In 2007, when this Meistersinger was unveiled at the Bayreuth Festival, and in 2008, when it was documented, Katharina Wagner was still merely Richard's great-granddaughter, debutante at the family's shrine. Today, she's half of the general-management team. The prospects are ominous. As Shakespeare's Edgar reminds himself in King Lear, "The worst is not, so long as we can say, 'This is the worst.'" Cold comfort, but the spectacle of this mirthless, angry show offers none better.
Village-idiot wigs, tennis shoes, catatonic stares … these are a few of the crude visual leitmotifs Katharina grafts on to Richard Wagner's humane midsummer comedy. Her mission is to strafe the very notion of everything the composer, in the person of the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, celebrated as "holy German art." While she is at it, she also nukes the contemporary German art market and its poseurs — buyers and sellers alike — who have reduced art to a mindless, soulless orgy of consumerism. In the final scene, a grim Sachs presides as a clean-up crew throws lesser masters bodily into a dumpster. An onstage smoker, he then snaps his lighter to ignite the garbage, his mien impassive as the blaze glitters in his spectacles. From the ashes, what arises but the statuette of a golden stag — the mascot of a chic family-run hostelry within steps of the Festspielhaus.
As a program note would have the reader believe, Katharina regards Die Meistersinger as "a discourse on art." Art, as understood here, covers the fine arts and literature as well as music. Dürer, Bach, Mozart, Goethe, Schiller, Liszt, Wagner himself and other German titans drift through the action, sometimes as ghostly waltzing statues, sometimes as rowdy carnival grotesques. Sachs pounds out his poetry on an old typewriter, never hammering a single nail. Walther is seldom seen without a can of whitewash, doodling and scrawling on every surface in sight, inanimate or human. By the final showdown, though, it is the rule-bound, pedantic Beckmesser who proves the true provocateur. Spouting his grotesque travesty of Walther's song draft, he exhumes, from a tray of dirt, a naked man who bombards the chorus, in evening dress, with tennis balls. Walther, now impeccable in a dark suit, delivers his prize song accompanied by a mock-baroque pantomime of courtly romance. This is discourse?
Tousled and barefoot, until he smartens up for the finale, Franz Hawlata's Sachs cuts the figure of a rumpled intellectual but sings in dark, rich tones, with vivid personal expression. As Walther, Klaus Florian Vogt displays a relaxed physicality, a glistening helmet of blond hair and a tenor that projects powerfully despite an unearthly choir-boy sweetness. One hopes for many colors in a voice; Vogt has just the one, but there are scenes in his role for which it is perfection. Dramatically, Michaela Kaune's Eva is made to start as a zombie and finish as a matron. Much of the time, Katharina has her wearing her lovely face like the mask of Garbo, yet even then her luminous soprano glows with emotion. Michael Volle's Beckmesser, eerily reminiscent of Jack Nicholson on the rampage in The Shining, articulates his music scrupulously. The senatorial Pogner of Artur Korn is short of breath and often wide of the pitch. Markus Eiche turns in a crisp cameo as Kothner, who rattles off the rules of art. Invisible in the covered orchestra pit, Sebastian Weigle delivers a clean, detailed reading of the score that sometimes drags and is sometimes metronomic. There's not much poetry. What is more, there are no subtitles. German speakers will not need them: diction throughout is crystalline. Everyone else, good luck.
Michaela Kaune, Carola Guber; Klaus Florian Vogt, Franz Hawlata, Michael Volle, Artur Korn, Norbert Ernst; Orchestra and Chorus of the Bayreuth Festival, Sebastian Weigle. BF1231978 (2 discs), 285 mins., not subtitled. Available for purchase at www.bayreuther-festspiele.de