BUDAPEST (Reuters) - The flood-cresting Danube outside Budapest's Bela Bartok concert hall threatened to drown audience, singers, chorus and orchestra alike, but it couldn't dampen the high spirits inside for a new production of Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg".
The crowning glory of conductor Adam Fischer's eighth annual "Wagner Days" festival, in Wagner's 200th birthday year, was described as a "masterwork" by Hungarian critic Miklos Fay in Hungarian daily Nepszabadsag following Saturday's premiere that had the audience cheering every act of the five-hour-long opera.
It was one of those magical musical moments when all the elements, including a superb cast, powerful choral singing and even the river nearing the top of retaining walls just steps away from the hall, conspired for almost unalloyed success.
"Wagner liked destruction," retired Slovenian coal mine director Franc Zerdin, attending with his wife and a friend, said just before the performance began.
Indeed, there did seem to be something electric in the air.
Fischer, 63, who is steeped in the traditions of the Holy Grail of Wagner, having conducted at the composer's purpose-built opera house in Bayreuth, has thoughtfully and deliberately built up his own festival, beginning in 2006.
Presented in a concert hall instead of an opera house, past seasons have seen clever, minimalist stagings of "The Ring", "Parsifal", "Tannhauser", "Tristan und Isolde" and "Lohengrin", but Fischer saved the biggest challenge, "Die Meistersinger", with its huge cast, for last.
"This opera needs the most careful staging, in a way," Fischer said in a recent phone interview.
"Wagner is very theatrical, these are very long operas, and I thought at the beginning that we have to offer many more visual elements to the audience, not to be boring," he said.
"But that is not really true because the possibilities of the hall, the acoustic and the atmosphere give us a lot more than I thought at the beginning.
"I always say the worst thing is to get bored, and now I have confirmation that we can play everything here, with a minimum of staging."
Fischer and his production team over the years have called upon the services of a variety of opera and theatre directors, and this time it was the turn of German director Michael Schulz. He directed a "Ring" cycle in Weimar that was noted for its stark setting, but brought a much lighter touch to his first production of Wagner's only comic opera.
Wagner was notoriously anti-Semitic and "Meistersinger", with its infamous line "honour your German masters", became a propaganda showpiece for the Nazis under the Third Reich. This poses a problem for any director, maybe especially a German one, but Schulz tackled it, head on and comically.
In the dramatic closing scene, when shoemaker and poet Hans Sachs, the hero of the piece, is singing the offending verse, Schulz brought on two boys to kick around a soccer ball - so that the "German masters" became football players from Bayern Munich or another top club, instead of something more invidious.
"Even if I staged this in Germany, I wouldn't be interested in showing that in the rhetoric and demagogy of a Hans Sachs there is something lurking that could also have been the case in the speeches of Hitler or Goebbels," Schulz told Reuters in an interview during the interval.
"That's just not interesting. Rather, the 'Meistersinger' is, for me, at the end of the day, a good comedy that one can work on, this ambivalence, this playing with reality, that's what interests me."
The international cast included British baritone James Rutherford as Sachs and German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt as the knight Walther who wins the leading lady Eva. Vogt lost a bit of oomph toward the end, but the opera is nothing if not long.
Eva was sung by German soprano Annette Dasch with flirty flair, while Danish baritone Bo Skovhus got the bulk of the laughs for his send-up of Walther's rival for Eva's hand as the toupeed, stuffed-shirt Beckmesser.
Asked if he was pleased with what he has achieved, Fischer said: "Yes, it was a dream and everybody said it was crazy and we finished it. It is a gift of life for me."
(Editing by Paul Casciato)