Composer: Richard Wagner
Conductor: James Levine
Producer/Director: Otto Schenk
Hans Sachs: Michael Volle
Walter von Stolzing: Johan Botha
Beckmesser: Johannes Martin Kränzle
Vet Pogner: Hans-Peter König
David: Paul Appleby
Eva: Annette Dasch
Magdalene: Karen Cargill
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is well-known for being Wagner's only comedy, all four and a half hours of it, which can easily extend to six hours when you include the intermissions. It is also routinely considered a masterpiece, even if its legacy has been tainted by debatable associations with anti-semitism and nazism. In any case, for anyone with the slightest interest in opera, there's really only one way to earn the prized Meistersinger's stripes: Dedicating a few hours of one's life to it.
And I can certainly imagine worse ways to spend an entire afternoon or evening attending an opera that narrates a conventional ‒ and conventionally thwarted ‒ love story while also discussing the essence of real art (Because there's no way Wagner was going to keep it truly simple, right?) in one of the most vibrant German Renaissance cities. We're not dealing with Gods or legends here, but real people, nationalism, humanities and nature, and that sounds about just as good a proposition.
So when I heard that the Met had scheduled one matinee performance of it this season, I quickly grabbed a ticket for it before it got sold out. That's why last Saturday I reluctantly sacrificed a sunny December afternoon to spend some quality time with opera's favorite shoemaker and, incidentally, my friend Nicole who was watching the Live in HD simulcast from a movie theater in Barcelona, Spain, and with whom I happily killed time comparing notes during those interminable, although understandably necessary, intermissions.
Wagner had apparently decided to go light after two of his serious operas, Tannhäuser and Tristan und Isolde, were being rejected left and right, and debts were piling up. Pulling from a bunch of different sources, including the real-life Nuremberger Hans Sachs and his œuvre, early German romantic authors, and the historic city of Nuremberg itself, the composer successfully put together a genuine crowd-pleaser while still staying true to his artistic ambitions in terms of dramatic depth and musical complexity. And it had finally come to an opera house near me. Yeah!
A deeply human character that is almost too noble to be true, Hans Sachs has to be a career goal for any baritone with enough power and stamina to carry it through. Michael Volle has both, and solid acting skills too. An undeniable presence onstage, he was also singing with force and nuance, while effortlessly exuding authority and wisdom or convincingly conveying poignant feelings of tenderness and regrets. It is an emotionally complex and vocally demanding part, and Volle nailed it as surely as he was nailing the soles to the shoes he was making.
As the aspiring Meistersinger Walter von Stolzing, tenor Johan Botha was in utterly splendid vocal form. He sang with the refreshing abandon of a young man who had fallen hopelessly in love, his vibrant voice assertively projecting his burning desire throughout the entire opera house. And if he was not your typical dashing romantic lead, he was still one who will not be easily forgotten.
His chief competitor for Eva's heart, the hapless and grumpy Beckmesser, was also the brilliant main source of comic relief of the story. Baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle smartly did not emphasize the pedantry and silliness usually associated with the character, a choice that effectively prevented him from becoming a predictable caricature, but still made sure to generate plenty of healthy laughter from the audience.
Bass Hans-Peter König was a wonderful Pogner, the goldsmith with the magnificent dark voice, torn between his devotion to his art and his love for his daughter.
Tenor Paul Appleby was spontaneously endearing as the apprentice David, with a bright voice and energy to spare, readily stealing the scenes he was in.
I realize that all of this makes the opera sound like a man's world, and in many ways it was, but let's not forget that the whole chain of events started because of a young woman. And Eva was winningly impersonated by soprano Annette Dasch, who completely justified her popularity with a radiant voice and a sweet yet no-nonsense personality.
Not to be outdone, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill was a wonderful Magdalene, Eva's attendant and David's love interest, boasting a rich voice and impeccable comic timing.
The Met Chorus was its usual excellent self every time it appeared, from the powerful opening church scene in Act I to the out-of-control riot in the street in Act II, to the playful, roof-raising happy ending.
The attractive sets, such as the bare interior of a church, a street lined up with houses, or a meadow, were as traditional as they come, and their direct appeal perfectly suited a story that is about community, art and nature. The same applied to the costumes, which were all in muted, earthy colors. An informed and loving hand had clearly been hard at work and had done a very good job at setting up the perfect environment for what was originally a simple little romantic comedy, which slowly morphed into something much bigger.
The score may be one of Wagner's most accomplished feats, beautifully underlying the sweetness of young love, the grandeur of lyrical art, the depth of human emotions, the ludicrousness of narrow-mindedness. And if he did indulge himself a few times (I really don't think the inspired comical back and forth between Sachs and Beckmesser in Act II needed to go on that long), he more than made up for it with memorable moments like the magnificent preludes, the evolution of Walther's Prize Song, the sublime quintet in Act III, Sach's thoughtful "Wahn" monologue about human madness, among many others.
Having such a monumental opera performed down the street was a privilege, having James Levine conduct it was nothing short of a miracle. But there he was, seemingly full of energy and happy to be back among "his" orchestra, which delivered a majestic, well-paced and expertly detailed performance.
Even when things started to drag on a bit, I was reminding myself that I was getting twice as much glorious music for the price of a single ticket, so I should just sit back and enjoy the moment already, which I did to the fullest.