Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Andrew Davis
Chicago Lyric Opera Chorus and Orchestra
8 February 2013
Lyric Opera Chicago
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Hans SachsJames Morris
Veit PognerDmitry Ivashchenko
Kunz VogelgesangJohn Irvin
Konrad NachtigallDaniel Sutin
Sixtus BeckmesserBo Skovhus
Fritz KothnerDarren Jeffery
Balthasar ZornJoel Sorensen
Ulrich EißlingerJoseph Hu
Augustin MoserDavid Cangelosi
Hermann OrtelDavid Govertsen
Hans SchwartzEvan Boyer
Hans FoltzSam Handley
Walther von StolzingJohan Botha
DavidDavid Portillo
EvaAmanda Majeski
MagdaleneJamie Barton
Ein NachtwächterAndrea Silvestrelli

Die Meistersinger fills the stage at Chicago’s Lyric Opera

On Friday, a new co-production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg opened at the Lyric. The only comedy among Wagner’s mature music dramas, its sound is very much like that of the better-known tragedies – brassy, overfull, with a core of strings teetering at vibrato’s edge. But its style is heterogeneous where the tragedies are homogeneous, shifting rapidly through a Wagner-index of tropes and melodic figures. A bit of Lohengrin’s prelude here, a smidgeon of Siegfried there, and a direct quotation of Tristan und Isolde at the moment the characters speak (semi-ironically?) of their woes in love. By quoting himself, and by trying his hand at a public, theatrical and comic tale of marriage (albeit one that lasts five-and-a-half hours with intermissions), Wagner explicitly links himself to Mozart, who quoted his own Marriage of Figaro at the end of Don Giovanni.

The opera’s a potpourri, and the new staging at the Lyric no less so. At one point it occurred to me that I had never before seen so many people crammed onto the stage at the Civic Opera House (this was at the end of Act II, and again at the end of Act III); I feared that the house, even after removing a dangerous fire-stunt from the beginning of the last act, was still in violation of building fire codes. It’s a huge cast, especially when the non-singing dancers and jugglers and stilt-walkers are factored in. The sense of spectacle is made explicit when, in the last scene of the last act, four-and-a-half hours into the night, the curtain goes up on a peasant circus that is performing for the opera audience and soliciting our applause. The jolt of direct address is a welcome intervention so late into the night, and reinvigorates the crowd just before the arrival of the all-important song contest.

I have to note a really lovely detail: the fire curtain is printed with the first page of the Meistersinger overture, sideways, reminding us of the concert tradition of playing operatic overtures in isolation by symphony orchestras. When the curtain goes up, seeing costumed singers running around on stage is a shock. It highlights at once the opera’s theatricality and the immediacy of its action.

Yet the stage, once revealed, is so frequently over-stuffed that one easily begins to feel the same way about the music. From the floor, the orchestra seemed to maintain an undifferentiated fullness throughout, though a friend who was in the upper balcony reported that the sound there was less full and more focused. Some of the group numbers (for instance, at the end of Act II) may be impossible to direct, but the roar was so noisy that I sometimes could not tell where voices and instruments separated from one another. Johan Botha (who plays the hero), the great Wagnerian presence, stays above the hubbub, but the large cast is not always consistent in balancing flexibility and sheer volume. This is especially a shame when the score presents the opportunity to set solo lines in relief. I’m not appealing for total clarity, which would be as undesirable as it is impossible – but it seemed that the opera’s (hence the director’s, and conductor’s) strategy was to flood rather than seduce, to sacrifice detail in certain moments (perhaps at the cost of a slight asceticism) for warm, Bierstein-waving good cheer.

Dan Wang | 13 Februar 2013

Chicago Classical Review

Lyric Opera’s glorious “Meistersinger” takes the prize

It’s ironic and in some ways fitting that Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Richard Wagner’s longest mature opera, is also his lightest and most lovable.

No gods, dwarves or monsters here, nor Rheingold nor magic Tarnhelm. Wagner’s comedy, instead, is an earthbound tale of how the cobbler Hans Sachs—who also happens to be the most brilliant song expert in Nuremberg—aids the young nobleman Walther von Stolzing to win the annual Meistersinger competition, which this year offers as a prize the hand of the beautiful Eva, with whom Walther is smitten. To compete and emerge victorious, Walther most learn the rules of the competition, write his own song, and, with the aid of Sachs, outwit Beckmesser, the malevolent “Marker” or grader of contestants, who has his own designs on Eva.

While the scenario is outwardly a simple one, the story unfolds on the grandest scale, the sprawling opera a canvas for Wagner’s ideals of love, German culture and, most significantly, the hard work, seriousness of purpose and pure, open-hearted spirit necessary to create great and lasting art.

Wagner’s magnificent score is the most conversational and even Mozartian of all his operas despite its length. Meistersinger contains many of the composer’s finest inspirations including Walther’s Prize Song, the Act 3 quintet and the remarkable musical Donnybrook that ends Act 2, as the street fight morphs into a choral fugue of astounding complexity built from Beckmesser’s banal little ode.

The Lyric Opera’s production of Meistersinger, which opened Friday night, was not faultless vocally, but got nearly all of the important things right—no mean feat in a work this vast, ambitious and complicated. The five-and-one-half-hours (including two long intervals) flew by and few people bailed before the end of the evening.

