Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Marek Janowski
Chicago Lyric Opera Chorus and Orchestra
25 October 1985
Lyric Opera Chicago
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Hans SachsThomas Stewart
Veit PognerDimitri Kavrakos
Kunz VogelgesangGregory Kunde
Konrad NachtigallPaul Kreider
Sixtus BeckmesserJulian Patrick
Fritz KothnerJohn Del Carlo
Balthasar ZornDonald Kaasch
Ulrich EißlingerPaul Hartfield
Augustin MoserThomas Booth
Hermann OrtelRichard Cowan
Hans Schwartz Kurt Link
Hans FoltzMark S. Doss
Walther von StolzingWilliam Johns
DavidDavid Kuebler
EvaNancy Johnson
MagdaleneSharon Graham
Ein NachtwächterStefan Szkafarowsky
Chicago Tribune

Lyric Opera`s `Meistersinger` Rises Richly To The Occasion

Given the diminished pool of Wagnerian singers in the world, any opera company that dares to undertake one of the bigger Wagner works lives in dire fear that a sudden cancellation will turn its best-laid plans, Valhalla-like, to ashes. Such was nearly the fate that the Lyric Opera suffered earlier this season when it lost two of the principal singers, Jose Van Dam and Lucia Popp, of its “Die Meistersinger“ revival. Such a one-two punch might have sent a less resilient company reeling, but not the Lyric. Monday night`s performance of “Die Meistersinger“ at the Civic Opera House was a satisfying achievement that succeeded in bringing Wagner`s most richly human stage work to life.

Although “Die Meistersinger“ is a standard work in the major opera theaters of the world, the Lyric fearfully avoided it for many years until 1977, which marked its most recent appearance here. Back again are Robert O`Hearn`s handsome and imposing sets from the Metropolitan Opera, and Nathaniel Merrill has returned to tighten and refocus his admirable stage direction. The only holdover from the original cast is William Johns as Walther von Stolzing. Everyone else, including conductor Marek Janowski, is new.

On balance, this is a more musically solid and dramatically vivid.

“Meistersinger“ than before, the vocal strengths seem better distributed, and there is a firmer sense of ensemble. Credit this to the experienced hand of Janowski, who continues to demonstrate that for mastery of light and shade within Wagner`s large musical structures he has few peers. I would have prefered a weightier, more expansive treatment of the overture and the early scenes of Act III, but generally I found the pacing apt and spontaneous, the textures rich yet clear, the long line ever in view but detail generously observed.

The orchestra players rose magnificently to the challenge set for them, strings and brass giving Janowski all the glowing, saturated sonority he asked for. He made the pit the focus of the music drama, which is precisely where Wagner insisted it should be. Seldom have these ears beheld finer playing from an opera orchestra.

Exceptional, as well, was Giulio Favario`s much-improved chorus, their hearts very much in their singing.

But any “Meistersinger“ stands or falls on the strength of its Hans Sachs, and in Thomas Stewart the Lyric found a veteran exponent of the role, an admirable artist who re-created the cobbler-poet in all his warm, wise humanity. He was properly sympathetic in his exchanges with Walther, gently paternal with Eva, wittily ironic with Beckmesser. The final apostrophe to holy German art was nobly delivered. Stewart`s bass-baritone remains in fine shape, and he paced himself like a pro, easily dominating every scene.

(Magdalene), turned out to be more impressive than their upstairs counterparts, William Johns (Walther) and Nancy Johnson (Eva). Though Kuebler`s light lyric tenor sounded rather tight in the first act, he sang musically and acted with plenty of boyish ardor. Graham also sang well, but why turn her into Eva`s nanny?

Johns knows his way around the part of the Franconian knight, but I found little ease or poetry in his singing. By the time he got to the Prize Song his well-projected tenor sounded dry and tired, lacking legato and lunging loudly at notes above the staff. The problem with Eva is that she must look like a pretty young girl but have the voice of a mature woman. Johnson met the first requirement but her light, limpid soprano does not carry well in a large theater, her characterization lacked depth, and she missed the dulcet legato, the depth of feeling, that can make “O Sachs mein Freund“ so affecting.

Julian Patrick`s first Beckmesser was in the conventional mold, which is to say he made the town clerk a sour, spiteful pedant; the outlines are there, but overall he could not efface memories of Geraint Evans` inimitable portrayal. The burghers of the mastersingers` guild were drawn with nice individuality; John Del Carlo was particularly admirable as Kothner. Dmitri Kavrakos seemed miscast as Pogner; he sang sturdily but without expression, and his German sounded like some strange polyglot.

Still, for Janowski, Stewart and the miracle of Wagner`s great score, you should not miss this “Meistersinger.“

John von Rhein | November 27, 1985

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A production by Nathaniel Merrill (1962 New York)