Meistersinger, Bayreuth Festival, July 2011Posted on 31 July 2011
Tickets for Bayreuth are hard to come by, so you know something’s wrong when people are disposing of Meistersinger at half price outside the theatre.
It’s the production that’s the problem, but even if one likes the idea of Walther being a graffiti artist who exhibits a portfolio of bad Picasso-like paintings to the Masters in Act I and acts like a yobbo, there was still a problem with his singing, and with Sebastian Weigle’s conducting.
The overture was sluggishly played; it lacked spring and coherence, and the prelude to Act III was a bit ragged, lacking the powerful depth it should convey. Only the prelude to Act II gave any sense of what this music can really sound like, but on balance it was a lifeless rendering of Wagner’s wonderful score.
The singing and performances varied in standard. Georg Zeppenfeld was a superb Pogner, dignified, sympathetic and powerfully voiced. Adrian Eröd sang strongly as Beckmesser, though the production is against him by not allowing him to make an inadvertent fool of himself with the mistaken words of his attempted prize song. On the contrary, he dresses like a goofball in Act III — quite differently from his strait-laced appearance in Acts I and II — and looks terribly pleased with his silly piece of performance art, digging out a naked man from under a pile of sand. Norbert Ernst also sang very strongly as David, but Burkhard Fritz was a disappointing Walther, giving a sad rendering of the prize song and ending with the wrong pitch for Paradies. He also seemed unable to portray the outlandish creativity that Katharina Wagner’s production seems to be laying on this role, and merely degenerated into uncouth boorishness. As Eva and Magdalena, I felt Michaela Kaune and Carola Guber did not rise above the production in their vocal work, though I saw Ms. Kaune in the same role at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, in a Götz Friedrich production, and she came over far better. Fortunately James Rutherford as Hans Sachs helped hold things together, aided by the fact that his representation in this production is relatively standard. After a comparatively quiet start he really came into his own in Act III, singing a fine Wahn monologue and giving a strong performance at the end, even if the lighting, featuring only him and Beckmesser, made him look like a giant sepulchral figure.
When Walther stalked off the stage after winning the prize, Eva followed and we saw neither of them again, so Sachs is left to address the first part of his final monologue Verachtet mir die Meister nicht (Don’t condemn the masters to me) to no one at all. Mind you, in this production Walther doesn’t want to listen to anything, and early in Act III when Walther asks Sachs the difference between a beautiful song and a master song, he takes no notice of the wonderful reply Mein Freund, in holder Jugendzeit . . . (My friend in the sweet time of youth . . .).
Then in the following scene where Beckmesser finds Walther’s wooing song, transcribed by Sachs, and accuses Sachs of trying to woo Eva, he asks Ist das Eure Hand? (Is that your hand?), to which Sachs replies yes. Yet in this production Sachs writes nothing, and what Beckmesser has picked up is a tatty piece of toy stage scenery, sloppily painted by Walther. So it wasn’t Sachs’s hand at all — he’s lying, but what’s the point?
If you try to do clever things like replacing the composition of songs and poetry with performance art, then you’re liable to run into difficulties like this, and Katharina Wagner’s production is rife with them. I saw it two years ago with the same singers for David, Beckmesser, Eva and Magdalena, so I thought I’d close my eyes, but on finding the conducting inadequate I opened them and tried to concentrate on the staging. Next year Meistersinger is not on the programme, and one hopes that when it reappears there will be a new production. I can understand doing strange things with other Wagner operas, and the extraordinary production of Parsifal was intriguing — I want to see it again — but Meistersinger does not lend itself to new concepts in the same way, and it’s time to drop the effort. With a better production the singers and the conductor will surely give stronger performances.