By Terence Watson
My first performance at the 2009 Bayreuther Festspiele was the notorious debut production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by the new Festival Director, Katherina Wagner (premiered 2007), but I found it in parts interesting, with a serious point of view, and in parts stupid and crass.
All of the current Bayreuth productions have made me think about the paradox that performing Wagner seems to engender in many directors these day. Wagner spent all his life extracting all the local, identifiable historical detail from his libretti to turn them into mythic statements about human nature, while almost all contemporary directors spend vast amounts of energy working out how to import history of one sort or another into their productions. At Bayreuth we have good selection of strategies, of which Stefan Herheim’s for Parsifal is the most successful. (As the first part of Dr Jim Leigh’s review in this Newsletter shows.)Meistersinger is, of course, the exception in Wagner’s later work and perhaps accounts for its popularity: one doesn’t need to deal with layers of symbolism and mythology.
In Meistersinger, Katharina Wagner and her sidekick dramaturg Robert Sollich, have decided that the setting is more or less contemporary Nuremberg, though the setting seems to have changed from a church to a small auditorium in the local conservatorium. The time depends on one’s view of when abstract expressionism / action painting / performance art / graffiti-as-art may have arrived in the town, since Walther seems to be an fervent if untalented practitioner. Wagner’s and Sollich’s conception of his character is central to the production. When he emerges from inside a grand piano, a little like Venus emerging from the sea in Botticelli’s famous painting, Walther is clearly being presented as the Ur-painter, wild, romantic, untrammelled by conventions, effectively a kindergarten kid with an endless supply of paint that he uses to liberally daub the environment with adolescent graffiti and protest slogans. He demonstrates his talent by tagging some of the busts of Dürer, Hölderlin and other revered German artists that line the Con’s walls. The point in Act 1 seems to be to establish him as behaving without rules of any kind, and hence an (infantile) archetype of the rebel. Acts 2 and 3 present him as gradually being brought “under control” through Hans Sachs’s inculcation of the rules of the Meistersingers, at the same time as Sachs is shown becoming even more rule-bound and “bourgeoisiefied” (demonstrated in his putting on shoes and jackets!), so that he ends up as an incarnation of conservatism.
The Meistersingers are depicted as boring pedants rigidified by their obsession with the rules into parodies of artists. Their protégé’s, the apprentices (played by male and female chorus members of incongruous ages and builds), are very amusingly depicted in what I took to be quasi-mediaeval page-boy bobs and standard gray school uniforms, with shorts not long trousers – another dig at the conservatism of the conservatorium. They are made to carry out a rather pointless, if clever, ritual for most of Act 1 of carrying what seem to candlesticks that turn into table legs for the Meistersingers’ tables for their meeting after the church service.
Beckmesser is as young as Walther, in itself an innovation, since most productions cast him as middle-aged at least- but already a rule-bound, prissy fuddy-duddy, completely out of place with both the Meistersingers and the younger crowd who frequent the Con’s coffeehouse of Act 2. When he is humiliated in Act 2 by the outrageous behaviour of Walther and dismayed by Eva’s obvious preference for Walther, he decides on a parallel but inverse reaction to the direction Walther and Sachs are taking, ie to rebellion.
As they become more conventional and traditional, Beckmesser launches into the same sort of Ur-painter, wild, romantic, graffiti artist role that Walther is abandoning. As an illustration of his new artistic edginess, Beckmesser turns Sachs’s bookcase into a satirical naked installation, complete with dangly bits.
Instead of the procession of the Mastersingers and the dance of the apprentices, that, admittedly, can be pompous and/or awkwardly kitsch-neo-volkisch, Wagner gives us a “statues” (parodic puppets of German greats, such as Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Kleist, Lessing, Dürer, Beethoven, Hölderlin – and others less familiar to English speakers, such as Schadow, von Knobelsdorff, Schinkel, with exaggerated heads and appendages) who carry on a mixture of artistic activities and ordinary domestic business (such as reading the newspaper on the toile) – all to remind us of the rather trite point, I take it, that artists can be boring people too, with peccadilloes and festishes. But, they all take their turns upstaging each other in the lead up to the competition – even doing a Rockettes high- kick routine – and take their bows at the end of the night, before being consigned to the rubbish bin.
