Absorbing “Meistersinger” In Biedermeier Style

United StatesUnited States Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sir Andrew Davis, (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 8.2.2013 (JLZ)

Hans Sachs: James Morris
Walther von Stolzing: Johan Botha
Eva Pogner: Amanda Majeski
Sixtus Beckmesser: Bo Skovhus
David: David Portillo
Magdalene: Jamie Barton
Veit Pogner: Dimitry Ivashchenko
Fritz Kothner: Darren Jeffery
Augustin Moser: David Cangelosi
Konrad Nachtigall: Daniel Sutin
Hermann Ortel: David Govertsen
Balthasar Zorn: Joel Sorensen
Ulrich Eisslinger; Joseph Hu
Hans Foltz: Sam Handley
Hans Schwarz: Evan Boyer
Nightwatchman: Andrea Silvestrelli

Original Production: David McVicar
Revival Director: Marie Lambert
Set and Costume Designer: Vicki Mortimer
Original Lighting Designer: Paule Constable
Lighting Designer: Jeremy Turnbull
Guest Chorus Master: Ian Robertson
Choreographer: Andrew George

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s scintillating production of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg demonstrates this opera’s enduring appeal. A co-production with Glyndebourne Festival Opera and San Francisco Opera, David McVicar’s staging updates the opera to the early nineteenth century instead of the Renaissance indicated in Wagner’s libretto, with masterful presentation of the soliloquys, small ensembles, crowd scenes, and orchestral passages. For those who know this opera in historic settings, it is somewhat jolting to see the characters in Biedermeier-period costumes, though this production allows the garb of the Meisteringer guild to become a prominent feature in the final scene, underscoring Hans Sachs’s oration about the place of tradition, ritual, and music in culture.

In terms of stagecraft, the production works nicely, with the interactions of light and color enhancing the stage direction. The sets accentuate spaciousness, with the first act’s church back stage, allowing the main part of the stage to serve as the adjoining place for the Meistersinger guild’s meeting. The result: action that starts in the distance, moves to center stage and, at the end of the act, nears the edge of the stage close to the audience. For the second act, the houses on either side frame a public fountain, so that singers can move easily into various places. In the third, the festival setting with a center-stage tower opens the area both horizontally and vertically, so that the Johannesstag festival celebrated in the score can be as expansive as the music Wagner composed for it.

The casting includes some of the finest performers available, with James Morris embodying the role of Hans Sachs. Morris’s natural sense of character and the musical delivery allows his scenes to flow with ease. In the first act Morris tactfully made his presence known, with more dimensions of Sachs’s character emerging in the second. In Sachs’s duet with Beckmesser, the latter’s rehearsal of his “master song” intersects with Sachs’s commentary with comic acuity. The high point of Morris’s performance is the third act, in which he gives a poignant reading of the soliloquy (“Wahn, Wahn, überall Wahn”) and maintains his command of the stage until the end, with an unerring sense of line. If at times he was a bit understated, he remained in character. Yet in those full-voiced scenes, as in the quintet “Selig, wie die Sonne,” Morris’s musical sensibility is at the core of the performance. At the conclusion, the homage paid to Sachs, as indicated in Wagner’s libretto, rightly seems directed at Morris.

As David, tenor David Portillo gave a fresh, engaging performance that earned him singular applause. The first-act exchange with Walter (“Mein Herr! Der Singer Meisterschlag” and “Der Meister Ton und Weisen”) showed Portillo’s mastery. In David’s scene with Sachs in Act Three (“Gleich, Meister! Hier!”), his tone, delivery and strong stage presence were evidence of Portillo’s intensity and personal engagement.

Amanda Majeski was equally effective as Eva, bringing clear delivery and idiomatic phrasing, and her dialogue with Sachs in the third act (Sieh, Evchen!”) was particularly memorable. But in addition to her fine singing, Majeski was convincing as an actress. Her affinity with Sachs was evident, as well as her excellent ensemble work with tenor Johan Botha, who played Walther von Stolzing.

Botha’s Walther was well sung, with the intensity of emotion matched by the clarity of line. He distinguished his singing of the prize song from his vocal delivery elsewhere in the opera—very effective. Using expressive power, he revealed the lyricism that transcends the rigid formalism of the Meistersinger rules, and the final iteration of his song brought the opera unequivocally to its climax.

In the demanding role of Sixtus Beckmesser, Bo Skovhus made the part seem facile; his depiction of this difficult character was somewhat affected. Nevertheless, his innate precision and clarity were especially useful in the final scene. Dimitry Ivashchenko offered notable diction and phrasing as Veit Pogner—a model of Wagner style. As Magdalene, Jamie Barton was musically and dramatically appealing, using clear, soaring lines to define her character, and collaborating effectively with Majeski and Portillo.

The orchestra also deserves praise for its masterful delivery of the score. Sir Andrew Davis offered finesse, and his deft orchestral hand didn’t just render the score mechanically, but connected them meaningfully into the musical whole. Unquestionably this production brings Chicago audiences a Meistersinger that is both thoroughly enjoyable and also completely absorbing.

James L. Zychowicz