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28.2.12

Holy German Art: Katharina Wagner's Meistersinger


Lustily booed at its 2007 premiere in Bayreuth, Katharina Wagner’s production of Die Meistersinger gave instant rise to polemics and controversy. Very aptly Bayreuthean, that. Detractors find it is, at best, a great cast wasted on an absurd production. It’s not an absurd production, though. It’s just too darn clever and with many superficial distractions that torpedo the traditional expectations which, in this work more than any Wagner opera, are very much implanted in audiences.

This was Katharina’s ‘trial shot’ before taking over Bayreuth with her elder step-sister. It might have been accidentally ingenious, but more likely it was a brilliant statement, folded inside the Meistersinger-story with the finesse of an expert origamist. At the very least it’s jolly good theater, now viewable on the Opus Arte DVD of the 2008 performance.


available at Amazon
Wagner, Meistersinger, Kubelik / BRSO
(Arts Music, ’67)


available at Amazon
Wagner, Meistersinger, Sawallisch / BStOp
(EMI, ’93)


available at Amazon
Wagner, Meistersinger, Böhm / Bayreuth Festival
(Orfeo, ’68)


available at Amazon
Wagner, Meistersinger, Karajan / Dresden StKap.
(EMI, ’70)
Choosing Wagner’s ‘light comedy’—a work about “holy German art”, about tradition for its own sake, about revolting against tradition, about renovating it, and finally adapting to it—means this production is chock-full of analogies that play into the story of Katharina Wagner’s own Bayreuth ascension: A balancing act between preserving a tradition (not to say cult), and—Wagner’s last dictum—creating new things.

Die Meistersinger is by far the most difficult opera to update – because it is much more literal and concrete than Wagner’s other works. No monsters, gods, or myths that can be transformed at will to represent abstract ideas in other shapes. The story of Sachs & Co. takes place in a very identifiable Nuremberg, with very real people and every-day props. The options are limited. A dwarf-raised hero may smith his sword any which way he wants to, but a medieval cobbler must always fix a shoe with his little hammer. No?

Miss Wagner can do without hammers. A typewriter serves the purpose here—one of the many superficial changes in the production. Just like the Mastersingers themselves don’t just sing but paint and play instruments. Gesamtkunstwerk is the word. She slowly twists the story around just enough that by the third act Walther von Stolzing has turned from hero and rebel to eager conformist. Sachs, from open minded liberal to staunch conservative. And Beckmesser, most interestingly, from pedantic traditionalist to free-spirited artist.


available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Pelleas et Melisande,
S.Weiger / Bayreuth Festival Orchestra,
Vogt, Hawlata, Volle et al.,
Opus Arte Blu-ray



available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Pelleas et Melisande,
S.Weiger / Bayreuth Festival Orchestra,
Vogt, Hawlata, Volle et al.,
Opus Arte DVD

For an opera that criticizes overt adherence to structure and tradition over that which is publicly appreciated (rules are still important, mind you!), in a time where Wagner’s music itself is no longer that which is ‘popular’ but part of a traditional structure, this twist undoes an ironic historical knot in the plot. And that converts end up more radical than the orthodox, once ‘admitted’ into that realm they desired access to, is a point so true, it need not be new to be timely.

If the message of Die Meistersinger is that tradition must yield to reform to remain ‘living tradition’, Katharina Wagner’s switching the characters around might seem like she’s messing about with the essence of the story. But it’s not like that: In the opera tradition yields—most unwillingly—to innovation, even reform. But that innovation is immediately canonized, the former rebel joins the ranks of the flame keepers, with the intermittently liberal Sachs their new leader. (A turn induced by the brawl in Act 2 which puts the ‘fear of God’ back into the man.) It’s all in the libretto—and the music. The C-major orgy of the third act is not coincidentally less innovative than the first act’s modulations. The cycle of tradition and innovation begins anew – and this time Stolzing might be Beckmesser. And once he is older and resigned to old age, he might have a Sachs-phase where he benevolently remembers his youth and its exploits.

What Katharina Wagner aims at is the all-too-quick conversion from rebel to reactionary. That does not attack the idea that tradition needs to be open to reform, but rather the danger of the original reformers becoming precisely those who try to block all future reform that is equally necessary to keep things alive. Would it be giving Katharina Wagner too much credit to suggest she knew exactly why she chose the Meistersinger as her “Meisterlied” to gain access to the temple in which the elder jealously held sway over that holy Wagnerian art?

With principles Franz Hawlata (Sachs), Klaus Florian Vogt (Stolzing—as always a controversial voice, but simply ingeniously cast in all of Wagner’s ‘outsider’ roles: Erik, Lohengrin, this one…), Michael Volle (Beckmesser) and a superb rest of a cast (the 2007 weak spot, Amanda Mace’s Eva, is replaced by Michaela Kaune), this Meistersinger is musically top notch—alongside Kubelik, Sawallisch, and [yes!] Goodall.



Photos courtesy of the Bayreuth Festival, © Elisabeth von Pölnitz-Eisfeld.