Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Donald Runnicles
San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra
October 2001
War Memorial Opera House San Francisco
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Hans SachsJames Morris
Veit PognerRené Pape
Kunz VogelgesangDoug Jones
Konrad NachtigallBruce Baumer
Sixtus BeckmesserThomas Allen
Fritz KothnerJohn del Carlo
Balthasar ZornTodd Geer
Ulrich EißlingerBrian Anderson
Augustin MoserCharles Reid
Hermann OrtelRainer Zaun
Hans SchwartzJahn Ames
Hans FoltzScott Wilde
Walther von StolzingRobert Dean Smith
DavidMichael Schade
EvaJanice Watson
MagdaleneCatherine Keen
Ein NachtwächterAndrew Geenan
The Spectator

On 1 August, San Francisco Opera’s new director took over, but as is the way with opera houses, the effects of her rule will not be felt, at any rate by the public, for some time. She is Pamela Rosenberg, born in America but operatically trained in Europe, and a versatile member of the Frankfurt Opera during the Michael Gielen regime, when Ruth Berghaus’s productions were all the rage. In a pamphlet called Animating Opera, Rosenberg announces her policy for the next few years, a matter of theming, as I suppose it’s called, which will involve such projects as a series on the Faust myth, beginning with a staging of La Damnation de Faust, moving onto Busoni’s Doktor Faust, Gounod’s unfashionable masterpiece and an opera by an American, as yet unwritten. Next season sees the first American staging of Messiaen’s St Frangois d Assise, a striking indication of the courage of Rosenberg and the musical director, Donald Runnicles.

Related Results

Meanwhile, things continue in the normal vein. During the ten days I was in San Francisco two operas were being staged. For the Sunday matinee, a most agreeable institution, there was an utterly traditional production, the one that can be seen on video with Verrett and Domingo, of SaintSaens’s Samson et Dalila. This is Twentieth-Century Fox stuff, both in the sets and, going with that, the style of acting. It made an enormously enjoyable afternoon, thanks in the largest part to the superlative Dalila of Olga Borodina. She is coldly sexy in exactly the way the composer must have hoped for, and delivered the most beautiful account of `Printemps qui commence’ that I have ever heard. Her effects were gained by under- rather than overstatement, leaving us all as vulnerable as Samson to her wiles. Sergei Larin, in the other title role, was reliable rather than galvanising, so that the drama belonged very much to the Philistines. Timothy Noble was a stentorian High Priest and the Israelites were shown at their best by the Old Hebrew of Rene Pape, the kind of luxury casting that makes one grateful for such institutions. Emmanuel Joel, the conductor, did less with the piece than such recent advocates of it as Colin Davis have shown it can yield.

I went to the third performance of the new production of Die Meistersinger; not so much traditional as thoroughly reactionary. And the man responsible for this is HansPeter Lehmann, one-time assistant to Wieland Wagner. One might suspect a plot by Rosenberg to discredit such atavism, if dates didn’t render that an impossibility. Not only is the staging deathly in its oldeworldinesse, the characters in this complex drama are made as phoney as the settings they inhabit. One might have thought that Lehmann, who is immensely experienced, would at least have learned that the crucial thing is to get opera singers to behave as human beings, reacting to one another in credible and moving ways. It is that capacity which makes such dubious directors as Chereau and Kupfer triumph at a micro level, for all the frequent absurdity of their ‘concepts’.

The best things in this Meistersinger happened when the singers were left to their own devices – though I must make an exception for the Walther of Robert Dean Smith, who is always vocally accomplished, but has, in the previous productions I have seen him in, been a wooden actor. Here he gave free rein to his all-American boyishness, and was more engaging than I thought he could be, or than Walthers customarily are.

This may have been the best-cast Meistersinger that I have ever seen, and there are few studio recordings that can claim so strong a list of principals. That only made the more frustrating the way that the whole was so much less than the sum of its parts. I agree with Lehmann in his claim that Meistersinger need not, should not be seen as a problematic work on account of its much-misunderstood last five minutes, or because of its misappropriation during the Third Reich. It is a universal comedy with a highly specific setting, not a genuinely historic one, but not a never-never land in which everyone is cute, and as quaint as their half-timbered residences. To see such a group of performers almost reduced to the level of Rossini-puppets is a painful experience, and one at odds with the limitless humanity of their music. Oddly, Beckmesser fares best, because Thomas Allen has an interpretation of the role which mercifully defies this production, so that the most effective moments in it are those where he is humiliated.

