With expectations high as Katharina Wagner, the composer's great grand-daughter, directs her first opera in the house that Richard Wagner built, the 2007 Bayreuth Festival opened last night with an impassioned, experimental production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Wagner's only comedy, arguably his most beloved opera, and the most German and nationalistic of all his works.
The 1956 audience booed Wieland Wagner's staging of this work because it dared to deviate from the norm which Wagner had set down, which Cosima Wagner had preserved like a holy relic, and which Adolf Hitler so admired. Last night the boos and the cheers mixed evenly as Katharina Wagner presented her political vision of Meistersinger as the historical search of Germany to achieve status-quo.
In the original story, Walther learns to become a great singer thanks to Hans Sachs's mentoring. His inherent talent not only allowing him to win the girl, but also a place in the Meistersinger guild. Additionally, he advances the art of the guild through the wonderful song that creates.
In this version, Walther is a paint-splattered "Aktionkunstler" a la Christoph Schlingensief who strolls into a guild (in this production they are not singers, but a group of different artists) with his crazy ideas. As a matter of fact, Hans Sachs is not a shoemaker, but a writer, and he marks Beckmesser's song in the second act with his typewriter, which by the third act has transformed into a computer. By the end of the opera Walther has traded in his crazy bohemian ideas for status-quo conformity, while Beckmesser's song is jeered and laughed at, not because it is nonsensical babble whose words he could not remember, but because he attempts Dadaist poetic experimentation.
The performance was very good overall. Conductor Sebastian Weigle led a strong reading of the score, while the chorus proved once again that it is one of the treasures of the operatic world. what a magnificent sound they have had year after year! The performances by the principals was very erratic. Franz Hawlata, who sang Hans Sachs was booed for his unevenness, which in part might be because of vocal strain due to his hectic schedule. Further he sings the role of Wozzeck around the globe, and that's never very good for the voice. Walther was sung by Klaus Florian Vogt, who got through the difficult part (especially the treacherous Act III) with no mishaps. His is a voice more suited to the role of David, though, and there seemed to be some straining here and there. I was not too thrilled by Eva (Amanda Mace) and Magdalene (Carola Guber) both of whom were a tad shrilly. Also, Friedemann Röhlig as the Nightwatchman sounded too light for his job. The best singing of the evening came from Artur Korn, whose Pogner revealed true Wagnerian singing and whose interpretation added credence to the evening.
Overall, a very mixed Meistersinger: daring in interpretation but weak musically.