A 'Meistersinger' That's on an Entirely New Wagnerian Scale

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008

Katharina Wagner's first production at Bayreuth was meant to show that she was ready to succeed her father, 88-year-old Wolfgang Wagner, as the head of Germany's most famous opera festival. Thirty years old, with relatively little experience, she is an easy target for critics. But her "Meistersinger" shows that she shouldn't be dismissed. For all its flaws, it is full of smart ideas and moments of effective theater.

"Meistersinger" is about making art. Wagner -- Katharina, that is -- has pursued the theme from medieval Nuremberg, where her great-grandfather set it, into an indefinite present. Her master singers are pedants who display stacks of paperback editions of the German classics as measures of their erudition. Her Walther von Stolzing is a bad-boy artist whose idea of self-expression involves scrawling graffiti on Old Master paintings. He needs to learn rules, and the masters need to unbutton. But rather than an easy resolution, the situation descends into artistic anarchy; the second act ends in the "anything goes" spirit of the 1960s, with the chorus dancing around the stage brandishing art icons, from a Picasso head to ranks of Campbell's soup cans.

This anarchy hits Beckmesser, the most pedantic of the masters, like a religious revelation. Thanks to Michael Volle's strong performance, he becomes the star of the show, moving from bourgeois outrage at Walther's antics in Act 1 to shaking up the bourgeois himself with a piece of performance art in Act 3 (a naked Adam and Eve pelt an onstage audience with apples). But the revolution is devastating to Hans Sachs (Franz Hawlata, slightly one-dimensional). Hitherto the most open of the masters, he reacts to the desecration of his values by becoming more conservative. And Walther (slenderly sung by Klaus Florian Vogt) ultimately sells out, offering the onstage audience opera caricature in lieu of serious artistic statement. He is promptly offered master status -- and rejects it in disgust.

Wagner's story line is intriguing. But she runs aground with extraneous business in the final scene -- usually a joyous pageant, here an indictment of the so-called cultured public. At one point a conductor and production team are thrown into a large box, from which Sachs later draws a golden calf: Germany worships its artists after they are dead. This is heavy-handed; so are the large puppet caricatures of the great dead, from Bach to Wagner, who taunt Sachs and dance with a grotesque trio of strippers. The audience, tolerant for the first two acts, loudly expressed its disapproval of the third.

Sebastian Weigle, the conductor, led a clear if slightly pedestrian reading. Some of the heaviness, particularly in the final scene when Sachs is left alone to defend good German art, seemed deliberate: an unusual collusion between conductor and director to make a dramatic point. This is to Wagner's credit; so is the fact that she left the overtures to stand alone. Say what you will about her interpretation, she does respect, and know, the work. She will likely be named a co-director of the festival at the end of this season; her "Meistersinger" augurs interesting times in the future.

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