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Holy German Art: Wagnerian Games on the "Green Hill"

The 25th of July 2007 will be a notable date in the history of the Bayreuth Festival, since it marks the premiere of Katharina Wagner's production of Die Meistersinger. In and of itself it might not be that remarkable that a Wagner descendant stages an opera on the "Green Hill" - not even at the tender age of 29. Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner, the grandsons of Richard, were 33 and 31 respectively, when they took over the Festival in 1951 and most Wagner scions are in the business of directing operas. But ever since Wolfgang Wagner's elder daughter Eva Wagner-Pasquier (*1945 - from Wolfgang Wagner's first marriage) was chosen to succeed Wolfgang Wagner as the Festival director in 2002, which led the stubborn father to refuse the board's choice and insist on his appointment for life, his younger daughter has been built up as the new Festival Director. This anointment is supposed to take place this year; her Bayreuth Meistersinger the "trial shot". It's all jolly good theater, even if viewed from as far away as Munich.

Die Meistersinger, Bayreuth, K.Wagner, All pictures by von Pölnitz-Eisfeld

Young Miss Wagner has not directed much, so far: a debutante Flying Dutchman in Würzburg (2002), Lohengrin in Budapest (2004), Lortzing's Der Waffenschmied at the Gärtnerplatz Theater in Munich (2005) and Il Trittico in Berlin - a path that now leads to a potential coronation-production of the most difficult to stage of Wagner's Operas - the "Comedy" that is "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg". It is in many ways a fine coincidence (?) that it should be the Die Meistersinger that may or may not give her the last necessary push unto the Wagner-throne.

The work about "holy German art", about tradition for its own sake, about revolting against tradition, about renovating it, and finally adapting to it is chock-full of analogies that will necessarily play into the story around Katharina Wagner's treatment of the subject and her own projected ascension to become Festival Director. The latter is a cultural throne that highlights the balancing act between preserving a tradition, not to say 'cult', and creating new things. With a repertory of only 10 works (Dutchman - since 1901, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Meistersinger, Tristan, Parsifal, and the Ring), burdened by a world of always specific, yet widely varying, expectations and traditions, and with increasing competition from other festivals, the position isn't an easy one. Under Wolfgang Wagner's direction, Bayreuth has proven innovative at times, but largely stagnating in its artistic ambitions (especially as regards his own, rather conservative productions that may have lacked the deeper and more novel artistry of his brother Wieland with whom he was co-director from 1951 until Wieland's death in 1966 ), and as of late seemingly of a wilful radicalism in the choices of directors such as Schlingensief (Parsifal, 2004), Marthaler (Tristan & Isolde, 2005), and Lars von Trier (Ring, 2006 - eventually replaced by Tankred Dorst). It was as if Wolfgang Wagner had been bent to disprove the accusation of having become a conservative flame-keeper, draining Bayreuth of all innovative impulses.

Die Meistersinger, Bayreuth, K.Wagner, All pictures by von Pölnitz-Eisfeld

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R. Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Sawallisch / Weikl, Studer, Heppner, Moll et al.

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R. Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Kubelik / Stewart, Konya, Janowitz, Fassbaender, Crass et al.
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Perhaps he was already setting the stage for his daughter's work in Bayreuth. Katharina Wagner's work is closer to the "Regietheater" school of directing than tradition - and with three fairly wild premieres preceding her debut, her updated Meistersinger might not seem as radical or even sacrilegious as otherwise. Strategy or not, 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 or replaced at will to represent abstract ideas in other shapes. But the Meistersinger takes place in a very identifiable (if strangely Lutheran) Nuremberg, with very real people and every-day props. A demi-godly, dwarf-raised hero may smith his sword any which way he wants to, one is tempted to admit, but a humble medieval cobbler must always fix a shoe with his little hammer, no? Little wonder that the opera has usually been left in its somber and quaint origins - when challenging the expected, here more than elsewhere, bears so many risks.

Over the last years some notable attempts at pushing Die Meistersinger out of its perfectly cliché-laden medieval picture-frame have been made. Not the least Peter Konwitschny's Hamburg production from 2002. (Konwitschny is also responsible for a stunning Dutchman that premiered at the Munich Staatsoper this season. Reviewed for WETA here.) And Kathrina Wagner, too, takes risks and 'updates' the opera. And she can do without shoes and hammers, for that matter. (A typewriter serves the purpose here - one of the many superficial changes in the production. Just like the Meistersingers themselves don't just sing but paint and play instruments. "Gesamtkunstwerk" - get it?.) Conformity amid breaking with tradition, conservatism in a modern guise spotted with provocation (that seems to be the public verdict so far): if that were indeed her skill and talent, she will have done much for her chances of being nominated Festival Director.

[continue reading this post at WETA's blog] (Edit: Link broken)

All pictures courtesy Bayreuth Festival, © von Pölnitz-Eisfeld

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