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Posts Tagged ‘Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’

A few years, the Tokyo Harusai (Spring Festival) has opted for a Wagnerian Schwerpunkt, which is a concert performance of a Wagner opera with international casts and conductor every year. This series is supposed to culminate in a Ring cycle with Marek Janowskis starting from next year.

This year, the Harusai has decided to give the proceedings a Bayreuthian flavor by inviting conductor, tenor and baritone from Katharina Wagner’s production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Sebastian Weigle deserves many praises for his sensible choices – the performance was conducted on the safe but sure side, with exemplary internal balance and between orchestra and soloists. The NHK Symphony Orchestra often offered beautiful refulgent strings, accurate brass and volume in Wagnerian scale. These musicians still have to learn to have fun in “serious repertoire”, but the maestro never failed to inject animation right at the moments when they started to loose steam. The Tokyo Opera Singers too deserve praise for the firm, clear and beautiful choral singing this evening. This was certainly a highlight in this year’s concert calendar in Japan.

Replacing Gal James, Anna Gabler sang with beautiful legato and unfailing good taste, but her velvety voice sometimes lacks slancio in the more “Wagnerian” moments. In any case, she launched Selig wie die Sonne with absolute poise. Klaus Florian Vogt was not in his best voice this evening, his high notes often pinched.  This is nonetheless a role where he knows how to pull all the stops and he managed to “sell” his softer version of exposed acuti. Jörg Schneider is a congenial David who makes great use of the text, his Spieltenor easier on the ear than I would first believe. Maybe Vogt was victim of the hay-fever season, for Adrian Eröd too seemed to be below his usual level, his voice getting noticeably rougher during act II. He too is an intelligent and charismatic singer who could build a convincing performance in spite of that. I cannot say the same of Alan Held, a Hans Sachs of Wotan-ian amplitude but little variety who sounded tired and unfocused in act III. Günther Groissböck was an incisive, firm-toned Pogner (doubling as Nachtwächter) and Eijiro Kai was a forceful Fritz Kothner.

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Never say “never”. I clearly remember saying that I would never see Katharina Wagner’s staging of her great-grandfather’s Meistersinger, but here I am to witness its last performance before it is finally discarded for good. As in previous runs, the stage direction has been retouched and, if I may say something positive, I would acknowledge that it has now become more clearly a comedy – funny moments are better timed and there was more laughter from the audience this year than last time. That did not prevent, however, the director from being massively booed in the end. Don’t feel sorry for her – she seems to receive disapproval as a confirmation of her foresight unshared by her bourgeois audience. Naturally, she doesn’t mind cashing the money from ticket sales. In any case, I don’t think that the production was devoid of insight – there is some insight there that could be made into something truly thought-provoking and scenically efficient in the hands of a talented director. For instance, although the composer shows in his score that Beckmesser was rejected by the audience because he is not really talented, the fact remains that he was good enough to be accepted as a Meistersinger. If baritones resist the temptation of caricature, one can hear that he can handle, for example, florid singing. His sin could have been nothing but having indulged into the false glamor of French/Italian style (if we use Sachs’s final speech as a reference) – and therefore he would not conformed to the accepted standard, not because he was avant-garde (the concept probably does not apply here), but simply because his aesthetic approach was not… popular (and therefore inauthentic and bad, according to traditional principles of German cultural identity). This is not an uninteresting discussion, but Katharina Wagner does not have the stature to tackle it, both as a director and as an intellectual.

The fact that the musical side of the performance was below standard made the evening doubly testing for the audience. Last year, I found Sebastian Weigle’s conducting unclear yet rich-toned and structurally coherent. This evening, it was basically unclear. Although the sound is still irresistible in its warm tonal quality and blended sections, strings often failed to offer clean passagework, the level of mismatch with the stage was alarming and many passages were almost pointless in terms of horizontal clarity. The cast remains the same of last year with one notable exception. I have found Adrian Eröd a bit more consistent last time, but still very clean-toned and dramatically purposeful; Norbert Ernst is far more forceful, especially in his high notes, as David, but stills works hard for tonal and dynamic variety; James Rutherford’s grainy and often woolly bass-baritone does not suggest nobility, but he is a little bit more expressive this year. If I have to choose a favorite singer this evening, this would Georg Zeppenfeld, an ideal Pogner.

And there is Burkhard Fritz as Walther von Stolzing. I disagree with the opinion that his tenor is too light for this music – I have seen him previously in Schrecker’s Der ferne Klang in Berlin and found then that maybe there was a little more than Walther and Lohengrin in him. This evening, the voice sounded so poorly supported in acts 1 and 2 that one could almost guess that he would be announced indisposed, what proved to be true. Curiously, his illness was explained as “circulatory problems” and the he would try to go further. If he could not, Simon O’Neill would sing instead. But for a broken high g (or a), he sang to the end of the performance, probably better after the announce. Of course, the tougher part of the role comes in the first two acts – but then everything above a high e was basically pushed, unfocused and (therefore) strained. Once he began to sing more cautiously, softer attack made his voice brighter (yet lighter if ultimately audible) and even more pleasant. But legato was still faulty and pitch, eccentric. But, given the announced indisposition, one cannot tell if he needs to rethink his technique or just take care of his health.

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When reviewing Janowski’s Parsifal with the RSB, I have written that clarity above richness of sound seemed to define the conductor’s approach to Wagner, especially if one has his recording of the Ring with the Staatskapelle Dresden in mind. Well, this evening proves that Janowski’s Wagnerian abilities are more varied than I thought. Maybe because Die Meistersinger is notoriously long and massive, the conductor might have hought that a little orchestral glamour could be helpful. And his musicians did not hang fire. The overture alone was worth the expensive ticket price – full orchestral sound without any loss of structural transparence and flexibility. Then the Rundfunkchor Berlin happened to be in top form. The evening had a promising start.

