Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Katharina Wagner's Meistersinger

Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg
Conductor Sebastian Weigle
Stage director Katharina Wagner 
Chorus Director Eberhard Friedrich
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus
Opus Arte OA 1041 D (2 DVDs, also available on Blu Ray)

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Katharina Wagner's Meistersinger has been a subject of heated debate in the opera world since its première at Bayreuth in 2007. The release of this superbly produced DVD should help to make some of that discussion better informed. Préces of the production concept invariably highlight the controversial aspects, which is reasonable as this is a very radical reading. But watching the production from end to end, the overriding impression is of the high production values and the consistency of the concept. It's not perfect (what Wagner ever is?), but the success of the production lies in its tangential and paradoxical relationship with the work itself. There is damning critique here of many aspects of the opera, not least its nationalist undertones, but on the whole it works with rather than against the grain of the narrative. Katharina doesn't really need to do very much to change the trajectories of the main characters, and like her great grandfather, her overriding obsession is the sanctity of art. While the production updates the work, and acknowledges some of the uglier aspects of its reception history, the underlying message about the relationship between conformity and innovation in artistic activity remains curiously unchanged, even when the characters representing those opposing traits are switched.
If you're not familiar with the concept of this production here is a brief summary: Walther is initially represented as an innovative conceptual artist, while the Meistersingers begin (and remain throughout) pedantic protectors of artistic tradition. Throughout the first two acts, the imposition of Walther's creativity on the staid conventions of Nuremberg is represented by his painting on almost every object he comes into contact with. The riot at the end of act 2 is a paint fight, which proves to be a catalyst of change for both Walther and Beckmesser. In the singing contest, their roles are reversed, Beckmesser has become the free thinker whose work has attained artistic value through liberation, while Walther has succumbed to the Meistersingers' conventions to the point where he can only produce kitsch. Sachs goes through his own transformation when the scene change midway through act 3 is played out as a phantasmogorical ballet. In it, he is kidnapped by caricatures of Goethe, Lessing,Wagner and other figureheads of German artistic tradition. Having spent the first two acts as an alternative-thinking champion of innovation, he now becomes the most reactionary figure of them all. The most radical, and presumably most controversial, aspect of the production is Sachs' closing monologue. He has been transformed into a Nazi ideologue and his paean to the supremacy of German art is played out as a kind of Nuremberg rally.
The friction with the work comes from the production's critique of artistic convention. True enough, Wagner (Richard I mean) does that too, but ultimately the opera celebrates the self-renewing power of convention, specifically in the way that Walther's innovations are accepted and become part of the living tradition. Katharina makes an important and valid criticism of the work in her recasting of the final scene. The ending of the opera does not adequately resolve the narrative tensions of the previous acts, and that has problematic implications for the opera's message. Other directors tend to face down, or just ignore, the problem of Sachs' behaviour. The issue of his relationship with Beckmesser is left hanging by the libretto, and the nationalistic sentiments of his closing monologue don't even need the endorsement of Hitler to seem problematic. The weight of tradition is a pervading theme of this production, which is an issue more pertinent to German audiences than to most others, and perhaps this is where an autobiographical dimension creeps in. Of the caricatured figureheads from German history, the most prominent is Wagner himself, and there is an almost claustrophobically Oedipal dimension to his representation and ultimate disgrace.
But as I say, a précis of the ideas does no justice to the sheer theatrical spectacle of this production. For opera audiences used to seeing regietheater used for cost-cutting, the combination of interpretive innovation and Bayreuth financing comes as a refreshing change. There are some impressive set pieces, most notably the stadium seating arrangement that rises through the floor at the start of the festival meadow scene complete with chorus, and the giant hand that adorns the stage throughout act 2, one of the production's more inscrutable symbols. The quantity of ideas is large but not excessive. Katharina was clearly up against the challenge of her life putting on this (or any) kind of Meistersinger at Bayreuth, and there must surely have been a temptation to throw every conceivable visual device at it. But the results, while visually rich, speak of an impressive discipline in only including props and symbols that further the theme.
