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Katharina Wagner (Photo: Nawrath)
16 Aug 2007

Katharina Wagner's Debut at Bayreuth

If you are in need of a Romantic, Alt-Nuernberg, Beloved-Old-Vaterland-As-It-(Never)-Was sort of production of “Die Meistersinger,” you would probably do well to wait for the Met revival, and stay far far away (actually, add another “far” to that) from the Bayreuth Festpiel’s latest “Skandal”-ripe interpretation.

Above: Katharina Wagner (Photo: Nawrath)


As imagined by Katharina Wagner (nepotism does pay), the milieu is stuffy, pedantic Academia, and the “Meisters” are boring and inflexible academicians who “heff zeez rrrroooooools.” The setting is a large paneled institutional meeting room surrounded on three sides by balconies, the side tiers of which display busts of great thinkers, artists, or teachers.

The rear wall boasts a grand piano in one chamber, and a cello propped on a chair in the other, with the highest tier peopled in part by several artisans who are restoring the old traditional ceiling frescoes. At opening, a very attractive Walther (Klaus Florian Vogt) climbs out of the grand piano (yes, out of it) in modern, hip clothing with (and this is important) white sneakers.

As he cavorts above, Eva and Magdalene (Amanda Mace and Carola Guber), dressed in identical grey business suit and skirt combos (which do nothing to flatter their short stature and ample figures) and with identical henna pageboy wigs (making them indistinguishable) frolic below.

And I mean, those girls get down! They do jetees, and little leaps and spins, and jump up and down like excited schoolgirls playing with purple scarves semaphorically in a way that would make Sophie Tucker proud. But the whole effect was. . .well. . .remember the Hippo ballerina in “Fantasia”? If so, ya got the (probably intended) effect. . .

Concurrently, rather trim middle-aged choristers dressed as Buster Brown school boys and girls (with very unfortunate wigs) march in, carrying what look to be candles, that they stick in a holder along a railing upstage. They return with more of these carried on their shoulders as if rifles, and do the same. Only later do we find out that these are in fact the legs of conference tables and chairs, that they screw in and assemble to create a biiiiiig meeting table for the masters who arrive stuffily dressed, save Sachs (and the afore-mentioned Walther).

Sachs is a barefoot renegade outsider, all dressed in a black, Johnny Cash-like shirt and trouser get-up. He stands to the side and broods a lot. And smokes cigarettes. A lot.

The contest and “ze roools” do not seem to be about mere songs, rather performance art, and to this end Walther seems to be an out-of-control graffitist par excellence. With a bucket of whitewash, he starts defacing first the cello, on which he paints breasts and the word “Eva,” and later jumps onto, and adorns the big, holy conference table itself.

He and Beckmesser have a jumbo jigsaw puzzle challenge, both attempting to put a puzzle together and create a famous lithograph of “Alt Nuernberg” in their designated picture frame, each on an easel. Beckmesser (Michael Volle) succeeds, but dang if Walther’s isn’t upside down. Ach, the Sturm! Ach, the Drang!

Poor Walther just cannot -- cannot -- put the pieces in the right places and conform. So he defaces Beckmesser’s “correct version” with his initials, and flings a lot of paint around as he exits.

But. . .I have to say by Act’s end, Katharina’s concept of the definition of art, the “establishment” versus free-thinking, the negative climate that defeats challenge and growth, etc., was not only well-established, but I thought was quite clearly and even compellingly made. And there were some real laughs. And prolonged applause. Then came Act II.

Same three-tiers, but some cafe tables are now stage left and behind them, a giant sculpture of a forearm and hand poised in an act of benediction. Sachs has a work table down right, at which he sits and types on an old fashioned typewriter through much of the act.

There are four white sneakers strategically placed down- and up-stage, a symbol of all that is innovative and daring, I think. In any case, during his great monologue, he stopped typing and tried to fit his bare foot in one of the sneakers, and he cannot -- cannot fit -- cannot be hip -- cannot be progressive.

White-sneaker-shod Walther is now on a tirade, and he slops a bit more paint, and then flings the sneakers around. When one of them clocks the giant forearm hard, it wobbles a bit and then bends forward in deference (oooooooh), allowing him to deface it as well, painting a big ol’ white nail, perhaps on the fickle finger of fate?

