Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Sebastian Weigle
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
27 July 2008
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Hans SachsFranz Hawlata
Veit PognerArtur Korn
Kunz VogelgesangCharles Reid
Konrad NachtigallRainer Zaun
Sixtus BeckmesserMichael Volle
Fritz KothnerMarkus Eiche
Balthasar ZornEdward Randall
Ulrich EißlingerHans-Jürgen Lazar
Augustin MoserStefan Heibach
Hermann OrtelMartin Snell
Hans SchwartzAndreas Macco
Hans FoltzDiógenes Randes
Walther von StolzingKlaus Florian Vogt
DavidNorbert Ernst
EvaMichaela Kaune
MagdaleneCarola Guber
Ein NachtwächterFriedemann Röhlig
Stage directorKathrina Wagner (2007)
Set designerTilo Steffens
TV directorAndreas Morell
Mostly Opera

I remember very well this production, the first I saw in the BayreuthFestival house in 2007. Arriving at the last minute, I squeezed into my hard seat on the 25th row followed this spectacle, which had opened a few weeks earlier, to almost universal criticism.

For some reason, Meistersinger normally receives a very traditional treatment even by directors otherwise renowned for inventive staging. Perhaps it was the depart from this “traditionalisation” that made many criticise Katharina Wagner´s staging? Or perhaps the fact that the succession (to Wolfgang Wagner as Festival Director) at that time was very much debated, and that she, as his grand-daughter was judged as much politically as artistically? I, for one, remember having seen dozens of negative comments related to this staging from people who had not even seen it at the time. Anyway I found at the time, and I still find now, that this staging is more than interesting, and the DVD with the frequent use of close-up, provide myriad of details, which were impossible to notice from the 25th row in the house. Especially the last 45 minutes are quite extraordinary, presenting a daring and entirely novel interpretation:

To truly enjoy this staging you will probably need to accept/agree that this opera is an allegory of changes in society; about how society reacts to change and how much change it can accept:
In Act 1 we are in a 19th century brotherhood of sorts: Traditionally clad “meistersingers” sit around the table, reading small yellow books of German classics. At that time, Sachs, barefoot, is a slightly controversial outsider. But not nearly as controversial as the modern-dress Walther, who sprays paint on everything and everybody. Not a singer, but a painter, the point is driven through, by him assembling a puzzle of Nürnberg all in disorder compared to Beckmessers perfectly assembled Nürnberg puzzle.

In Act 2, the sullen Eva hangs around what looks like an East-German Canteen in the 1950´s, where Sachs sits with his typewriter in the corner. In the only hint at shoemaking, sneakers seem to be dropping from the sky and all ends in an orgy of paint-throwing.

The real stuff begins in Act 3: Now Beckmesser is suddenly the outcast with his T-shirt “Beck in Town” and finds himself in Sach´s fancy apartment, where the heads of the old German masters (Brahms etc.) dancing in the background. Sachs, with his elegant suit, is now constructing a neat idealised family-concept literally within the frames of a doll-house for Walther and Eva to be filmed in. How come this sudden change? Then, in the choral scene preceding the “wach auf”, Sachs is captured and tied to a chair by these heads while they, often clad in underwear, perform a weird dance and Eva blindfolded walks amidst them. What is going on here, seriously? Next however, Katharina Wagners master-stroke begin in earnest with an eerie scene in which Sachs´s helpers capture a stage director and conductor, putting them in a coffin, starting the fire to burn them exactly at the “wach auf” in a scene reminiscent of the Nazi epoque. Very strong theater, indeed. Et voila, what comes out of the coffin? A golden calf it seems. When a model of the auditorium emerges from under stage, we the audience are double spectators to Walther bringing home a check of 10.000 from the Nürnberg Bank, while Beckmesser now is an outcast.The staging requires a familiarity with German culture, both ancient and present, that I perhaps do not have and there are myriads of details to discover here, as the pace is furious, especially in the third act.
To summarize, Sachs and Walther essentially submit to conformism while Beckmesser moves in the other direction.

No, Katharina Wagner does not have all the answers and admittedly the staging of the first act seems a bit heavy-handed. But then again, the first act is really long and not for the first time do I wish Wagner would have lived to revise (read: shorten) it, though I have no idea if he ever thought about that and anyway, if he had lived any longer his next project (after Parsifal) would probably have been a revision of Tannhäuser (needed as well).

More singers stand out on the DVD than I remember from the live performance, especially Franz Hawlata, underpowered in the theater but not here, taking fully advantage of the close-ups for us to see his detailed and impressive acting.
Walther really is a super role for Klaus Florian Vogt, probably his best role together with Lohengrin and Michael Volle also leaves nothing to be desired. As for the rest nobody was exceptional, one way or the other, though admittedly Michaela Kaune was vastly better than the Amanda Mace I saw the year before.