The cast have their work cut out reconciling their characters as envisaged by the composer and as transformed by the director. One weakness of the production is the reduced significance of many of the minor characters. Such massive transformations are going on for the three leads, that everyone else is in danger of becoming a bystander. David just about retains his three dimensions, but there is little to no engagement with Eva, Magdalene nor, with the exception of Sachs, with any of the Meistersingers. Eva in particular suffers in this version, she is a problem for every director coming to the work, but most manage to make her into something more than just a canvas for Walther to (literally) paint on.
Klaus Florian Vogt is a convincing Walther, both musically and dramatically. Franz Hawalta is a versatile baritone, but he struggles to find the stamina for Hans Sachs and loses some of his tone in the last act. Both make the best of their roles and adequately negotiate the competing demands of composer and director. But this production revolves around Beckmesser, and Michael Volle puts in an exceptional performance. Clearly, this isn't a production that presents Beckmesser as the comedy fool. Quite the opposite, in fact, he is the one sympathetic character. There is a significant imbalance here; Wagner (Snr.) gets away with his critique of Nuremberg society by populating it with sympathetic characters, but with Walther a lackey, Eva a nobody and Sachs a Nazi, it is left to Beckmesser to generate the empathy necessary for the audience to care. Katharina and Volle manage this by investing the character with profound dignity, which is perhaps the ultimate departure this production makes from traditional staging. If the production works – and I think it does although it is fair to say that the jury is still out – it is because of the credibility of Volle in this transformed role. Excellent singing from him too.
According to the liner booklet, the filming took place over the course of a single live performance, the first time this has happened at Bayreuth. How then to explain the onstage cameras? In fairness, they might not be literally on the stage, but they seem so close that I suspect some of the shots were taken during rehearsal. In the first act in particular, when Walther is climbing around the back of the set, he seems to meet a camera in every nook and cranny he visits. And then in the third act, cameras at the proscenium arch seem to be looking up the singer's noses. It is quite an invasive approach, but you certainly feel part of the action. Both the picture and the sound quality are to the highest modern standards, and it seems that opera singers, like newsreaders before them, are now going to have to pay closer attention to their makeup as the camera is recording their every wrinkle.
The orchestra sounds great, both in stereo and surround, and the sensuality of the strings compensates for the dispassionate atmosphere on stage in many of the scenes. There are one or two slips, which would probably have been edited had they filmed more than one performance. The woodwinds have occasional problems with their ensemble, and the whole orchestra comes unstuck on the last chord of the second act. In general, though, this is a musically convincing performance, and while a few of the voices in the cast stand out, the general vocal standard is significantly above what you would find in most opera houses.
In terms of packaging and extras, this disc offers more than the usual. The booklet is illustrated with colour stills, which remain the exception rather than the rule for opera DVDs. And the second disc has a making of documentary. Strangely, this is a different documentary to the one that has already been released on DVD (read my review here), but both seem to be based on the same interview footage. Both documentaries emphasise what a logistical nightmare the production was to stage, but that is quite obvious even from the production stills, let alone the video of the performance.
For those who have issues with Katharina Wagner's conception of the work, the musical side of this performance could well be its redeeming feature. But I would urge even the sceptics to take this production seriously. If ever you have sat through a traditional Meistersinger and felt your toes curl as Walther launches into his cheesy prize song or Sachs his nationalist diatribe, you will know exactly where Katharina is coming from. We all have embarrassing relatives, but most of us don't need to go to these lengths to distance ourselves from them in our professional lives. As ever, the Bayreuth Festival has demonstrated that it is not taking anything for granted, and Opus Arte should also be congratulated on the bravery of their beginning a worldwide distribution deal with the house on such a controversial note. A complex and troubling but also consummate and satisfying experience: even on DVD it leaves a lasting impression.

Hans Sachs Franz Hawlata
Veit Pogner
Artur Korn
Kunz Vogelgesang
Charles Reid
Konrad Nachtigall
Rainer Zaun
Sixtus Beckmesser
Michael Volle
Fritz Kothner
Markus Eiche
Balthasar Zorn
Edward Randall
Ulrich Eisslinger
Hans-Jürgen Lazar
Augustin Moser
Stefan Heibach
Hermann Ortel
Martin Snell
Hans Schwarz
Andreas Macco
Hans Foltz
Diógenes Randes
Walther von Stolzing
Klaus Florian Vogt
Norbert Ernst
Michaela Kaune
Carola Guber
Ein Nachtwächter
Friedemann Röhlig
Stage design Tilo Steffens
Michaela Barth/Tilo Steffens
Robert Sollich
Gavin Dixon

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