The question on everyone’s lips was “Can she do it?” “She” is 29-year-old Katharina Wagner, and “it” was pull off a successful debut as a stage director at the Bayreuth Festival, established by great-grandfather Richard Wagner in 1876 for the exclusive performance of his operas. Her wildly inventive, entertaining and thought-provoking reinterpretation of “Die Meistersinger” makes the answer a resounding “Yes.”
The production also serves as a trial by fire to see if Wagner Jr. is capable of assuming the duties of festival director, a position currently held by Katherina’s 87-year-old father, Wolfgang. A decision from an independent foundation is expected soon. But meantime, the acrimonious infighting among the Wagner clan makes “Dynasty” look like a tea party.
Katharina put “Meistersinger’s” text under a microscope and made some creditable adjustments to Wagner’s most tradition-bound and only comic opera.
In medieval Germany, a song contest is held by the titular mastersingers, tradesmen who strictly adhere to time-honored rules. The prize is the hand of Eva (Amanda Mace), daughter of wealthy burgher Veit Pogner (Artur Korn).
Young knight Walther von Stolzing (overnight tenor sensation Klaus Florian Vogt, spectacular in every aspect), new to Nuremberg, falls for Eva, but is ignorant of the contest’s traditions. Shoemaker Hans Sachs (Franz Hawlata, a bit in over his head vocally), who is too old for Eva, teaches Walther how to compose the prize-winning song while he also tricks stodgy Sixtus Beckmesser (Michael Volle in a star-making performance), a major contender, into submitting nonsensical words that defy all the rules.
The work closes with Sachs’ monologue about the importance of maintaining “holy Germany art,” suggesting why “Die Meistersinger” was Hitler’s favorite opera.
Director Wagner shines different lights on virtually all the characters, and adds some uproarious and controversial comic touches.
Undisciplined but talented artist Walther attempts to transform his song into a crowd-pleaser and loses his artistic integrity. Wearing sneakers, sunglasses perched on his long blond locks, he winds up in a conservative suit and tie. The moment when he first puts on sensible black shoes is simultaneously funny and heartbreaking.
Sachs, too, is an outsider. The cobbler makes identical shoes for the townsfolk, but he remains barefoot until conformity overtakes him.
An uptight, prune-faced snob, Beckmesser becomes enlightened through the gibberish Sachs has penned to trick him.
Essentially, Walther and Beckmesser trade places: iconoclast becomes buttoned-down conformist; prude becomes free spirit. Sachs, too, undergoes an epiphany, his ideology moving to the far right, bringing a chilling, xenophobic tone to his final paean in praise of all things German.
Standouts among the myriad smaller roles were fresh-voiced Norbert Ernst as Sachs’ apprentice, David, and Markus Eiche as Fritz Kothner, the keeper of the mastersingers’ rules. The legendary Bayreuth orchestra and chorus were in peak form under the baton of debutant conductor Sebastian Weigle.
Reactions to the production varied, with the director’s curtain call dividing the audience into equal-sized camps of boos and bravos. A few seconds of male nudity during the perf drew harsh criticism, while jokes involving large Campbell’s soup cans filled with paint and a kid who really has to use the bathroom drew spontaneous applause.
This “Meistersinger” will challenge, delight and outrage audiences for a number of years to come. Perhaps, as Beckmesser discovers, breaking with tradition isn’t such a bad thing.