James Morris makes his debut as Sachs at a stage in his career when most singers would be thinking of abandoning this most taxing of Wagner’s baritone roles. Morris’s voice has dried out, but he is less bland now than he was in his prime, and offers a coherent if limited interpretation of a part that needs years of study and performance. Perhaps at the producer’s behest, the strong element of bitterness and disillusion in the part, as in the whole drama, is merely missing. Sachs doesn’t suffer, as he should, from Eva’s coquettishness, for all the charm of Janice Watson, who, a few notes apart, is the most sweet-voiced exponent of the role I’ve heard since Elisabeth Grummer. Under these circumstances one gains what nourishment one can from segments treated as set pieces, such as Michael Schade’s ravishing singing lesson, as David; from John Del Caro’s ripe Kothner; even more, from the great Rene Pape’s exemplary account of Pogner’s address.

Yet Meistersinger is concerned with relationships, not with individual tours de force, apart from Walther. At the moment Runnicles fails to build the acts into wholes, and the impression is indecisive: is this a chamber-music rendering of the score, or just one that fails to rise to the many great occasions? If I lived nearer, I would certainly go back for a second try, there being no problem in finding a seat in the shockingly empty theatre.

Michael Tanner | Oct 27, 2001

San Francisco Classical Voice

The new San Francisco Opera production of Richard Wagner’s sprawling tribute to “holy German art,” Die Meistersinger, fully justifies the composer’s well-developed sense of his own contributions to the cause. Beautifully played and (on the whole) sung, thoughtfully staged by Hans-Peter Lehmann with constant attention to the drama’s intricate layers of detail, the opera’s five-plus hours hardly feel long at all. Sets by John Coyne and costumes by Walter Mahoney are largely variations on long-familiar themes — fair enough for work celebrating the claims of tradition and craftsmanship alongside those of inspiration and innovation, and one whose historical setting demands its due.

A focal point of interest is James Morris’s debut in the role of Hans Sachs, a seemingly inevitable step for the world’s leading Wotan. For all the similarities between these two characters who face their respective mid-life crises with wisdom, wit, and noble resignation, Morris seems to have made a point of approaching Sachs as something new and different. His Sachs is much more outward-directed, observant and attentive, less of a self-absorbed brooder, despite the central “Flieder” and “Wahn” monologues of Acts 2 and 3. This is reflected not just in matters of stage deportment, but even of voice: with a sharper edge to it, somewhat less roundness or depth of support at the lower end, the whole performance takes on a more casual, conversational hue, eschewing Wotan’s (sometimes) ponderous self-importance.

Only perhaps in the Act-3 “Wahn” monologue did the familiar lineaments of the world-weary chief of the gods rise to the surface momentarily. Even here the voice seemed more forward, a hint thinner than in the past. Yet with the delicately nuanced contribution of the orchestra and James Morris’s sensitivity to Wagner’s brand of melodic declamation, Sachs’s reflections on the preceding night’s “midsummer madness” came through as the emotional centerpiece of this long act.

Rhetorical contours, shifts, and pauses

Morris by no means monopolized the scenes shared with the other masters. In fact, it was rather René Pape, as the rich and influential Veit Pogner, who tended to dominate the ensemble scenes, with a fuller, fresher, and more supple voice than Morris at this point. Assisted by thoughtful conducting from Runnicles, Pape’s feeling for rhetorical contours, shifts, and pauses made Pogner’s lengthy proposal to the assembled masters in Act 1 (offering up Eva as the grand prize in tomorrow’s song contest) interesting and attractive, instead of the somewhat stiff recital it can be.

John Del Carlo, on the other hand, took the inherent stiffness of Fritz Kothner’s role (guardian of the Tabulatur and master of protocol) as a point of departure for a winning comic portrayal. Del Carlo underlined a note of Falstaffian self-regard in Kothner’s manner with his richly monumental “reciting” tone as well as foppishly delicate touches of archaic coloratura (like the ruffled lace collar of an “old Dutch master”).

At the other end of the spectrum, Doug Jones stood out as a diminutive and fluty-toned Vogelgesang. Lehman’s mastersingers are on the whole a more youthful and more individualized group than usual. Despite their hidebound ways in matters of art, they come across as affable folks with minds of their own, rather than a stodgy, impersonal council of elders. (Thus Pape’s Pogner, for example, looks more like the father of a teenage girl rather than her grandfather, as Pogner often does.)

