Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Katharina Wagner’s Baptism of Fire: the road to her debut in bayreuth [Katerina Wagners Feuertaufe] (2007)

Katharina Wagner’s Baptism of Fire: the road to her debut in bayreuth
A Film by Dagmar Krauss

Sound Format: DD 5.1 (German), DD 5.1 (English)
Picture Format: 16:9
DVD Format: DVD 9, PAL
Running time: 82 mins
FSK: 12
Regional code: 2

Distributed by Clasart Classic
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‘I don’t like being booed, it hurts every time.’ This behind-the-scenes documentary about Katarina Wagner’s Meistersinger production at Bayreuth in 2007 treads a fine line between celebrating its originality and acknowledging the negative publicity it generated. Most of the footage however was shot during the rehearsal process, so the reaction of the press and the opening night dignitaries is mostly discussed in anticipation rather than retrospect. And momentous as the production was (it was Katharina’s first for the Festspielhaus and the prelude to her later appointment as its co-director) the preparations and behind the scene activities were fairly run-of-the-mill. She has some grand set pieces – dancing statues, a paint fight, the entire chorus rising though the floor in the last act – and most of the interviews are with the technical staff who are charged with pulling these off. Most of the discussion therefore focuses on the impracticality of the staging rather than its historical significance for the house.

But tensions are apparent from the start. On the first day of rehearsal (or the first that the cameras attend), the lead singer, Robert Dean Smith as Walther, pulls out of the production in protest at Katharina’s approach. He is replaced by the more compliant Claus Florian Vogt, who apparently tows the line. Vogt is later shown fielding awkward questions from a roomful of journalists and assuring them that the atmosphere in rehearsal is relaxed and friendly. It is clear from his body language that he would rather be somewhere else.

The format of the programme intersperses the chronology of the preparations with the acts of the opera. Katharina is regularly interrupted from her work to explain to the camera the rationale of her interpretation. And the sheer number of interpretive ideas that this staging applies to the piece means that a large proportion of the documentary’s generous 82 minutes is given over to these explanations. Fortunately, the brief excerpts from the performances show a very clear, visual symbolic language, suggesting that such explanations would be unnecessary for the live audience. 

To briefly paraphrase Katharina’s approach: the idea of ‘Sacred German Art’ is set in opposition to creative artistic activity. The Meistersinger are old-fashioned and bureaucratic. Walter is a cool ‘performance artist’ whose appearance in Nuremberg upsets these traditions. The fight at the end of act 2 represents the people rebelling in favour of funky new art (hence the paint fight). The most radical reinterpretations are of the characters of Hans Sachs and Beckmesser, the former becoming more conservative in reaction to the changes (hence his paean to German art at the end), and the latter transformed into the work’s hero, the artist who actually gets it and starts producing something genuinely new.

The autobiographical dimension for Katarina is hard to ignore. As a young innovator challenging deeply ingrained orthodoxies her surrogate in the story passes from Walter in act 1 to Sachs in act 2 to Beckmesser in act 3. But the documentary leaves that point unsaid. It is also light on the historical significance of the production, concentrating instead on the details of the staging. Its radicalism is regularly mentioned, of course, Franz Hawlata, who sings Hans Sachs, points out in one interview that Meistersinger is one of the few core-repertoire works not to have been presented in a modern staging, giving the team extraordinary interpretive freedom. Among the cast and crew, Hawlata is the most regular face to appear in front of the camera as defender/champion of Katharina’s approach, but conductors Christian Thielemann and Sebastian Weigle also do so on a number of occasions, and the point is made towards the end of the documentary that support for her amongst the senior music staff is crucial to her long-term future with the house. This comes as part of the closing sequence, which is already outdated, in that it speculates about succession to the directorship of the festival; the programme was made in 2007 before the issue was settled in the autumn of 2008 with Katharina and her half sister Eva Pasquier sharing the post. Katharina was the first choice for Wolfgang Wagner, their father, who was then in charge. His presence in the documentary is as a silent observer of the preparations, regularly attending rehearsals, but making sure that he does not give a hint of what his opinions might be of this radical reinterpretation.

If I have one grumble with the programme, it is with the post-production. It has been edited to look like America’s Next Top Model with John Williams soundalike library music, those cuts where a halo appears around everything, which then expands to fill the screen with white, and the originally German voiceover dubbed into very annoying American. The programme does everything in its power to get the audience on Katarina’s side, we are told at one point that ‘she loves rock and roll and working out’. She comes across as likable enough, but radicalism and ambition are the personality traits that come through most strongly. One criticism of Katharina’s Meistersinger that this documentary inadvertently supports is the excess of ideas, there are just too many reinterpretations, visual gags and cultural references. On the other hand, this augers well for the future of the festival, its new co-director is clearly going to be an abundant source of new and original concepts. It is also clear that she is going to annoy a lot of people along the way.

Gavin Dixon 2010

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