Met’s ‘Meistersinger’ Epic Sends Message of Confidence and Hope
To hell with the coronavirus, the Metropolitan Opera staged the longest opera in the standard repertoire on Tuesday night, filling its stage with people singing at the top of their lungs, while music lovers sat together and watched for nearly six hours.
In addition to its show and its magnificent choirs, the Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg came with a message in the midst of the pandemic: Through art we will survive.
It is true that in saying this, Wagner, through his spokesperson the poet shoemaker Hans Sachs, was referring to German culture, assailed on all sides (according to the composer) by French, Italian and Jewish influences. But in his cranky, petty manner, he’s somehow managed to create work that can lift your spirits through any tough time.
In the revival that opened on Tuesday, Otto Schenk’s 1997 production is still pure Wagner, right down to the composer’s stage directions. The realistic sets by Günther Schneider-Siemssen transport the viewer to the streets and shops of the medieval town. Rolf Langenfass dresses actors and choirs for work and festival (and also for bed, in Act II’s tumultuous finale). Gil Wechsler casts natural light on it all, including the rising sun shining on Sachs in his shop.
And by the way, there is a plot, characters and singers to represent them – in Tuesday’s case, an international cast of experienced Wagnerians, with very diverse vocal and acting styles.
The opera-comedy plot that Wagner originally proposed to his publisher as being quick to write, easy to produce, and quick to make money was quite straightforward: a boy meets a girl, a boy participates in a singing contest, boy (with the help of his shoemaker-mentor) wins the contest and the girl.
Over the next six years, as the composer read Schopenhauer and other writers on the meaning of music and art, the opera grew, and with it Sachs’ role as a sort of philosopher. populist, reflecting at length on how, through inspiration and discipline, music can appease Wahn (madness) of everyday life.
Baritone Michael Volle, a seasoned performer of this key role, brought a clear, advanced, intelligent and intelligible voice to both his long soliloquies and his interactions with other singers. Awesome at first, cunning and impenetrable as the plot thickened later, Volle’s Sachs dominated the stage not with vocal power but with the night’s slimmest acting.
At least until his burlesque performance in the climactic singing competition, baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle also put a realistic and even sympathetic spin on the comedy film Beckmesser. We believed he believed that he was saving German art with his heaps of arbitrary rules for writing a song, and that he could win the contest and the girl with his fake Italian tweet.
As young lovers, tenor Klaus Florian Vogt and soprano Lise Davidsen were seriously vocally mismatched, which makes one thankful that this opera does not include a loving duet. Vogt’s rosy tone and stressful high notes as Knight Walther can be charitably interpreted as exemplifying uneducated youth. In addition, his usually hunched posture did not fit the choir’s description as “proud and daring.” (Even the character’s last name, von Stolzing, derives from the German word for “proud.”)
In contrast, Davidsen, as a low-key bride-to-be, sometimes stood out with high notes that filled the room, far bigger than any other song that night. She has also shown herself capable of modulating her massive instrument, as when she began the exquisite Act III quintet in a covered but rich pianissimo (before blowing the other four singers in the final crescendo). It might seem perverse to complain that a Wagnerian soprano at the Met is too loud, but when that puts the music off balance, some adjustment seems necessary.
It would have been up to conductor Antonio Pappano – in his first Met appearance in 25 years – to make that adjustment. While he didn’t, he did a good job weaving Wagner’s comedic and sentimental moods into all of the occasional dialogue and action. The famous Act I Prelude took a few pages to come together, but finally made a festive sound in the pit. And the Prelude to Act III was pure.
Thanks to the meticulous preparation of the choir director Donald Palumbo, the numerous choral passages of the opera, whether turbulent (finale of Act II) or festive (the scene of the competition) represented the Deutsche Volk with rich sound and clear articulation.
Georg Zeppenfeld as Pogner, Eva’s father, has stood out in other roles, whose clear, polished bass and soft phrasing in Act I made one wish his character had more to do.
Mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke (in her Met debut) and tenor Paul Appleby gave bright and lively performances as the other romantic couple, Eva’s accompanist, Magdalene, and Sachs’ apprentice, David .
And the authoritative tones of bass-baritone Alexander Tsymbalyuk as a night watchman, speaking his blessing over the city, made one want to live in a time and place where such chants were heard hourly all night long.
This Master singer didn’t last all night, but it did a good shot, from the opening bars of the prelude a little after 6 p.m. to the fortissimo and final curtain at 11:50 a.m. – a major flex of the Met’s production muscles in the face of a health crisis , with a philosophical message to match.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg until November 14. metopera.org; 212-362-6000.