By Simon Morgan (AFP) – Jul 27, 2009
BAYREUTH, Germany — Whether you love it or hate it, there's never a dull moment in Katharina Wagner's uproarious staging of her great-grandfather's "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg", revived here Sunday for its third year.
Judging by the storm of boos that greeted the blonde 31-year-old when she took her bows at the end of the six-and-a-half-hour evening, most of the audience in Bayreuth's legendary Festspielhaus theatre loathed it.
Katharina, who has taken over the joint running of the prestigious month-long summer music festival along with her much older half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier, 64, certainly has plenty of ideas about Richard Wagner's only "comic" opera.
The Mastersingers are not a guild of singers at all, but artists from every discipline, from musician to theatre designer and film director.
And the singing school is a modern arts academy, its walls lined with the busts of cultural giants such as Bach, Beethoven, Goethe and Duerer, and even Wagner himself.
The central figure of Hans Sachs, a shoemaker by trade in the original, is a writer. And Walter von Stolzing, who in Wagner's libretto seeks to win Eva's hand by winning a singing competition, is a rebellious young action artist, who smears graffiti on everything he sees.
The opera, Katharina is telling us, is about art with a capital "A" and its role in society.
The arts academy is no place for spontaneity and creativity, which are rigorously drilled out of the students in their neat and tidy uniforms and their identical page-boy haircuts.
So, Sachs, a chain-smoking, barefooted intellectual, decides to take the auto-didact Stolzing under his wing and help him nurture and refine his unconventional art.
When the production was first premiered in 2007, it was far from certain that Katharina really would take over Bayreuth from her father Wolfgang, the white-haired autocrat who ruled the festival with an iron fist for 57 years.
And her modern-dress staging was a direct provocation, not least because it was complete anathema to the twee parochialism of Wolfgang's own previous production.
Bayreuthers, not exactly known for their progressive or open-minded views, continue to take offence at Katharina's sometimes cartoonish visual language, its frequently crude and trashy symbolism and sledgehammer subtlety.
In the riot scene at the end of Act II, shoes rain from the sky and the chorus lob cans of paint at each other.
In the famous Festwiese scene in the final act, the statues of Bach, Beethoven and Co. come to life and cavort across the stage with oversized genitals.
But for all her brashness and irreverence, Katharina's direction has occasional touches of brilliance, too, and the final scene -- the showdown between Stolzing and his rival Sixtus Beckmesser -- is simply masterful.
There were a couple of notable casting changes this year, with US bass-baritone Alan Titus taking over as the new Hans Sachs and Viennese baritone Adrian Eroed as Beckmesser.
German soprano Michaela Kaune was woefully miscast as Eva, and compatriot Carola Guber was similarly out of her depth as Magdalena.
By contrast, Austrian tenor Norbert Ernst excelled as David and German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt has the sort of voice that can shatter lightbulbs, even if its almost unnatural glare and shine can sometimes be a little too penetrating.
In the pit, German conductor Sebastian Weigle served up a very workman-like reading of Wagner's score.
The Bayreuth Festival is set to continue on Monday with a performance of "Rhinegold", the first instalment of the massive four-part "Ring" cycle, in a staging by German playwright Tankred Dorst.
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