Magazine article Opera Canada

Barry Millington Assesses Katharina Wagner's Debut on the Green Hill

Magazine article Opera Canada

Barry Millington Assesses Katharina Wagner's Debut on the Green Hill

Article excerpt

Rarely, in the world of opera, has so much depended on a single production. But the critical gaze of the international press focused on the opening of the Bayreuth Festival for a new production of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg by Katharina Wagner, the composer's great-granddaughter. She had been touted for some time as the favorite to succeed her father, 88-year-old Wolfgang Wagner, as director of the festival, and it was widely assumed that if she emerged with credit from this baptism of fire, then the coronation would follow.

Setting aside for the moment the question of whether a good opera director necessarily makes a good opera company director--they don't, because the jobs are very different--it is quite impossible to say at this stage whether the crown is Katharina Wagner's for the taking.

The director and her team were greeted with a storm of booing, mixed with cheers, when they took their bow after the performance. But you have to remember that the first-night audience at Bayreuth still comprises the political and cultural establishment of Germany, and this was a production that struck at the heart of that establishment. It's hardly surprising that it decided to bite back.

Given its role as a signature piece in the Third Reich and its undeniable associations with the concept of German supremacy, Die Meistersinger is one of the most problematic of all Wagner's works to stage. The great merit of Katharina Wagner's production is that, in conjunction with her trusted dramaturg, Robert Sollich, she showed that she was not afraid to confront that baleful legacy, even under the watchful eye of her father, Wolfgang, a man of considerably more conservative tendencies.

In a magisterial article in the program book, Sollich formulated the intellectual framework of the production, noting not only the clash between tradition and modernity--a familiar polarity in Die Meistersinger--but also the extent to which the work dramatises its own aesthetic debate. Sollich further proposed that Walther compromises his artistic integrity by imbibing the Masters' rules and accepting their prize; that Sachs, for all his supposed mediation between old and new, actually reverts to a deeply conservative position in his final address (acclaimed with a blaze of C major that effectively obliterates any modernist tendencies in the score); and finally--most controversially of all--that it is ultimately Beckmesser, of all people, who demonstrates the most progressive traits of any character in the work, his gibberish on the festival meadow even anticipating Dadaism.

All this is interesting, if arguable, and although I had reservations about the notion of a progressively inclined Beckmesser, I found that the dramaturgical realisation of these concepts turned out to be utterly compelling. A central visual motif of the production takes the form of busts of literary and other cultural figures--Goethe, Schiller, Holderlin, Bach, Wagner and so forth--initially seen in a museum of fine arts. Later they come to life as giant puppets and taunt Sachs for his drift towards conservatism. They indulge in an orgy--scenes of nudity and worse attracted a lot of headlines--presumably reflecting the decadent end of the German idealist tradition.

After manhandling Sachs, the puppet Masters mark the end of their show by taking a bow, as does a trio of stand-ins for the creators of the Festspielhaus production itself. The three are bundled into a box and, in the production's most horrifying moment, Sachs sets fire to the box as the chorus launches "Wach' auf. …

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