Friday 8 August 2008

Bayreuth Festival: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, 7 August 2008

Festspielhaus, Bayreuth

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
David – Norbert Ernst
Eva – Michaela Kaune
Magdalene – Carola Guber
Nightwatchman – Friedemann Röhlig

Katharina Wagner (director)
Tilo Steffens (designs)
Michaela Barth, Tilo Steffens (costumes)
Robert Sollich (dramaturgy)

Orchestra and Chorus of the Bayreuth Festival (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Sebastian Weigle (conductor)

This was a production that was not so much compromised by its Konzept as by its execution. Let us begin by clutching at straws. What might represent the case for the defence? Setting the work in terms of a 1970s-ish art student, rebelling against a fusty old academy – even if it boasted academic gowns with a fluorescent green stripe garish enough to be worthy of the newest of campuses – is not necessarily a bad idea. That said, I cannot really think of any good reason, other than novelty, for jettisoning the musical world for that of the visual and increasingly all-too-drearily conceptual arts. Stressing the presence of past masters – Bach, Beethoven, Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, Wagner himself – both on stage and in terms of their output is, I think, rather a good idea, which I suspect may have come from dramaturge Robert Sollich rather than Miss Wagner herself. His ideas seemed far superior to her contribution, as was made clear from an interesting essay in the programme book. The motif of the iconic yellow Reclam volumes was quite arresting, even if the use to which said volumes were put was often baffling. I have pretty much reached the end of my attempted and already somewhat qualified defence.

For what was so truly staggering about this production was the ineptitude with which it was presented. There was no sense of any community whatsoever, despite the fact that the city of Nuremberg is one of the most important ‘characters’ in Wagner’s drama. So we did not see the chorus singing the chorales, and there was no sense of who might be singing this music, or why. The chorus did appear, though, at the very end, to appear as a talent show studio audience. As for poor Walther, several hours of daubing paint upon anything and everything wears thin pretty quickly and hardly presents a convincing radical artist. Paint poured out of – how we laughed! – tins of Campbell soup. The Trial Song became a jigsaw puzzle that would not have challenged a three year old. Hans Sachs clearly wanted to relive some youthful radicalism since he did not wear a tie and for some reason walked around barefoot: strange behaviour for a cobbler. Indeed, that whole part of his existence was ignored, so that instead of working on Beckmesser’s shoes he hammered away on a typewriter. Bizarrely, the riot was signalled by multiple pairs of trainers falling from the skies and old masters appearing in their underwear.

The opening of the third act was actually a little better, almost bearable, and there was one relatively amusing joke, when Beckmesser tried to ape his younger rival, acting in appropriately middle-aged youth attire. That, however, ran quite out of control when Katharina Wagner – and presumably the rest of the production team – completely misunderstood what should have been going on by having him not only continue in such vein to the Festwiese scene, but emerge as the more ‘challenging’ conceptual artist, as opposed to Walther who sold out and accepted a large cheque from gameshow host Kothner. Once again clutching at the one remaining straw, I can accept that some of Beckmesser’s music, like that of other Wagnerian villains, is more ‘advanced’ than some of Walther’s, but this made no sense at all. No attention whatsoever seemed to be paid to the text, which was not challenged but merely disregarded.

But there had been worse, much worse. After the more or less bearable opening to the third act, we were subjected to a bizarre interpolation for Daily Mail family values during the Quintet. Did no one tell the director that baptism is a metaphor here? Walther, Eva, and Pogner posed for a portrait with future children, as did David and Magdalene with theirs. This, needless to say, had to be undercut by having one of the Stolzing children crossing his legs, desperate for the lavatory. It was, however, with the move towards the Festwiese scene that the production reached its nadir. The past masters returned with their – barely recognisable – masks. They instead of anyone else marched and danced, stripped to their underwear, and then paraded around with prosthetic phalluses, which they rubbed against newly appeared masked women and each other. This went on for quite some time until they bade farewell one by one, leaving Beethoven straining to hear and then finally Wagner himself. Someone then appeared with a brush to sweep up the debris.

What of the music? Sebastian Weigle alternated between merciless, arbitrary pulling around of the score – the Prelude to Act I was all too much of a harbinger – and listless inconsequentiality. Whenever the orchestra sounded good, it appeared to be in spite of him. Franz Hawlata appeared to be having an off day, losing his voice somewhat during the third act, although he was rather good in the second. It is difficult to evaluate Michael Volle’s Beckmesser, so hamstrung was he by the production, especially once sporting his ‘hilarious’ ‘Beck in town’ T-shirt, but he seemed to follow suit, over-dignifying Wagner’s Malvolio figure, whilst singing well in purely vocal terms. Artur Korn audibly struggled as Pogner. Michaela Kaune just about passed muster as Eva, but only just, whilst Carola Guber must be the most undistinguished Magdalene I have heard. (It was not simply a matter of the sheer frightfulness of their costumes.) I was grateful for Norbert Ernst’s keenly sung David but the only star was Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther. This may be the finest Heldentenor­­-singing I have heard in the flesh. He was youthful, ardent, always audible, and truly looked the part too, if one managed to ignore his absurd costume. He does not have the classic Heldentenor bark; this is a far more beautiful voice, redolent of a lyric tenor, yet with the necessary volume. I cannot wait to hear him again. The chorus was good but not a patch on the previous night for Parsifal; who can blame it?