, February 2011
The Bayreuth Festival’s last three productions of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg have been staid, by-the-numbers affairs, directed by the composer’s grandson, Wolfgang Wagner. However, the current production, staged by Katherina Wagner, the new co-director of the festival (and Wolfgang’s daughter) offers a bold approach. This Meistersinger (filmed on July 27, 2008) cuts to the opera’s core, and questions the artist’s role in society.
(In other words, if you draw the line at regietheater, don’t read further.)
In this production, Ye Olde Nuremberg is reimagined as the arts department at, let’s say, Nuremberg Community College. The acts feature a multi-tiered set, with Act I in the library and Act II in the cafeteria. This “Song-school” is run by the Masters and administered by David. Sachs’ apprentice (Norbert Ernst) is an academic pedant who spends his time distributing the arcane rules of the Mastersingers in little yellow rule-books. Walther enters this world as the bad-boy artist in leather and shades, painting furiously on musical instruments, the walls, even David himself in his attempts to break out of the old order. He is sung by Klaus Florian Vogt: a pleasing, if smallish tenor that can handle the role’s high tetessitura. His good looks recall the late Peter Hofmann.
Hans Sachs (Franz Hawlata) enters as a barefoot, chain-smoking journalist—the rebel within the Mastersinger clique. Mr Hawlata delivers a solid Sachs, using his skills as a compelling actor to support the two big monologues. In Act II, the cobbler’s last is replaced by a typewriter, which Sachs clicks and clacks on during Beckmesser’s song, damning the Marker’s performance with keystrokes instead of hammer-blows. The hero of Wagner’s opera has become Eduard Hanslick, the Vienna music critic who was both Wagner’s nemesis and the inspiration for Sixtus Beckmesser. In Act III, Sachs teaches Walther the rules of success, (using the dread yellow book) and the two become conservative, successful, utterly hollow sell-outs in dark suits.
Eva (Michaela Kunde) is a repressed, almost predatory figure. In Act II, she blossoms, re-invented through Walther’s use of creative visual art. She gets a makeover and is suddenly “cool.” Her scene with Sachs in Act III is heart-rending: the two characters no longer understand each other’s aesthetics—and a final attempt at a sexual advance (by Sachs) leads him to tear up his entry in the song contest. After this she goes through a second makeover—as a conservative German frau. The Quintet is staged as a “dream” family portrait, as each couple stands with their ideal 2.5 kinder. Ms Kaune’s big voice has a vibrato and spreads unattractively in “O Sachs, mein Freund!” But she sounds great leading off the Quintet. Lena (Carola Guber) is given even less of a part in this version of the opera, but provides able support in the ensembles.
Things get merry in the “festival meadow” scene. A group of dancers, wearing giant heads that represent great German masters: Mozart, Haydn, Bach and yes, Wagner (in his beret) burst out and tie Sachs to a chair. As the march begins, the “composers” stage a kickline: wearing underwear and, in some cases, giant phalluses. (Yeah, I thought I was dreaming too—so I watched it twice to be sure.) The choristers line the tiers, and the “parade” consists of a series of nightmare rituals. Sachs presides over the murder of the artists who staged the ballet, and becomes a neo-fascist, spreading the “gospel” of Holy German Art to an affluent, tuxedo-wearing audience and a terrified, intimidated Beckmesser. Art has been replaced by politics.
If the Masters are presented as academic ninnies clinging to their yellow rule-books, it is Beckmesser (sung by the superb Michael Volle) who shatters the mold and wins the day. The Marker has a life-changing experience during the Act II riot, turning from stuffed shirt to hipster artist. His entry in the song contest is an attempt to re-invent himself with an avant-garde “happening”: exhuming nude dancers from a mound of earth, who start hurling fruit at the chorus. Afterwards, he comes back out, laughing with Sachs to watch Walther’s “approved” performance. By presenting Sachs as the neo-conservative and Beckmesser as the free artist, Ms Wagner has turned the opera on itself, and eliminated the dramatic problems that plague this work.
This is the first film of the opera to not fall into the trap of presenting Meistersinger as an historic pageant in a 19th-century “museum” version of what Wagner thought the 15th century might have looked like. The whole performance is ably conducted by Sebastian Weigle, with an emphasis on the baroque textures and complexities of Wagner’s score. Despite some of the bizarre imagery, Ms Wagner has assembled an interesting, innovative approach to this problematic opera. Her Meistersinger offers something that her father’s three previous productions didn’t: fresh ideas about this brilliant opera.