Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is one of the the toughest cookies in the operatic repertoire. Technically, it is a comedy – but if you get ten instances of laughing during its almost five-hour length, this was a hilarious staging. Then the score involves impossibly complex ensembles with intricate counterpoint for soloists and chorus. To make things worse, the main roles require the subtlety of a Lieder singer and the dexterity of a bel canto specialist. In other words, if you want to listen to this opera, you have to be prepared to take the wheat AND the chaff – moreover because they are generally parts of the same thing.
The fact that Stefan Anton Reck was unable to conduct the whole run of performances finally proved to be a minor hazard, since Donald Runnicles, whose Wagnerian credentials are beyond any doubt, has taken over the baton. I haven’t had the luck of seeing Mr. Runnicles as often as I would like, but I have very good memories of a Rosenkavalier and a Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera. The fact that this evening’s performance was clearly below that level rather puzzled me, especially if one bears in mind that the Deutsche Oper orchestra is a more seasoned Wagnerian ensemble than the Met’s orchestra. I could imagine that limited number of rehearsals may be to blame. The famous overture did not highlight any of the house orchestra’s qualities – the color was unusually opaque, the brass section (particularly poor today) produced some unsubtle sounds and there was little sense of exuberance. The remaining act I lacked purpose and the fact that the scenery brought about disfiguring echo for anyone singing on stage right did not help much. Considering the monumental difficulties of act II, the level of mismatch was relatively reduced – and it must be pointed out that the conductor fortunately did not hold tempo back in order to make things easier. The sounds from the pit remained transparent, but kept on a level of volume comfortable for the singers and rather meagre for the audience. Pity that the chorus was not in its best shape either. Things tended to get into focus in act III, its pensive introduction particularly haunting, the whole Sachs/Walther/Eva was episode expressively handled and the quintet was sensitively conducted.
Having to write about Michaela Kaune always proves to be a difficult task for me. She is such a tasteful musician and her vocal nature is so lovely that it makes one doubly upset that the results are ultimately frustrating. The role of Eva should not pose her any difficulties – she is a lyric soprano who has the extra 5% to deal with the only stretch of jugendlich dramatisch singing in the whole part (i.e., O Sachs, mein Freund, du teurer Mann). However, she treats her creamy soprano rather heavily and the result is that either high-lying or more conversational passages sound rather colorless and unfocused. Although her voice spread a bit during this difficult scene, something might have happened after that, for she launched Selig wie die Sonne in the grand manner. From this moment on, her voice sounded brighter, lighter, more concentrated and younger-sounding. If she consistently sang like that, she would belong to the great German lyric sopranos of our days.
I have previously seen Klaus Florian Vogt solely in the role of Lohengrin, in which his strangely boyish yet penetrating vocal quality underlines the character’s unearthliness. Walther is a rather more romantic leading man role – and his permanent mixed-tone approach to his top register and a lack of flowing legato in high-lying passages make the character less impetuous and ardent than one expects. The beauty and spontaneity of tone and his almost instrumental phrasing certainly make the character noble and touching, but I confess I wished for rich, full, vibrant top notes to crown the climaxes of the Preislied, for example.
I do not subscribe to the idea of showing Beckmesser as a ridiculous character and I regret the fact that the excellent Markus Brück has embraced the directorial choice with such passion to the point of nasalizing his dulcet baritone as he did. Beckmesser is a Meistersinger – and one who prizes his vocal abilities above his poetic imagination. His heavily decorated serenading probably means that he should sing with Bellinian poise. Maybe it is just a matter of taste, but I find that the plot gains more from a Beckmesser that offers some real competition than one portrayed like a manic goblin.
Kristinn Sigmundsson’s indisposition involved the last-minute replacement by Frank van Hove from Mannheim. As much as I like the Icelandic bass, van Hove’s spacious velvety bass was a pleasant surprise. If I have to fault Ulrike Helzel’s Magdalene, it would be because of her appealing and seductive high mezzo that made her often sound younger than Eva, what goes against the libretto. In the tiny role of the Nachtwächter, Krysztof Szumanski seized the occasion to display his firm voluminous bass. No wonder he received so warm applause.
I am afraid that James Johnson’s Sachs is a serious piece of miscast. Although he has very clear German and tackles declamatory passages very well, his bass-baritone has a rusty, curdled quality that robs the character of all spiritual nobility and likability. And that is something Hans Sachs cannot part with. David is a difficult and important role, who has a challenging aria that catalogues every kind of vocal difficulty. It requires A-casting – Herbert von Karajan, for example, had Peter Schreier both in his Dresden studio recording and in his live Salzburg performances in 1974 (where he gave René Kollo a run for his money). Paul Kaufmann is a congenial actor and has the right ideas about the role, but the voice is a bit small for the theatre.
Although Götz Friedrich’s production was premièred in 1993, it is impregnated with the aesthetic of the 1980’s. The sets serve a pointless aesthetic concept turning around a circumscribed square, costumes follow disparate styles and the direction of actors (under Gerlinde Pelkowski’s responsibility) involve the heavy utilization of cliché and awkward slapstick comedy.
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