Katharina Wagner presents with the only production on DVD truly departing from medieval Nürnberg and trying to wrestle with this issues. For this alone, this is a must-see.
The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Franz Hawlata: 4
Michaela Kaune: 3-4
Klaus Florian Vogt: 5
Michael Volle: 5
Norbert Ernst: 4
Carola Guber: 4

Katharina Wagner´s production: 4-5
Sebastian Weigle: 4

Overall impression: 5


Katherina Wagner takes a hammer to the Bayreuth legacy.

The Bayreuth Festival’s last three productions of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg have been staid, by-the-numbers affairs, directed by the composer’s grandson, Wolfgang Wagner. However, the current production, staged by Katherina Wagner, the new co-director of the festival (and Wolfgang’s daughter) offers a bold approach. This Meistersinger (filmed on July 27, 2008) cuts to the opera’s core, and questions the artist’s role in society.

(In other words, if you draw the line at regietheater, don’t read further.)

Sachs’ apprentice (Norbert Ernst) is an academic pedant who spends his time distributing the arcane rules of the Mastersingers in little yellow rule-books. Walther enters this world as the bad-boy artist in leather and shades, painting furiously on musical instruments, the walls, even David himself in his attempts to break out of the old order. He is sung by Klaus Florian Vogt: a pleasing, if smallish tenor that can handle the role’s high tetessitura. His good looks recall the late Peter Hofmann.

Hans Sachs (Franz Hawlata) enters as a barefoot, chain-smoking journalist–the rebel within the Mastersinger clique. Mr. Hawlata delivers a solid Sachs, using his skills as a compelling actor to support the two big monologues. In Act II, the cobbler’s last is replaced by a typewriter, which Sachs clicks and clacks on during Beckmesser’s song, damning the Marker’s performance with keystrokes instead of hammer-blows. The hero of Wagner’s opera has become Eduard Hanslick, the Vienna music critic who was both Wagner’s nemesis and the inspiration for Sixtus Beckmesser. In Act III, Sachs teaches Walther the rules of success, (using the dreaded “yellow book”) and the two become conservative, successful, utterly soul-less sell-outs in matching dark suits.

In this production, Ye Olde Nuremberg is reimagined as the arts department at, let’s say, Nuremberg Community College. The acts feature a multi-tiered set, with Act I in the library and Act II in the cafeteria. This “Song-school” is run by the Masters and administered by David.

Eva (Michaela Kunde) is a repressed, almost predatory figure. In Act II, she blossoms, re-invented through Walther’s use of creative visual art. She gets a makeover and is suddenly “cool.” Her scene with Sachs in Act III is heart-rending: the two characters no longer understand each other’s aesthetics–and a final attempt at a sexual advance (by Sachs) leads him to tear up his entry in the song contest. After this she goes through a second makeover–as a conservative German frau. The Quintet is staged as a “dream” family portrait, as each couple stands with their ideal 2.5 kinder. Ms. Kaune’s big voice has a vibrato and spreads unattractively in “O Sachs, mein Freund!” But she sounds great leading off the Quintet. Lena (Carola Guber) is given even less of a part in this version of the opera, but provides able support in the ensembles.

Things get merry in the “festival meadow” scene. A group of dancers, wearing giant heads that represent great German masters: Mozart, Haydn, Bach and yes, Wagner (in his beret) burst out and tie Sachs to a chair. As the march begins, the “composers” stage a kickline: wearing underwear and, in some cases, giant phalluses. (Yeah, I thought I was dreaming too–so I watched it twice to be sure.) The choristers line the tiers, and the “parade” considts of a series of nightmare rituals. Sachs presides over the murder of the artists who staged the ballet, and becomes a neo-fascist, spreading the “gospel” of Holy German Art to an affluent, tuxedo-wearing audience and a terrified, intimidated Beckmesser. Art has been replaced by politics.

If the Masters are presented as academic ninnies clinging to their yellow rule-books, it is Beckmesser (sung by the superb Michael Volle) who shatters the mold and ultimately wins the day. The Marker has a life-changing experience during the Act II riot, turning from stuffed shirt to hipster artist. His entry in the song contest is an attempt to re-invent himself with an avant-garde “happening”: exhuming nude dancers from a mound of earth, who start hurling fruit at the chorus. Afterwards, he comes back out, laughing with Sachs to watch Walther’s “approved” performance. By presenting Sachs as the neo-conservative and Beckmesser as the free artist, Ms. Wagner has turned the opera on itself, and eliminated the dramatic problems that plague this work.

This is the first film of the opera to not fall into the trap of presenting Meistersinger as an historic pageant in a 19th-century “museum” version of what Wagner thought the 15th century might have looked like. The whole performance is ably conducted by Sebastian Weigle, with an emphasis on the baroque textures and complexities of Wagner’s score. Despite some of the bizarre imagery, Ms. Wagner has assembled an interesting, innovative approach to this problematic opera. Her Meistersinger offers something that her father’s three previous productions didn’t: fresh ideas about this brilliant opera.

Paul J. Pelkonen | Wednesday, February 9, 2011

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Media Type/Label
Opus Arte, BF Medien
Opus Arte
Technical Specifications
1920×1080, 12.7 Mbit/s, 22.8 GByte, 5.1 ch (MPEG-4)
Also available as broadcast