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Mike Ashman
Gramophone, December 2009

Katharina, Wagner’s great granddaughter, is now, with her half-sister Eva, co-chief of the Bayreuth Festival. This documentary was made in 2007 about rehearsals for her festival production of Die Meistersinger—which was, effectively, an audition for that directorship, as well as being the first time since 1953 that a new member of the Wagner family had staged a Bayreuth show.

Katharina was deemed to have passed this test—with controversial colours. Her first two acts presented a wacky but relatively straightforward “modem” view of the work. The arts in general, especially painting—as opposed to just music—were the subject of debate. Like a young Jackson Pollock, her Walther Stolzing, a performance artist, attacked the serried ranks of the Masters’ meeting tables and yellow Reclam pocket reference books, graffiti-ing away with a long-handled brush. Beckmesser was duly offended; a chain-smoking, informally dressed Sachs intrigued. But in the third act the director reversed the opera’s traditional polarities. Beckmesser became the hero—a radical, obscene performance artist. Stolzing and Sachs (and Eva) sold out into a cosy, bourgeois world of Saturday night TV costumes and winner’s cheques with uncomfortably national socialist overtones. Or that’s how it was in 2007—marked changes in this act have followed.

Dagmar Krauss’s film, fluently shot and edited, shows the rehearsal process from director’s introductory talk to the cast to first-night reception. Of course it has an “official” Bayreuth imprimatur and is sympathetic, although not obsequious, to its young star (company tensions and one resignation are kept in). However, the decision to focus, in some detail, on the solving of production issues and problems—rather than the usual happy-clappy feigned bonhomie of rehearsal footage—makes the DVD valuable. It doesn’t matter whether you think Katharina’s concept is genius or rubbish, or even care much for Richard Wagner’s music. This is an informative, pacy introduction to production work in progress.

A few comments about the presentation. The film runs 82 minutes but there are no chapter divisions. Credits on both booklet and DVD spine are minimalist: the cast are barely mentioned. The English language voice-over by the experienced Donald Arthur is a delight in its delivery and tone.

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