Masterpiece of vocal characterization.

The quartet of younger characters was strongly cast, with the two “comprimario” roles, Catherine Keen as Magdalene and Michael Schade as David, outshining the two leads in certain respects. Keen infused an earthy, comic vigor into a part that often comes off as merely starchy and mildly officious. David’s part can likewise be unrewarding — wordy and gratuitous. But Schade, with the help of Lehman’s lively and attentive direction, made David a thoroughly welcome figure; his nimble delivery of the endless catalogue of the modes and genres of master-song was itself a minor masterpiece of deft vocal characterization.

Janice Watson was a satisfying Eva, particularly in balancing strains of coyness, coquettishness, and childlike petulance (and she certainly looked the part of the eager blonde ingenue). It’s more of a challenge to bring out the moments of spirit, independence, and incipient maturity that should transform Eva from operatic Barbie doll into a worthy “muse of Parnassus,” as Walther’s prize-song lauds her. Watson rose some of the way to that challenge in Act 3 where, leading up and into the “baptismal” Quintet, Eva gets her brief chance to blossom; she led the Quintet with assurance, but without quite the creamy or velvety tone that would ideally clinch the moment.

Homecoming Debut

Making his U.S. debut after a considerable European career, American-born tenor Robert Dean Smith was a vocally well-equipped Walther (a part he sang recently in Bayreuth), if not wholly charismatic. The voice is generally strong and clear, and at its best attains a Bjoerling-like brassy sheen (as it did for Walther’s first rehearsal of the Prize-Song). As Walther’s nemesis, Beckmesser, veteran baritone Thomas Allen delivered an aptly edgy, anxious, and irascible performance that didn’t shortchange what “music” there is to the part.

Lehmann’s careful attention to detail is signally displayed in the elaborate “mickey-mousing” of physical and musical gestures in Beckmesser’s pantomime-scene as he inspects Sachs’s vacant workshop in Act 3. To some tastes the detail may over-accumulate, as with the apprentices’ hyperactive horseplay in their earlier scenes. Mostly I felt it was all in keeping with this busiest, most detail-oriented of Wagner’s works, both as drama and as musical score. (Incidentally, Christopher Bergen’s supertitles deserve special mention for their resourceful handling of Wagner’s prolix but often clever and allusive text.)

I failed to understand the point of a projection of a Nuremberg house (a drawing or negative image?), at the climax of the Act-2 brawl, flashed on the back of a set that already presented the necessary workable houses and some fairly detailed backdrop-screens. (There also seemed to be some miscalculation in Lehmann’s staging of the transition from sleepiness to total mayhem when the neighborhood issues out into the street.)

Well Presented Overall

Otherwise, sets and direction were sensible and straightforward. The interior of Sachs’s workshop is shown in cross-section, but also floated as a sort of island in center-stage, dominated by the representations of the townscape on layered flats behind, conveying the symbiosis of Sachs and his civic environment. The festival-meadow scene of the song-contest, which fairly stages itself, was lively and colorful without undue hokeyness.

Lehmann opts for the Versoehnungsschluss or reconciliation of Beckmesser with Sachs at the final curtain, though here the chastened Beckmesser approaches this gradually, and with plausible apprehension. Having given Beckmesser a bit of malicious stage-business at the Act 1 curtain, celebrating his apparent defeat of the young knight, his reappearance at the end also effects a nice symmetry (likewise with the Act 2 curtain where Beckmesser slowly limps off the emptied stage).

Donald Runnicles approached the score with considerable flexibility of tempo even within set pieces or scenes, letting the music breathe where necessary but without dragging. Apart from a notably broad pacing of the Act 3 prelude, which elicited all the dignified poetry of this wistful meditation on events just past and still to come, tempos ranged from fleet to moderate. The performance of the monumental Act I prelude set the standard here, with nuanced shifts of tempo arising naturally from rhetorical pauses at various “joints” between sections.

Once again, the orchestra played splendidly, and the chorus accomplished wonders. The placement of the chorus mostly at the back of the stage for the final scene may have undermined the force of certain moments. But the final hymn to Sachs and his fellow German masters had its full impact, nonetheless — a convincing proof likewise of the durability of this modern Meister’s work.

Thomas Grey

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320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 601 MByte (MP3)
A production by Hans-Peter Lehmann (2001)