I had never seen this opera in concert version and never realized until this evening how much of a challenge it is to balance a big orchestra on stage and roles meant for lighter voices in many conversational passages, often in the middle register of singers’ voices. Janowski took the decision of not sacrificing his orchestra and allowed singers to be heard over it by a very small margin. In the end of act I, for example, instead of giving the tenor the opportunity to shine in Fanget an! , he would rather give pride of place to the sensuous ebb and flow of string sounds in a way that made me rethink the whole scene. Act II never sounded so organic, with the difficult transitions spontaneously and coherently handled. If I had to make any observation, this would regard the last scene, the “on stage” band could be a little bit subtler and more integrated with the main orchestra. I am tempted to say that the more “intimate” passages could have a bit more Innigkeit and less objectivity and forward-movement, but then I am not sure if we had this kind of cast this evening.

My first and foremost vocal interest this evening was Edith Haller’s Eva. I saw her Gutrune and Sieglinde in Bayreuth last year and found her simply outstanding. My first impression this evening was that her interpretation was too much about minauderie. Her Eva was desperately little-woman-ish, piping and pecking at notes old-Viennese style. One would have never believed she sings roles like Elsa or Sieglinde. Eventually I would start to suspect that she was simply not in good voice – some high notes were a bit sharp and often fixed and unflowing. Of course, she still has a lovely voice and had no problem piercing through the orchestra, but I will really have to hear her Eva again to say something about it. Michelle Breedt was a very charming Magdalene, supple and warm-toned. Robert Dean Smith has the right voice and personality for the role of Stolzing. He sings with exemplary legato, real feeling for the words and good taste. His high g’s and a’s could be a bit ampler and brighter, but were round and easy nonetheless. I have seen more flexible and varied Davids than Peter Sonn, but I confess I like his straight-to-the matter ways with the role. Thank God he is no tenorino, while the voice is warmer than the usual Spieltenor’s as well. Dietrich Henschel’s unfocused and often rough Beckmesser made one wonder why one would consider that Meistersinger-level. Albert Dohmen’s bass-baritone sounds too heavy and sometimes effortful in his high notes as Hans Sachs. The tone is not really noble, but the voice is large and he is able to keep clear articulation for more declamatory passages and even soften for one or two key moments. But the results were too often Wotan-like in a role where congeniality is important. Georg Zeppenfeld was an efficient Pogner, but Matti Salminen’s cameo as the Nachtwächter showed up his younger colleagues’ less classically Wagnerian voices.

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Does Katharina Wagner’s production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg need another beating? There are directors who still believe that there is a burgeoisie to be epatée, but, even if you don’t understand why they are trying to shock you out of your salary-earning opera-ticket-buying life, at least they succeed to shock you (the name of Calixto Bieito comes to my mind), but Katharina Wagner disappointed me – I had understood that this was a shocking production, but it is only a boring production of someone who fancied she was saying something original. In her staging, all characters are reduced to cardboard complexity and what is supposed to be the trade-off, a discussion about about conformism/success vs originality/marginalization, even as shown here with inverted signs, has the depth and novelty of a raindrop. We know that Harry Kupfer has done some great productions in which the polarity between characters is changed, especially his Lohengrin for the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, in which Ortrud had right to accuse the delusional Elsa for killing her brother, but that was a result of a careful effort to find dormant ambiguities in the libretto. The rebel-without-a-cause who never took seriously the idea of becoming a Meistersinger in order to get the girl and, on getting her, pays the price of his originality in order to be established is simply not Walther von Stolzing, the already established self-assured gentleman who happens to discover his own voice on condescending to a bourgeois milieu in order to get the girl. Even if this is a twisted manouvre , at least there is a character development of some sort to speak of – poor old Sachs is a nonentity here, a provincial poet who profits of helping his rival in love just to drain him of a supposed geniality he himself envies. Is that the character for whom Wagner wrote music of such depth and nobility? I won’t say more, for the DVD can be easily purchased on-line and in CD stores – not by me, I am afraid, for Ms. Wagner’s family issues should be dealt with exclusively in the privacy of her home.

Sebastian Weigle’s conducting is the opposite of Katharina Wagner’s production – his orchestra is noble in color, solemn almost to a fault, rich in expressive, considerate tempi that require a more expressive cast to match. As the score tends to be ponderous and intricate, I tend to prefer a more objective, forward-moving approach featuring also clearer articulation, but that is a only a matter of taste. I know I tend to mention the closing of act II when I write about a performance of this opera, but that is a crucial scene extremely difficult to organize – and Mr. Weigle has done an excellent job in it. The orderliness had nothing stiff about it, the result being a extraordinarily spontaneous, with excellent contribution from the Festival chorus.

As in the Deutsche Oper, Michaela Kaune is a stylish, musicianly Eva, but her voice was even less focused than back in Berlin, when she had had a particularly beautiful moment leading the quintet. Klaus Florian Vogt too seemed less comfortable than in Berlin – his high notes a bit constricted. I still have to accustom myself to his disembodied tenor in this role that requires a more fervent tonal quality, but there is no denying that his is an unusually pleasant and natural voice used with good taste and stylishness. I must add that, although I disagree to the approach to the role of Stolzing in this production, Vogt embraced it with great skill, offering excellent acting. Adrian Eröd too excelled in the acting department and arguably produced the most satisfying performance in the evening, also adeptly and spiritedly sung. Norbert Ernst was a nimble, intelligent David, but a voice a little bit more generous would have enabled him to more variety. James Rutherford’s grainy bass-baritone is short in tonal and dynamic variety and also a couple of sizes too small for the role of Hans Sachs.

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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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