This year the Bayreuth Festival took the show on the road to city plazas and home computers near you. During the spring months leading up to the festival, the Bayreuth website was updated to include information in German and English, and in the weeks prior to opening night virtual tickets were sold (at the price of 49 euros) to view a telecast straight from the stage of the Festspielhaus. The result was that thousands were able to experience Katharina Wagner's controversial staging of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg through their computer in a live video webcast. In addition, a large screen set up outdoors in one of Bayreuth's squares presented the performance to an estimated 35,000 spectators.
This is the second year for this Meistersinger, and those of you who read this column regularly will remember that I blogged extensively about this new production last year, basing my reports on whatever information I could get my hands on: mostly still pictures and various reviews from many periodicals. This year, however, I was able to actually see the work itself (via the webcast) and my conclusion is that this production has to be seen to be believed.
I wish that they would have done a webcast like this for Christoph Schlingensief's infamous production of Parsifal, which lived its short lifespan on the Green Hill amid jeers and loud boos. That certainly was a stage work that demanded to be seen as well as heard, although its enemies will argue that it never should have seen the light of day. Wagner's famous idea of "total art work" demands that the visual element be as important as the music. In this respect, this year's computerized marriage of audio and visuals brings Bayreuth to a larger public in a way that Wagner himself might have approved.
While on the subject of approval: I am not sure that Wagner would approve or even understand what is currently passing as his Meistersinger at Bayreuth these days. If you know the work and have grown up with a traditional staging of it, such as the Otto Schenk staging at the MET, this production contains so many "what the f**k" moments that save for the music it is really impossible to recognize Katharina's production as a Richard Wagner opera.
This staging is so different and shocking that the feeling you get is that you are watching a whole new work. Turn down the sound and you won't recognize what opera you are watching from the staging. There is very little of Die Meistersinger in this Meistersinger. Transposed to modern times, the old singers are now academic gown-wearing teachers in an art school where the pupils wear drab uniforms. Hans Sachs is a chain-smoking, nonconformist writer who likes to walk around in his bare feet, while Walther is a paint-splashing SoHo "Aktionkunstler" who bears more than a slight resemblance to Schlingensief himself.
Given these inherent changes, there is very little in the opera that can be presented in any way resembling the traditional way, and Katharina makes sure that tradition is thrown to the four winds at every turn. In Act II, for instance, sneakers rain down on the performers while Sixtus Beckmesser practices his song with Hans Sachs, and the act ends with an uproarious melee featuring, among many things, half-naked men wearing giant Campbell soup cans on their heads. As if this was not enough, Ms. Wagner leaves the best for last. In Act III, during the introduction of the various guilds, Ms. Wagner stages a sort of dream sequence where big-head caricatures of famous Germans suggestively play with each other while topless show girls attempt to give Hans Sachs a lap dance. During the song contest, Beckmesser sings his half-learned nonsensical tune wearing a Dr. Frankenstein apron while bringing to life a naked man who rises out of a bed of dirt like a newly awakened golem. By the end of the opera Hans Sachs and Walther have both turned into suit-wearing conservative while Beckmesser, wearing a black t-shirt with the English words "Beck in Town," has transformed himself into a radical.
Although everything is pretty imaginative in an absurd kind of way, there is really nothing here that remotely has anything to do with Wagner's original story. The production ends up suffering because it tries to incorporate too much of everything, and nothing of what it puts in was intended to be there in the first place. Katharina's theater is one of provocation making her the absolute center of attention. "Look, everybody," she seems to be saying, "I'm here, I've arrived, daddy is stepping down, and I'm running the show now!" The boos that greeted her curtain call appearance were as loud as those heard when Schlingensief stepped before the curtain after the first performance of his 2004 Parsifal; and like Schlingensief, Katharina Wagner seemed to relish the audience's disapproval of her work. The more they boo the greater the provocation, and therefore the greater the success. The icing on the cake is that everybody got to see it live around the world; and for those who missed it, the DVD comes out just in time for Christmas 2008.
To be totally fair about it, the production is never dull, and when it does come out on home video you might want to pick it up to see what the hullabaloo is all about. It is a wacky look at Wagner's human comedy, and Katharina makes it even more human than we thought possible. It certainly is not one for the ages, but it does introduce the next generation of the Wagner family that will run the festival, and that alone makes it an important piece of history.