During the prize-song competition itself, which is recast as a bizarre Idol singing competition, Beckmesser turns to shock-artist (or Dadaist, according to some reports) tactics by unburying a naked man from a pile of dirt (perhaps a reference to the Jewish Golem story) while bemused then increasingly outraged Nuremburgers look on and boo, although a few progressive (or just more fashion/dad conscious) members applaud – another dig at the mixed nature of Bayreuth audiences. To complete Beckmesser’s piece of rebellious performance art, a member of the stage audience strips and dances with the Golem (but doesn’t simulate sex as in the premiere). For his part, Walther creates a kitschy stage set (possibly for Tristan und Isolde), complete with fairy lights and a mediaeval prince and princess who mime badly around a pond while Walther, now in a full business suit, serenades them and the mostly entranced bourgeois Nuremburgers, as if he were Barry Manilow (or perhaps Peter Hoffmann in his pre-Wagnerian career) – a little dig at the conservative audiences who prefer the works to be done “as Wagner intended” and have booed Katherina Wagner’s productions elsewhere?
To put a final point on their production, Wagner and Sollich show how far to the conservative side of art they contend Sachs has moved during his education of Walther in the Meistersinger rules. To place his Deutsche Art outburst in what they see as a relevant context, the director has two huge torsos of Goethe and Schiller in pseudo-Greek style emerge from the stage floor (reminding Sydney-siders of the woeful inadequacies of our pretend opera theatre) to flank Sachs, who they light with intense white light from below, so he looks very sinister. It is surprising to me that Goethe and Schiller were selected to represent the forces of reaction, since, in many ways, they were liberating influences who pointed to the imprisoning effects of the rationalist movement in Europe.
In another ploy that has become almost de rigueur at Bayreuth, Wagner had the chorus who were on stage in bleacher seats behind the action and dressed in contemporary street clothes suddenly strip of their clothes to reveal their evening dress - ie a fairly clumsy reminder to the audience on the other side of the footlights that YOU are part of this continuous battle of the conservatives and progressives in art, as well in politics and all other aspects of life.
I took it that Wagner had a serious point about the nature of art and its audiences, but all the stage busyness often distracted one’s attention from the point or buried it under cleverness. Perhaps the most serious accusation that could be levelled at the production is that, while making a point about modern painting and painters, Wagner trivialises her great-grandfather’s own points about the value of poetry and music. Clearly, one cannot muck around with the poetry and music, otherwise the work becomes something else, so the director had to deploy the metaphor of painters and paintings to make her point. This overlay Wagner’s work of art with a coating of metaphor that was not always relevant to his intentions. The equivalent of what the director was doing to her great-grandfather’s work was what Marcel Duchamp did in painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. However, Duchamp’s’ action was very targetted and restrained in comparison with the uncontrolled romp into which Katherina Wagner turned Meistersinger.
As Patricia Baillie lamented in the last issue of the Newsletter, the quintet was one of the major casualties, as the singers were not only framed in huge kitsch gilt frames (admittedly in keeping with the painting-metaphor), but also decked out with suddenly-created children in an obvious parody of happy families. The contortions in literalising the metaphor in this situation simply made the music and sentiments of the characters seem trifling, rather than one of the greatest achievements in western operatic writing.
Similarly, Walther’s final prize song, addressed to the faux prince and princess, and delivered by a faux pop singer reduced the stature of the music sadly. In fact, however, the director’s choice on this point seriously called into question her own logic. Surely, if she were lamenting Walther’s loss of primal spontaneity and creativity as the original performance artist, through Sachs’ education process, and wanted to create an equivalently spontaneous and creative version of the prize song, she would have had Walther sing it in a punk rock or head- banging heavy metal version? But, of course, this brings us back to the limitation of the initial conception-even the composer’s great-granddaughter would not dare to meddle with the poetry and music.
In short, while I had much sympathy for the director’s exploration of the age-old tussle between conservatism and change in the arts, which was part of Wagner’s own story in his Meistersinger, the parallels between the plastic arts and the musical and dramatic arts that Wagner would have found interesting were buried in often confusing and over-produced stage business. Ironically, Kate Connolly in the Guardian of 27 July 2009 reported that: The enfant terrible of German theatre, director Christoph Schlingensief, delivered a harsh verdict on Deutschland Radio, saying it felt like she had set the opera in a “fitness studio or a porn shop” (www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/ jul/27/germany.classicalmusic). I have to agree with Shirley Apthorp’s summary from her review on the Bloomberg website: “Katharina’s calculated subversion of the plot could have been brilliant if it had been more sparingly realized. In her frenetic struggle to prove herself clever enough, presumably aided by intellectual dramaturge Robert Sollich, a few good ideas and strong images are lost in the dross” (www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid= 20601088&refer=home&sid=apZfndfDH0yc).
