over the course of the opera, Beckmesser evolves from a defensive traditionalist to a trendy wannabe to one with more substance (in stealing the Preislied he reveals himself as a true post-modernist), to a contemporary performance artist, who fails to recognition even by resurrecting the dead…or creating life, as the case may be.
Artur Korn sang a resonant Pogner. Norbert Ernst gave a pointed characterization of a rather mature David, already a fully developed bureaucrat, and sang very well, while Carola Guber’s Magdalene was no better than adequate. Ensemble and chorus were excellent.
Sebastian Weigle, Chief Music Director of the Frankfurt Opera, produced a noticeably cooler sound from the Festival Orchestra’s strings than his colleagues. Attacks were clean, but not exaggeratedly sharp, and the musical lines were clearly etched. This was entirely in the spirit of the production, where warmth and sensuality would have been out of place (of course Sachs’ lilacs are nowhere to be seen). Meanwhile his active pace and clear textures took full advantage of the Bayreuth acoustic in revealing the inner beauties of Wagner’s writing. Especially notable was the clarity of chorus (led by Eberhard Friedrich) and orchestra in the crazy fugue at the end of Act II (the Authorities begin to take charge at this point, remember: hence fugue.) Weigle and his singers also treated the Quintet in a way that stressed the individual voices rather than the ensemble. This proved both powerful on a musical level and appropriate psychologically, given the strange transformations the characters were undergoing. Otherwise Weigle showed a keen awareness of the narrative function of the orchestra and delivered a very handsome reading of the score.
The very high musical quality of this performance was enough to send anyone away satisfied that Wagner had been well-served, and it was received most enthusiastically by the audience. I heard none of the rude noises that greeted the production when it was introduced in 2007. If it is the policy of the Wagner sisters to improve the musical values consistently — and that certainly seemed to be the case this season — it is certainly a wise one. Audiences will be more tolerant towards productions, if the music is good.
Readers should know that I avoid reading other reviews until I have finished writing my own. In the case of a controversial production that has acquired some history, as this has, I will look back into past reviews at the end, in order to provide some context. Many of the early reviewers found the musical execution uneven at best, and special dissatisfaction was directed at Franz Hawlata, who sang Sachs.
Katharina Wagner’s production, widely decried at its premiere, is not for everybody, but it is usual for Bayreuth directors to continue to develop their productions in subsequent years, and it appears that this Meistersinger has become tighter and more focused dramatically, remedying a clear danger in productions with so much going on in them at once. Personally, I found the production a bracing challenge as a brash, Swiftian attempt to bring out the comedy of ideas in Die Meistersinger. It is actually surprising how much of what we see in Katharina’s production is supported by the text, and actually seems to be lurking behind the surface of the opera as it unfolds. Of course, inverting the moral high ground between Sachs and Beckmesser is her own intervention. She has decided to take on Die Meistersinger’s Nachleben as well as the creation itself. This tendency is also very much in evidence in Stephan Herheim’s Parsifal.
Many have complained about this hairshirt mentality among the Wagners and in Germany in general, and I’d be among the first to say that it is time to stop regretting the best in German culture and history along with the rest. Patience with Regietheater, which in its more intelligent forms provides this kind of Kulturkritik along with a contemporary dramaturgical language, has been wearing thin in Germany as well as abroad for some time. One might think it’s time for it to go. On the other hand, some practitioners like Herheim and Wagner have something to say, and they will express it, until they find it’s time to move on in their careers and their intellectual development. There is a lot one could say about Regietheater, the mentality behind it and the social and cultural conditions that have created it, but this already long review is not the place to explore it.
I might just allude to the practice of producing politically and ideologically charged productions of the classics in the Communist East Block. Unlike contemporary theater, the censors left such productions alone, and audiences warmed themselves on the free speech hidden allusively behind the coulisses. Western Regietheater is by no means so subtle. There is no Stasi to enforce censorship. However, one might say that this subtextual mode of expression has, after the fall of Communism, become part of theater. Subversion cannot mean the same thing today as it did under a full totalitarian state. In fact the rhetoric of contemporary media contains the means to defuse contention almost unnoticeably. And one might well ask, what function does subversion fulfill in a place like Bayreuth? In cultural terms a great deal. Katharina has angered a great many people, and in the process, I think, given her great-grandfather’s creation a renewed effervescence and bite. Unlike most commentators I found her work well-grounded and genuinely creative. I shouldn’t be surprised if Katharina has an original stagework in her of some importance — but that wouldn’t be for Bayreuth, of course.