Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Hermann Michael
Seattle Opera Chorus and Orchestra
12 August 1989
Marion Oliver McCaw Hall Seattle
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Hans SachsRoger Roloff
Veit PognerGabor Andrasy
Kunz VogelgesangDonald Kaasch
Konrad NachtigallHenry Runey
Sixtus BeckmesserJulian Patrick
Fritz KothnerJohn Del Carlo
Balthasar ZornTimothy Mussard
Ulrich EißlingerPaul Gudas
Augustin MoserStephen Wall
Hermann OrtelByron Ellis
Hans SchwartzNorman Smith
Hans FoltzArchie Drake
Walther von StolzingBen Heppner
DavidJames Hoback
EvaHelen Donath
MagdaleneBrigitta Svendén
Ein NachtwächterAlan Held
The New York Times

Seattle Opera Pulls All the Stops Out On a New ‘Meistersinger’ Production

New productions of ”Die Meistersinger” remain scarce even in a time when radically rethought stagings of Wagner’s most formidable music drama, the ”Ring,” no longer qualify as rarities. A comedy on a distinctly Wagnerian scale, it deals at marathon length in heavyweight, Breughel-like humor. The work consumes more than five hours of an audience’s time and can strain the resources of any opera company. A decision to stage it is never taken lightly.

The Great Northwest has not only a new ”Meistersinger,” but also one worth traveling to see. For the opening production of its 1989-90 season, the Seattle Opera marshalled 19 able principal and secondary singers, a splendid 100-voice chorus, 85 members of the Seattle Symphony and a horde of supernumeraries. In all, 300 costumes were filled, in some cases more than filled. At $1.5 million, this production becomes the most expensive single project in the company’s 25-year history.

The third of the seven performances, on Wednesday evening, amply rewarded the company’s bravery. As directed by Francois Rochaix, the intrigues of the 16th-century shoemaker and poet Hans Sachs came off as traditionally wise and comical, but there was also a dark edge to the aging cobbler’s manipulations of Nurnberg society. Roger Roloff, a sturdy if unexciting baritone, gave a balanced portrayal that made Sachs sturdily avuncular in his two great monologues and, finally, disturbingly dictatorial. His demagogic, francophobic speech to the crowd at the song contest, after which Beckmesser (Julian Patrick) was stripped of his meistersinger medallion and hustled off under guard, put Sachs in sharp focus as a Germanic folk hero. He was a shoemaker; in a later century he might have been a house painter.

For a change in this era of directorial hubris, one could justifiably pay at least as much attention to singing as to staging. A real ear-opener was the evening’s Walther von Stolzing, a young Canadian tenor named Ben Heppner. Mr. Heppner, who is constructed along the extravagant lines of a Lauritz Melchior, lacked acting polish: though not clumsy, he tended to move with glacial deliberation. In rehearsing his Prize Song for Sachs, moreover, he ran out of breath at one point. More important was the bright promise in the voice, which was unforced, only a trifle tight on topmost notes, and capable of power as well as lyrical sweetness. Mr. Heppner could be the emerging Wagnerian tenor many companies are waiting for.

Helen Donath’s lucidly sung Eva was open to no question at all. Miss Donath, who came up to about Mr. Heppner’s waist, looked and sounded aptly girlish. A leading soprano on the international scene for more than 20 years, the American artist is finally scheduled to make her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1991 -speaking of glacial deliberation.

Julian Patrick as Beckmesser cut a less ludicrous figure than ”Meistersinger” tradition usually dictates. Untraditionally, too, he did not accompany himself with sourly twanging lute but went courting with the assistance of an expert (John Walwick). The other mastersingers, led by a roundly pompous Kothner (John Del Carlo), varied in vocal quality but made intermittently successful efforts to establish separate, distinct identities. The David (James Hoback) and Magdalene (Birgitta Svenden) sang well enough, but he cavorted in the tiresomely hyperactive way that most Davids mistake for high-spirited apprenticeship. Alan Held was a younger, more virile Night Watchman than the gentle dodderer whom we sometimes see, but no more effective at riot control in the Midsummer Night melee.

Hermann Michael, a Seattle Opera regular, conducted with unobtrusive authority. The generous supertitles, often paralleling the libretto line-by-line, let the audience appreciate much more of the drama’s nuances than could ever be possible for English-speaking operagoers in an untitled performance. Visually, the production plowed familiar Wagnerian furrows, although the procession of the guilds down a side aisle onto the stage borrowed a more recent theatrical cliche.

The Jean-Claude Maret sets and costumes placed the Nurnbergers squarely in history, as one might find them in 16th-century paintings. Hans Sachs wore, none too fetchingly, a craftsman’s square cap. More formally, other mastersingers turned up in oversized, platter-like berets of the sort Wagner himself affected. Least convincingly togged out was Mr. Heppner, who desperately needed help but whose costumes might have been designed for him by a Wagnerian caricaturist.

DONAL HENAHAN | August 13, 1989

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 508 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (King FM)
A production by François Rochaix (1989)
Ben Heppner’s first Stolzing