Bold production of Meistersinger by Wagner's great grand-daughter gets mixed review
26 July 2007, BAYREUTH, Germany (AP) _ Art imitated art at Bayreuth on Wednesday, with Germany's greatest opera genius interpreted by his great-grand-daughter in a bold new production of one of his key works.
26 July 2007
BAYREUTH, Germany (AP) _ Art imitated art at Bayreuth on Wednesday, with Germany's greatest opera genius interpreted by his great-grand-daughter in a bold new production of one of his key works.
The venue: The Bayreuth "Festspielhaus," the operatic shrine dedicated exclusively to works of Richard Wagner. The event: A new production of his "Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg," by Katharina Wagner -- in a debut that could help decide whether the 29-year-old becomes the next family member to run the Bayreuth Festival.
Expectations were high -- and for the hundreds who booed the performance, obviously not met. But at least as many among the audience loved the production, reflecting the annual Bayreuth split of traditional Wagnerites and those hungry for experimentation.
And experimentation ruled Wednesday. No quaint gabled houses or medieval town squares, and no period costumes either. Instead, the audience was given a plot turned topsy turvy, a villain turned hero, a hero turned wimp -- and a few minutes of full frontal nudity.
The opera is an ode to art -- and Wednesday's interpretation kept that focus intact. Beyond that, though, Richard and Katharina -- in her first production at Bayreuth -- parted ways 180 degrees.
In the original version, a young knight falls for the daughter of a rich Nuernberg burgher and decides to enter a singing contest to win her hand. He is rejected by the "Master Singers" because he breaks all of their formalistic rules, but his natural talent and melodic ardor ultimately overwhelms the stuffy inner circle.
Boy gets girl. Art conflicts with art and emerges elevated. And the villain -- the lecherous city clerk who had also cast an eye on the heroine -- gets his comeuppance.
Not so this time.
Walther von Stolzing, the young nobleman, turns from sloppily clothed, paint-slinging rebel to buttoned-down conformist, ultimately mirroring the master singers he initially scorned. So does Hans Sachs, the shoemaker and master singer -- and true-life German medieval poet -- who first supports Stolzing, only to turn from mild iconoclasm to narrow-viewed supporter of the status quo.
And Sixtus Beckmesser, the city clerk? Originally the hairsplitting pedant who looks jealously at Stolzing as his rival for the charms of Eva -- and who does everything he can to trip him up -- he undergoes epiphany at the boisterous riot at the end of Act II.
Where Stolzing and Sachs grow increasingly straight, the originally slicked-back Beckmesser is now the nonconformist, in dress, mimicry and action. His final song _ an embarrassing effort to sing a song stolen from Stolzing in the original version _ turns into a Dadaist outcry against stultified status quo art in the Katharina Wagner production.
At nearly seven hours, including two 60-minute breaks, there were slow moments. But clever devices helped move the action. One of them was the decision to link visual art to music -- for almost every formal song there was a picture, subtly demonstrating the composer's later claim to creating "Gesamtkunst," or total art.
The principals were a mixed blessing.
Michael Volle was wonderful as Beckmesser, powerful and evocative vocally -- and even more so in his acting skills. His transformation from ranting pedant to cool rebel was impressive.
As Stolzing, Klaus Florian Vogt delivered a clear but burnished tenor, effortless intonation and steady pitch -- and nearly matched Volle in metamorphic skills as he mutated from iconoclast to conformist.
Franz Hawlata was booed as Sachs by audience members who apparently mistook his weakness for a bad night on stage. But in this production, Hawlata looked to be playing indecision and lack of direction --as called for by Katharina Wagner. If he was acting, he succeeded admirably.
Norbert Ernst was solid as David, Sach's apprentice.
Vocally, Amanda Mace disappointed as Eva, with little of the carrying power needed for this part, although her pitch and intonation were flawless. She showed little of the steel the role originally called for. But perhaps simpering and a bit vacuous was the way Katharina Wagner wanted the woman who falls for the less-than-hero Stolzing.
Ditto for Carola Gruber as Magdalena, her maid.
The rest of the cast -- master singers, apprentices and other supporting roles _ was good to excellent. And the Festival Orchestra under Sebastian Weigle was a dream -- sonorous, rhapsodic, finely nuanced and at one with the singers on stage.
As for the fate of Katharina Wagner, some of the buzz was pro and some con as the audience left the Festspielhaus. Her father, Wolfgang, who now runs things, is 87, and pressure is growing on him to step down and make way for a younger member of the Wagner clan.
But at least some of those gathered outside for most of the evening were focused on less weighty things -- like catching a glimpse of the political movers and shakers and glitterati that make the festival an annual place to be seen.
"We just like to star gaze," said Hildegard Kunze, 72. Her husband, Adolf Mayer, 82, nodded, adding: "Wagner will remain Wagner, no matter who runs the show."
Meanwhile, some first reviews of Katharina Wagner's maiden production at the Bayreuth Festival were faintly positive Thursday, much like the audience reaction the night before.
Leading German daily newspapers were not due to publish reviews till Friday but other media were quicker.
Stephan Maurer, reviewing the opera for the news service Deutsche Presse-Agentur, said there were no terrible blunders but it was not a masterly production either. It was uncertain if it helped Wagner's ambitions.
Maurer said the staging was too self-indulgent and lacked a distinct theme. At one point, sports shoes rained down on the stage. At another, composer Wagner himself was depicted dancing in his underwear.
Werner Theurich on the website of the weekly magazine Der Spiegel compared the "overly intellectual" staging to a pizza: too many ingredients on a very thin base.
Theurich said Wagner's intention, to discuss the meaning of art, was spoiled because she had overloaded the opera with too many clever ideas.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who attended the premiere, declined comment, but chatted later with Katharina Wagner.
Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, said of the opera, "It was creative. I enjoyed it."
A cousin of the director, Nike Wagner, 62, who also has ambitions to run the festival, said, "I was sad about the booing from the audience.
Subject: German news