A Moving Meistersinger from the Met

United StatesUnited States Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York / James Levine (conductor). Broadcast to the Odeon Cinema, Chelmsford, Essex, 13.12.2014. (JPr)

Michael Volle (Sachs) and Annette Dasch (Eva) c Ken Howard and the Metropolitan Opera (1)-500
Michael Volle (Sachs) and Annette Dasch (Eva) c Ken Howard and the Metropolitan Opera

Eva: Annette Dasch
Magdalene: Karen Cargill
Walter von Stolzing: Johan Botha
David: Paul Appleby
Hans Sachs: Michael Volle
Sixtus Beckmesser: Johannes Martin Kränzle
Fritz Kothner: Martin Gantner
Veit Pogner: Hans-Peter König
Night Watchman: Matthew Rose

Director: Otto Schenk
Set Designer: Günther Schneider-Siemssen
Costume Designer: Rolf Langenfass
Lighting Designer:Gil Wechsler
Choreographer: Carmen De Lavallade
Stage Director: Paula Suozzi
Live in HD director: Matthew Diamond
Live in HD Host: Renée Fleming

Everything comes to an end and this is it for Otto Schenk’s enchanting and romantic production (here restaged by Paula Suozzi) which is now over two decades old. Together with Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s sets and Rolf Langenfass’s costumes we are realistically in a Nuremberg full of half-timbered house about the middle of the sixteenth century. Of course, it reminds the Wagner veterans of the geniality Glen Byam Shaw and John Blatchley brought to The Mastersingers at Sadler’s Wells in the 1960s and Wolfgang Wagner brought to a number of stagings from 1968 to 2000. Stefan Herheim’s new production of Die Meistersinger that premièred last year in Salzburg will replace it in the Met’s 2019-20 season and will be something entirely different.

When this Otto Schenk Die Meistersinger was first put on James Levine was the conductor – as he has been for most of the subsequent performances. He was back again on the podium in the motorised wheelchair he appears confined to now after much injury and illness. Physically, he is a shadow of what he was when I saw him conduct the Ring at the end of the last century in Bayreuth but there is no reason why this should hamper him if he has the necessary stamina. His expansive conducting must have been unnecessarily sapping his energies and it was disappointing to see him with his head in the score after all the performances he has given of this opera. There was no doubting his affection for the score and his incomparable understanding of its shape and flow, but Maestro Levine often seemed to be pacing himself – and the proceedings – before an incandescent final act. During Act I in particular, that often interminable episode in which David, the shoemaker Hans Sachs’s apprentice, explains the rules of master singing to the knight, Walther, the new arrival in town, the tempo became particularly listless. He nonetheless – as heard through the loudspeakers of this cinema broadcast – received loyal, full-bodied, support from the exemplary Met Orchestra and its always stunning chorus, one of the world’s best.

The suitably introspective and heartfelt Prelude to Act III had a warm Beethovian glow and as Maestro Levine seemed to gain strength, there was a luminous ‘Quintet’ and Die Meistersinger’s long concluding Festwiese scene, with the joyful dancing and celebratory marches was simply magnificent. By the time the chorus sang ‘Wach’ auf’, followed by the song contest and Sachs’s final ‘Verachtet mir die Meister nicht’ I was left genuinely shaken and stirred.

Johan Reuter was originally to sing Sachs but after announcing he would not be adding the role to his repertory he was replaced for five performances of this revival by the veteran, James Morris, with Michael Volle, who sang Sachs in that 2013 Salzburg production, doing two more, including this Live in HD broadcast. He is also scheduled for Hans Sachs when the Herheim production arrives at the Met, as well as, future performances as Wotan and Volle will also sings Sachs in Barrie Kosky’s new Bayreuth production in 2017 alongside – as here at the Met – Johannes Martin Kränzle as Beckmesser.

Volle was the star of the show and his Sachs had great dramatic authority, and even though he was surrounded by such picturesque medievalism he was undoubtedly a real person clearly ahead of his time – similar to the way Wagner saw himself. There was nothing reticent or modest about his shoemaker, he knew his worth and value to his society. He might be a childless widower with something of an insight into his fellow humans but he was clearly a hugely passionate man with obvious human frailties. He had lots of pent-up anger for all the conventions of the time, plus great affection for the goldsmith’s daughter, Eva, whose heart he must accept belongs to Walther after they have instantly fallen in love.

