Just about the only consensus to be found among the early reports on the Bayreuth Festival's opening night last night is that Katharina Wagner's new production of her great-grandfather's Die Meistersinger von N‹rnberg is very, very unorthodox, and that reaction to it is very sharply divided.
The 29-year-old Katharina has a great deal riding on this production: the widespread assumption in Germany is that, if her Meistersinger is a success, the Richard Wagner Foundation will appoint her to succeeed her 87-year-old father Wolfgang as artistic director of the Festival.
"Expectations were high," reported the Associated Press, "and for the hundreds who booed the performance obviously not met. But at least as many among the audience loved the production." Agence France-Press, on the other hand, said that Katharina got "a stormy reception ... with copious boos barely covered by the applause." (The agency's English-language account said only that the audience "jeered and whistled when the willowy blonde [director] took her bows.") And the German tabloid newspaper Bild (translated by blogger Kate Connolly) reported that "the audience booed at the end — almost unanimously."
And what in the staging drew out all these reactions?
As the AP's George Jahn put it, "the audience was given a plot turned topsy-turvy, a villain turned hero, a hero turned wimp — and a few minutes of full frontal nudity." (Sorry, folks, there will be no Photo Journal of this one.)
Katharina certainly made good on her pledge to subvert Meistersinger's rhetoric about the beauty and purity of German art.
In the original libretto, as nicely synopsized by Shirley Apthorp for Bloomberg News, "outsider Walther von Stolzing must win the singers' guild competition to gain the hand of lovely Eva. Shoemaker Hans Sachs, older and wiser, fancies Eva himself but bows to young love, teaching Stolzing the rules and respect for tradition while he helps the guild members to accept that a little modernity is not a bad thing."
This new production begins with Walther as a disheveled, energetic young iconoclast, flinging paint all over the busts of D‹rer, H‹lderlin and other canonical artists in the local academy of fine arts. Sachs is the barefoot, chain-smoking bohemian _minence grise of the guild, perhaps analogous to a figure like Allen Ginsberg. As the opera progresses, Walther and Sachs become steadily more conservative and conformist, eventually putting on tailored suits and reaping wealth by giving the public exactly the non-threatening art they expect. Meanwhile, Beckmesser — a pedant and figure of ridicule in the original — goes from slick and predictable to angry rebel, his final song turned into what the AP's Jahn describes as "a Dadaist outcry against stultified status quo art."
Here are a few choice details from the staging: "A giant, wavering hand of destiny, sneakers raining down from the flies" (AFP); "[Hans Sachs] warms his hands on the flames as conductor and stage-director doubles are burned"; "statues of Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Wagner, Kleist and others come to life and dance, in grotesquely oversized masks and their underwear, for the third-act meadow festivities" (Bloomberg News); "Richard Wagner dancing in his underwear and a bunch of master singers horsing around the stage with oversized penises" (Deutsche Welle).
"It had absolutely nothing to do with Meistersinger," one angry audience member said to AFP, "It was all so gratuitous. It wasn't true to the text at all." Spanish opera critic Roger Alier told BBC News that the staging was "just horrible ... I hear what they're singing and it has nothing to do with what's going on onstage."
Yet one audience member who says he has been coming to Bayreuth since 1951, Carl Julius Brabant, found the staging "surprisingly good," according to BBC News. "It's really got oomph."
Reaction to the musical performance was similarly divided. AFP described conductor Sebastian Weigle and the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra as being in "a state of grace," and the AP said that its playing "was a dream — sonorous, rhapsodic, finely nuanced and at one with the singers on stage." On the other hand, AFP 's English-language report quoted Berlin-based critic Lorenz Tomerius as saying that Weigle "has absolutely no grasp of the score. It's extremely messy. The singing's not up to scratch, either."
To sum it all up, Bloomberg News's Apthorp wrote that "Katharina's calculated subversion of the plot could have been brilliant if it had been more sparingly realized. In her frenetic struggle to prove herself clever enough ... a few good ideas and strong images are lost in the dross." Werner Theurich of Der Spiegel Online (translated on SignAndSight.com) described the production as an "impressively flat Wagner-pizza — a lot of stuff on a very thin crust [...] Katharina Wagner had a whole lot of ideas — thanks to her long and detailed preoccupation with the work. But unfortunately, she tried to realize them all at once, to stuff them all into one colorful bag of tricks. The performance sagged under its heavy load — thankfully the music was exceptional."