Without doubt, Klaus-Florian Voigt as Walther is as good to look as Peter Hoffmann was and with a similar voice, and with the likelihood that he also will not last, as his voice does not seem to have Wagnerian strength and heft. Alan Titus as Sachs was, according to friends who saw it last year, in better voice, but he had problems maintaining volume and focus, and his acting seemed a little less than fully committed. Michaela Kaune as Eva was perfectly adequate, and my sympathy went out to her as she had to put up with Walther’s feeble attempts to turn her into a human canvass, and his paintbrush tickling her “under the ribs.” Most impressive, however, was the relative newcomer, Adrian Eroed as Beckmesser. As young as, if not actually younger than, Voigt, he brought a welcome freshness to both the character and the singing, with a rich, resonant tenor voice that belied his small stature. I see that Jan Bowen was equally impressed by him as Siegmund in the Vienna Ring Cycle (in the September 2009 Newsletter No. 116 - www.wagner-nsw.org.au/reviews/r09/r09_013_ polished.html).
My final comment about the performance is on the quality of the orchestral sound. It may be an illusion, or my poor memory of previous visits, but I felt that each of the conductors, who are of a younger generation - Sebastien Weigle for Meistersinger, Danielle Gatti for Parsifal, Christian Thielemann for The Ring Cycle - and even Peter Schneider, a slightly older conductor, for Tristan
- were achieving a quite different sound from such conductors I’ve heard there previously, as James Levine and Daniel Barenboim. It occurred to me that the latter conductors were more likely to bring to Bayreuth the “soundscape” that they had created over many years in their home theatres than the younger ones who may have been more interested in and susceptible to the special qualities of the Festspielhaus.
It may be also that Pierre Boulez’s conducting of the Centennial Ring in 1976, which was heavily criticised for being “too light” or “too thin” to do justice to Wagner’s score, set some people thinking, and his 2004 Parsifalparticularly in the light of the period instrument movement. Boulez is reported as considering that “To conduct Parsifal as a slow, grandiose celebration of religiosity could all too easily turn into a proto-nationalist ritual, so it’s no wonder Boulez wanted to strip away these connotations (The Guardian,Friday 23 July 2004 or at the website: www.guardian. co.uk/music/2004/jul/23/classicalmusicandopera). I have heard some performances of Wagner and Bruckner, for example, by Roger Norrington and others of the period instrument movement, that have been ear-opening in the clarity and precision of the playing, without sacrificing the bigness of the sound, when needed.
Boulez’s conducting of Parsifal was praised for bringing a glistening subtlety and suppleness to the score - no mention of being too light. Perhaps the younger conductors, taking their lead from Boulez and the period instrument movement, are re-thinking their approach to Wagner. On top of this, the acoustics of the Festspielhaus clearly respond to a “thinning out” of the overall texture of the music in the sense of holding back some of the lesser instruments in climaxes so that one is not overwhelmed by the total volume, but can hear the inner voices more clearly and consistently. In passages of Meistersinger and Parsifal, I was astonished by the silky satiny sound the orchestras produced when the conductors balanced the parts more delicately than Levine or Barenboim, who seem more to aim for the total soundscape and so sometimes sacrifice clarity of instrumentation and part-writing. Wagner, after all, learned a lot from Bach in polyphonic writing and it is worth being able to hear more of it.
On the basis of hearing his Ring Cycle, Thielemann deserves his Wunderkind reputation. Thielemann did amazing things with the Bayreuth orchestra. He had them stop climaxes on a pfennig and drop to the lowest pianissimo, creating breathtaking effects. He also held the louder instruments back so that the inner voices shone through—a definite tribute to Boulez’s approach in his Centennial Ring, to my mind. All in all, I would love the opportunity to hear these conductors again exploring the wonderful sound that the Festspielhaus is capable of producing from perfectly honed orchestras under sensitive and insightful direction. It also make me wonder if I really want to hear the Met Orchestra under Levine do its next Ring when there are such innovative conductors in other places doing such wonderful things with the music. Nevertheless, Bayreuth is still so much the Mecca for lovers of Wagner’s works, in some cases in spite of their production values in the Festspielhaus, that some 438, 136 people from 80 countries applied for 53, 900 tickets – so now you know your chances!