The always reliable South African tenor, Johan Botha, returned for his fourth series of Die Meistersinger performances with James Levine at the Met and was superb as ever. Matthew Diamond’s close-up camera work for the cinema transmission left Botha nowhere to hide and he was a much better actor than I ever expected. He was surprisingly light on his feet for someone with such a huge physique (he reminded me of me!) and right from his first appearance was a believable suitor for Eva. His voice is so secure, tireless, fresh, lyrical and appealing that he became the essence of a young man in love, and his eventual kiss with Eva was very affecting. Indeed in the opera Eva’s sings ‘None but you could sing like that’ … how true!

Slightly going through the motions more than some of the others was Annette Dasch’s Eva who seems to have outgrown this role. Her wide-eyed, slightly hysterical ‘what will become of me?’ anxiousness seemed direct from her Elsa in Hans Neuenfels’s Lohengrin at Bayreuth and her voice did not always sound completely at ease. As her father, Pogner, Hans-Peter König oozed authentic Wagnerian paterfamilias gravitas tempered by a natural affection for his child. In his Met debut, Johannes Martin Kränzle was outstanding as Beckmesser, the town clerk, who is in unrequited love with Eva. Once again he succeeded in showing the role can be sung – as I suspect it was really conceived – without any unnecessary anti-Semitic caricature and he is just a slightly neurotic, pompous upstart who deserves to be brought down a peg or two. He is not a bad man and he makes such an art of his ‘bad’ singing in Act III that – if you could not understand the words or read the translation – it actually sounded very good, like Andreas Schmidt or Michael Volle, himself, at Bayreuth, or Thomas Allen at Covent Garden.

Martin Gantner, also making a Met debut, was a stentorian Kothner, the baker, who reads the master-guild’s pedantic rules. The rich-voiced Karen Cargill, a Scottish singer surrounded by mostly Germans, made much of the small role of Magdalene, Eva’s companion, who is in love with David, sung by the young American lyric tenor Paul Appleby rather too cleanly and unidiomatically for those with memories of Graham Clark and others in this role. Another Brit, Matthew Rose, impressed during his fleeting moments as the Night Watchman.

Renée Fleming was the accomplished host of this memorable Live in HD transmission but a long opera like this does need singers to be given a chance to compose themselves and not have a microphone trust into their hand as soon as they have finished singing. What we had were mostly the ‘how wonderful it is to sing this role at the Met’ type of interviews. Annette Dasch who considered herself at the start of her career to be a ‘Mozart and early music singer’ heard Levine conduct the Ring at Bayreuth thinking that Wagner singers ‘are a different species … and now I am getting to sing with them.’ For James Levine this was his 34th Die Meistersinger at the Met and he considers the opera as ‘one of the most deeply detailed, successful compositions’ any composer has ever written and the situation of the opera has been written ‘as real as possible and the comedy should come from that’. For Michael Volle Sachs is ‘not only the wise guy, the holy man … he’s really in love.’

With the current blandness of Wagner at Covent Garden – typified by the Tristan und Isolde I saw earlier the same week – I hope all Wagnerians particularly in the UK took the opportunity to see this excellent and committed ensemble do full justice to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. When Otto Schenk’s unashamedly traditional production was new in 1993, the Wagner revisionists and dramaturgs had already got their grip on this essentially warm-hearted comedy of manners. I have often quoted Woody Allen who famously said in one of his films ‘I can’t listen to that much Wagner. I start getting the urge to conquer Poland’ – and because of unfortunate twentieth-century historical events this often is the ‘urge’ Wagner scholars seem to want us all to experience when we listen to his music. However, at the end of an evening lasting six hours (including two lengthy intervals) all I felt was sadness that I could not reach through the cinema screen to hug Michael Volle’s oh-so-human Hans Sachs as he praised the German masters and German Art. Even though it is an historical work, Wagner obviously included himself amongst those in need of being honoured … and at the end of this Die Meistersinger I was more than happy to do that!

Jim Pritchard

Check out your local cinema listings as the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD 2014-15 season continues.

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