Eva eventually decides to buy into this performance-art-thing, throws off her wig and suit, and climbs The Hand in an unflattering blue shift. Walther gets her to pose for him so he can paint her. And. He. Paints. Her. Literally. Well, her dress, that is. Circles around the breasts, love flowers on the hips, “Ewa” across her pubic area, etc. Pity the costume mistress.

Meanwhile, the Night Watchman, no lamplighter he, has come and gone with a miner’s helmet, picking up litter with one of those litter-picker-uppers. He returns to pick up the sneakers and Eva’s discarded wig. Also in the meantime, Beckmesser has come to pay his visit and to practice his entry to the contests. Although he has no lute, the twanging from the pit works “okay,” in a demented-mental-condition sort of way. Anyhow, Sachs sort of “plays” along with his typewriter. And then it gets a little nuttier.

The interruptions to Beckmesser’s song are not the tapping of the cobbler, but rather Sachs at his typewriter and. . .white sneakers falling from the flies. First one by one. Then more. Then, they started rather raining down. As the street confrontation scene plays out, the busts of the statues come to life -- turns out the bust-actor’s body was concealed by the pedestal. Then some academics come in the upstage tiers and are stripped of their robes to their underpants.

The Buster Brown students tear off their wigs and some costume parts, forming several Bunny-Hop style lines and dancing. Some brandish the oversize jigsaw puzzle parts from Act One. One of the graffiti’d desk tops makes an appearance.

And at the height of it, more choristers come on the tiers with buckets of colored paint and begin creating a “Jackson Pollock” right on the stage and over the assembled singers! Sing and fling, sing and fling, sing and fling. Garbage-picker Watchman comes back once more surveying the “art.” Curtain down.

Vociferous booing. Love it or hate it, it was quite a statement on progressive performance art, and the wisdom of unstructured disregard of artistic traditions. Audience displeasure aside, there were no empty seats for Act III so I guess everyone either figured “I paid 180 Euros and I am staying” or “I want to boo even more loudly at the end” or “I can’t wait to see what wacky thing that darn Katharina will come up with next.” Well. . .

We are now in a rather modern apartment with three enormous picture windows, through which we see the upstage tiers filled with the “busts” of the Old Masters (including Wagner) in the guise of over-sized mask/headpieces like those on the Seven Dwarfs at Disneyland. Well, actually these are just a giant head . . .with legs.

Walther, Eva, and Sachs are apparently re-thinking “you know this tradition thing may not be so bad after all so let’s compromise,” and begin changing into traditional evening wear and business attire. Mid-point in the scene, Sachs closes the curtain on the ever-observant Heads.

Conversely, Beckmesser seems taken in by the performance art agenda and now appears in jeans, sneaks, and a tee shirt that reads “Beck in Town.” And he begins formulating his performance art “prize song.” David has twice come and gone through a secret “door” in the stairs fronting the platform, dragging a smaller framed picture of “Alt Nuernberg” with him. Ah, tradition is still an influential presence. . .but ya have to be sneaky about it lest you appear “old-fashioned.”

For the quintet, apparently to prophesy the future, Sachs provides Walther and Eva with three children “extras,” and ditto two for David and Magdalene, and he calls in two large picture frames from the loft to make “family photos.” Visually simple and blessedly still, this was one of the nicest moments in the opera until one of the young “sons” had been directed to act as though he had to pee. Badly. Perhaps Ms. Wagner wanted to keep reminding us that this is a comedy. Or she wanted to “piss off” the traditionalists. But I digress. . .

For the transition music after that, all the “Seven Dwarfs” Meister-Busts appeared in front of the window unit, and danced an amateurish kick line as if in a bad German Variety Show. (An oxymoron, I know. . .all that was missing was Anneliese Rothenberger lip-synching “Vilia.”)

They are soon joined by three buxom bare-breasted Bavarian lasses, also in big mask/heads with long blond pigtails and traditional dirndls, well, save the missing bodice. They proceed to strip (some more) and whoopsie, one of them is a guy. This strip-tease greatly excites the Dancing-Head Meister-Busts, and they expose excited rubber phalluses, one or two of which fall off. Whoopsie again. This is what Nurernberg Gay Pride Day in Hell must be like. . .

The sense of hackles rising in the audience was palpable now. You could cut the tension with a rubber phallus.

