Only a few hours before the congregation was chanting over the chords of the organ in the first scene of act I of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, a procession had taken place in the Theatinerstrasse nearby: there was chanting, there was the organ and there were banners for the festivities of corpus christi. As nowhere else, this opera feels at home in Munich – it was premiered in what is called today the Bavarian State Opera and its setting is indeed Bavarian. This new production also features the city’s (and the world’s) star tenor. It is any wonder that director David Bösch decided to bring the action to the present time? A foreign eye would have some trouble to recognise this as “present time”, but this is what it looks like in small-town Germany. In the Bavarian State Opera’s new production, Die Meistersinger takes place in some sort of Schlagerparadies, some sort of reality show à la Bauer sucht Frau, in which the audience/inhabitants of a decadent village eagerly await the town’s yearly song festival with special excitement, for the sponsor has promised his daughter to this edition’s winner. The small town has its share of social problems. Beckmesser is assaulted not only by David in the end of act II; a gang of masked teenagers armed with baseball bats attack him and vandalize the dreary Plattenbau complex where these characters live. Here Walther is evidently someone from a big city, who disapproves Sachs’s final plead for nationalism. Disgusted, he just takes Eva’s arm and leaves: there is a whole world outside. Even if the concept is clever – and the audience immediately recognized its imagery – what made this performance special was its efficient comedy timing. I had never truly laughed in a performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg until today. All members of the cast were fully integrated int its detailed Personenregie and felt easy and natural with that they had to do on stage, which was not always simple.
To make things better, my misgivings about Kirill Petrenko’s disastrous Ring in Bayreuth were immediately dispelled: this performance left nothing to be desired in terms of conducting. The Bavarian State Orchestra played richly, expressively and animatedly; the chorus coped with the heavy demand famously. Maestro Petrenko favored swift tempi, offered absolute clarity and placed the orchestra as this evening’s main soloist. Although the text is wordy and most scenes can seem declamatory, Wagner took the pains of keeping the melodic interest constantly on in his writing for the orchestra. Most conductors understans this and, on their intent of highlighting the orchestral “cantabile” end on 0vershadowing singers and ultimately denying them lightness and textual variety. Not this evening, where the ideal balance was achieved: singers and orchestra blended in an organic theatrical and musical statement. Considering the overall sense of clarity and organization, the difficult ensemble in the end of act II was boldly paced in a rather fast beat, challenging to all musicians and surprisingly short in roughness.
I have always had bad luck with casting for this opera. Therefore, this happens to be the best group of singers I have seen in it, even if recordings show me that this could still be improved. No German soprano seems to be interested in the great German lyric roles these days, so here comes again Sara Jakubiak (Christian Thielemann’s Agathe in Dresden’s last Freischütz). As I said before, the Kiri Te Kanawa-like plushness is more than welcome and she survives the testing scene with Sachs in act III with poise (and trills commendably), but there are too many moments of tonal blandness and charmlessness to make it really unforgettable. Okka von der Damerau shows she can do lightness when necessary and offered a winning Magdalene.
The role of Walther ideally requires more clarity and smoothness than the now darker-voiced Jonas Kaufmann can provide. As a result, his performance seemed rather boorish and short in mellifluousness. Singing his own language, he was comfortable in deliverying his lines with spirit, but the interpretation was built rather in word-pointing than in tone-colouring. If he did produced his high notes strongly and firmly, the result was often more muscular than soaring. If there was a vocally exceptional moment this evening, this was the quintet, when his control of dynamics showed me new possibilities in this passage. His David, Benjamin Bruns – as always in this opera – projected more easily and naturally in the auditorium. His rounder tonal quality suggested rather a lyric tenor than a Charaktertenor, what is always pleasant in this part. Markus Eiche too was ideally cast as Beckmesser, in this production a more congenial yet tragic character than usual. He cleverly adopted a flowing, legato line as his character was actually “singing” and dealt with the otherwise declamatory passages with crystalline diction. Wolfgang Koch has the required nobility of tone to the role of Hans Sachs and, as usual, handles the text with absolute naturalness and imagination. However, there are moments when the Alberich creeps in and makes the experience somewhat schyzophrenic. Christof Fischesser was rich in voice and spontaneous in attitude as Pogner. Among the Meistersinger, it was endearing to find the still splendidly fresh-toned Eike Wilm Schulte as Kothner and a powerfully dark-toned Peter Lobert as Hans Schwarz.