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Tradition, revolution and reaction in Bayreuth

Marianne Zelger-Vogt on Katharina Wagner's ambitious Bayreuth debut with the "Mastersingers of Nuremberg"

The media coverage before the premiere was almost unprecedented, and even surpassed the hype around Christoph Schlingensief's "Parsifal". Because this new production of "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg" was not only a festival directing debut, it was also that of a potential festival director. The 29-year-old Katharina Wagner is the daughter and preferred candidate of Wolfgang Wagner, who at almost 88 has headed the festival - founded by his grandfather Richard - since 1951. In her media appearances Katharina Wagner has clearly shown she doesn't lack ambition, and her first directing work at the festival (and only her fifth independent directing project overall) is not lacking in ambition either. But does ambition alone suffice to stage a coherent performance of Wagner's monumental comedy?

All photos courtesy Bayreuther Festspiele

Katharina Wagner and her set designer Tilo Steffens locate the first two acts in a spacious school auditorium. Peter Konwitschny's Hamburg production of "Lohengrin" comes to mind, and the hunch is proved right again and again that Wagner's great granddaughter - how could it be otherwise - must have seen a good many Wagner productions by now. The school - with galeries on the side and rooms at the back - is clearly an academy for music, theatre and dance: a sombre, ugly building.

The masters of the opera are teachers. They sit at cumbersome tables wearing doctors' caps and gowns - except for the chain-smoking shoemaker Hans Sachs, who appears barefoot in a black shirt. Eva and Magdalene (Carola Guber) appear as childish twin sisters in prudish grey (costumes by Michaela Barth), while the apprentice David busies himself at a photocopier. And this is where the young squire Stolzing is supposed to sing? This lanky boor who mixes up the house rules even while the masters are explaining them?

Klaus Florian Vogt (left) as Stolzing, Michael Volle as Beckmesser

Stolzing's failure to enter the guild enrages him. At the beginning of the second act he sprays paint wildly about him, before putting his energy to creative use by painting Eva's dress. A huge hand tips over just at the right time, and serves the pair as a pedestal. Stolzing's rage is just the beginning; absolute chaos breaks out in the fight scene, shoes fly about the stage, Campbell's Soup tins are dumped from the balconies - a stage battle without parallel. Nothing in the optics of this "Mastersingers" production would indicate that the Bayreuth Festival needs to save on cash. The acoustics are another story, however (more on that score later).

In fact, the anarchic fight should really be the key scene in the opera, but when and how the the three male protagonists come to have a change of heart cannot be made out here. After the second intermission everything is simply different. Sachs meditates in an elegant salon wearing shoes, a white shirt and a suit, while behind him appear the old German masters - Richard Wagner among them, of course - as huge masks. They then get down from where they're stationed, chain Sachs and whirl in a grotesque satyr's dance. A rather mysterious scene in which only so much is clear: Sachs resigns, and with him a stage crew very much like that of the production, who takes their bows in pantomime.

Klaus Florian Vogt (left), Amanda Mace as Eva and Franz Hawlata as Sachs

A parallel scene follows Stolzing's prize song. Stolzing has become part of the mainstream, and is led around by an historically dressed opera singer. He receives a golden stag as a prize and poses, surrounded by the "leading team," with the check of an imaginary sponsor bank. But between these two applause scenes there is also the appearance of Beckmesser: the turbulent happening of a reactionary who has discovered his creative potential in the fight scene and now outs himself as a performance artist.

Sachs resigns, Stolzing conforms, Beckmesser becomes an action artist giving a new twist to the art scene - a commentary on today's opera in general and the Bayreuth Festival in particular? Perhaps. Yet it all remains too intellectual, on the one hand filled to overflowing with ideas and props, on the other hand a void - the entire history of the ideological reception of the "Mastersingers" as "Nazi opera" is blended out, for example, while Katharina Wagner remains focussed on the performance aesthetic. There is hardly any interaction between the figures (Eva wrapping her scarf around the widower Sachs can hardly be called interaction as such). And whether the director can deal with a chorus or not can't be judged, because it sings for the most part from the wings, and first appears on a tribune like that of the festival lawn, whereupon it quickly transforms into a premiere audience.

The elements that differ in this performance from customary stagings seem too deliberate: there are two Nuremberg puzzles but no blackboard where Stolzing's errors are chalked up during his try-out song; instead of banging on shoe soles, Sachs hammers on the keys of a typewriter; the sheet with Stolzing's prize song is a theatre brochure; and the song-baptism is portrayed as a bourgeois family idyll. The two women, moreover, are simply ridiculous. They are fully out of place here, also as far as singing goes.

Amanda Mace, Franz Hawlata

With her shrill, poorly resonating soprano, Amanda Mace as Eva is one of the two major vocal weak spots of this production. The second is Franz Hawlata as Sachs, whose baritone lacks power, sonority and reach in equal measure. It helps little as a counterweight Klaus Florian Vogt, one of the up and coming young German tenors, sings the role of Stolzing. On the night of the premiere he got better from act to act, but his role is poorly defined and he didn't quite achieve the full-blown brilliance with which he elated audiences in the Geneva "Mastersingers" last December. Other positive points include Michael Volle as Beckmesser, the only one among the soloists to cultivate the art of being understood, and Norbert Ernst as an agile, yet not at all lightweight David.

Klaus Florian Vogt
The singers of this production could hardly benefit from the Bayreuth theatre's celebrated acoustics, as conductor Sebastian Weigle wound the orchestra up from the word go. His tempi are fresh and avoid pathos, yet they lack form and balance. Above all, however, the sound lacks nuance, structuring and instrumental finishing touches. As a result massive boos accompanied the applause at the end of the evening, for the directing team, for the singers, and also for the conductor. It remains unclear from her "Mastersingers" debut whether Katharina Wagner is suitable as festival director. But what is certain is that as an opera director she still has to find her style.

"The Mastersingers of Nurembert" premiered at the Bayreuther Festspiele on July 25. Further performances: August 4, 8, 16, 28.


The article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on July 27, 2007.

Marianne Zelger-Vogt is a theatre critic at the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Translation: jab. - let's talk european