Eventually a big metal road case was rolled in, the Busts of all kinds were shooed away, the residue picked up, and dumped in the box. As if to purge the place of this nonsense, Sachs lights a Bic and touches it to the enclosed rubble which bursts into flame. He and the four rubble collectors all warm their hands in the flames, at which point. . .

The window unit flies out and chorister-packed banks of bleachers rise from the ground until they filled the background with a seemingly vertical mass of bodies clad in various casual clothing which made quite a lively patchwork. Very impressive effect.

And now, the “song” contest. Remember the song contest?

Well, “Beck” (the Beck-a-Rama, the Beck-a-Rootie, the Beck-a-’Rocious, the Man) is back with a small carnival wagon festooned with balloons which turn out to be attached to an inflatable sex doll (Eva). We also get treated to a rather yummy naked chorus boy (Adam). When the doll explodes and deflates Adam’s, um, chances, The Beck opens his zipper and pulls out his loooooooooong flesh-colored rubber “snake” with which he does many rude things, not the least is swinging it in a circle.

They are soon driven from Paradise as the wall of choristers rips off their casual duds and throw them to the ground revealing them to suddenly be in tuxes and jewel-colored satiny evening gowns in boy-girl alternating vertical rows. Truly beautiful effect!

How will it all end? Well, Walther presents his “performance art” prize song as a traditional Garden Scene with old-fashioned painted archway flown in (there have been references to this with a stage model replete with set designs earlier on), and enacted in dumb show by a beautiful traditional prince and princess. Awwwwwww. . . .(He wins, you know?)

Sachs’ last famous monologue about preserving and revering (the superior) German culture was quite unadorned, with large statues of (I think) Schiller and Goethe forming columns to witness (challenge? monitor?) his sentiments. Sadly, by now Franz Hawlata had spent the best part of his voice elsewhere in the evening, and had neither the sustaining power, the beauty of tone, nor the vocal presence to score in this signature moment.

The lights went out to instantaneous booing from some very loud and determined folks who seemed to need an exorcism very very badly. Not all of the audience was Clinically Displeased, but those that were were strident.

The excellent chorus was then cheered. Most singers got decent applause. Poor Eva was roundly booed, but while she did not have quite the vocal presence wanted on this occasion, she didn’t deserve that. Sachs also got the razz. But The Beck and The Walt (those cool dudes) got the most rousing and vociferous ovations of the night. Neither erased memories of say, Hermann Prey and Ben Heppner for me, but they were very good, and in any event, the best in the cast.

And therein lies my problem. For all of the eccentricities of the production, and my cheeky comments aside, it mostly “worked” okay. Save a couple of bad choices, the focus was where it needed to be. The concept was consistent, clear, and controlled. And I thought The Beck’s Adam and Eve performance art debacle to actually be a comment on the sort of “Konzept” that can derail a production just like this very one we were seeing. In short, I think the woman not only has some creative ability and directorial skill, but also perhaps, considerable wit.

Musically, however, the cast was very uneven, something that certainly should be avoidable at a festival of this prestige and importance. The small-voiced Arthur Korn (“Veit Pogner”), rather squally “Magdalena,” and a couple others were decidedly not of the highest international standard available.

The orchestra was very good, if not quite “world class,” the soloists (especially the cellist) were excellent, and I liked the conducting, but I think that the covered pit must be an acquired taste. I personally thought the brass and winds sounded too muffled. Give me the brilliant sound of the first class band at the Met or Staatsoper or Covent Garden any day.

I recall an old anecdote about one Met horn player who, as the “Meistersinger” performance evening was entering it’s 6th hour, ironically asked his pit colleague: “Soooo, what other comic operas did Wagner write?”

Katharina Wagner was upfront that she was attempting a non-traditional, irreverent approach that emphasized quirky comedy. I have to say that that loooooong two-hour Act III went by more quickly than any other I have experienced. And I had fun, darn it! (But I didn’t always like myself for it!)

But to now paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, I don’t think one can appreciate this production on one viewing. . .and I certainly have no intention of seeing it again.

Still, it was my first Bayreuth experience and it was great fun in toto. Everything is well-organized to include hotel shuttles, catering options, and really, all the hosting elements were superior. And while it was wicked fun to partake of a genuine Bayreuth Skandal, I would hope that future visits might reveal the reputed high musical qualities that meet the revered Festival’s normal standard.

James Sohre

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