Sir David McVicar’s Glyndebourne staging gracefully nudges the action from the 16th century to the early 18th century. The traditional production offers an elegant minimalism with flowing columns forming the unit with elegant side and back sets painting the scenes for St. Catherine’s Church, the Nuremberg street and Sachs’ workshop. Only the finale’s meadow tableau seems like a misfire, with its cardboard castles and blank, brightly lit back walls looking cheap and empty. Vicki Mortimer’s period costumes were colorful and dead-on, without being gaudy, reflecting that the guildsmen are rustic artisans not nobles.

Heading up the large cast is James Morris as Hans Sachs. The cobbler-philosopher has been among Morris’s signature roles over the American bass-baritone’s illustrious career, one he has sung at the Met, in San Francisco and Berlin.

Would that Chicago could have heard his Sachs a decade ago rather than now near the end of Morris’s heralded career. There was a want of power and, often, projection Friday night with Morris’s vocal resources undeniably diminished by the passage of time. The singer was nearly inaudible at the start of his Act 2 monologue and clearly running out of steam in Sachs’ extended paean to German art at the opera’s close.

That said, Morris sang with an ease and legato that was balm to the ears in this oft-barked repertoire, yet Sachs’ outburst against the violence and perfidy of mankind had the requisite bite and intensity. While vocally this could not be called a stellar performance, Morris inhabited Sachs’ character dramatically as naturally as his work vest, bringing out the wisdom, humor and humanity of the benevolent man who puts aside his own feelings for Eva to help the younger Walther win her and the Meistersinger prize.

Two years ago, Johan Botha’s rich, powerful voice was a major factor in the success of Lyric Opera’s Lohengrin, and as Walther von Stolzing, the South African tenor again delivered the vocal goods in supreme style. Granted, the rotund singer doesn’t cut a very heroic figure as the nobleman that makes Eva swoon on sight. Yet, a couple raspy low notes apart, Botha handled the role’s vocal challenges in big-voiced idiomatic style with a vibrant, towering rendition of his finished Prize Song that made it the true high point of the evening.

Tall, blonde and striking, Amanda Majeski, just two years out of the Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center certainly fits the physical bill as the fair Eva Pogner, the maiden who is the object of all the men’s attentions. While Majeski’s pure, youthful timbre is attractive and dramatically apt, her soprano sounded rather slender for this part, wanting in the kind of resplendence and cut necessary to ride Wagner’s vocal lines in the lyric climaxes.

No more withering depiction of music critics exists than Wagner’s Beckmesser, a pedantic buffoon modeled after the influential critic Eduard Hanslick, a conservative foe of the composer. (Wagner originally named the character “Hans Lich” but thought better of it, though Hanslick never forgave him for this celebrated lampooning.)

Bo Skovhus is an unlikely physical fit for Beckmesser, looking too young, tall and handsome for Eva’s hapless suitor, intended in Wagner’s libretto to be a gauche, middle-aged dork. At times his twitchy, neurotic portrayal of the comic villain crossed the line to over-the-top caricature—curiously, something McVicar says his staging strives to avoid. Yet the Danish baritone sang with dark, firmly focused tone, and Skovhus was genuinely funny in his comic moments, noisily scratching his marking chalk when his rival sings (“Nothing escapes my slate!”) and even making one feel a pang of sympathy for the defeated Beckmesser after his humiliation at the contest.

The rest of the large cast was filled out with distinction.

As Eva’s wealthy burgher father Pogner, Dimitry Ivashchenko—who could pass for Morris’s younger brother—brought apt dignity and vocal finesse even if his lightish bass lacked the sonorous weight for this part.

David Portillo made a star turn out of the ungrateful role of Sachs’ apprentice David. The Ryan Center alum displayed extraordinary artistry, singing with sweet tone and striking nuance and delicacy. The potentially deadly long passage in which David explains to Walther the guild’s song rules, instead proved a highlight of the evening, beautifully sung and expressively shaded by the Texas-born tenor. As his beloved, Jamie Barton was a worthy and characterful Magdalene.

The Meistersinger guild members (John Irvin, Daniel Sutin, Darren Jeffery, David Govertsen, Joel Sorenson, David Cangelosi, Joseph Hu, Sam Handley and Evan Boyer) were a lively, well-contrasted, and vocally distinguished bunch. What a game colleague Andrea Silvestrelli is, taking on the tiny role of the Nightwatchman and investing his brief lines with subterranean gravitas.

Taking over stage direction from McVicar at Glyndebourne, Marie Lambert kept the long evening moving efficiently yet with telling touches along the way as with Sachs’ reflective moments in his study. Nick Sandys’ direction of the massive fight scene at the climax of Act 2 was delightful and wonderfully energetic. Andrew George’s choreography, however, proved a mixed bag at best, with some of the hip-shimmying of the apprentices in Act 1 looking like a bad roadshow of Oliver.

Above all the evening belonged to Sir Andrew Davis, the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Davis conducted with a natural yet unhurried hand, balancing deftly and bringing fine transparency to this lightest of Wagner scores. Even by their standard, the Lyric Opera Orchestra played gloriously with refined, majestic brass, personality-plus woodwinds and gleaming, burnished string playing throughout the long evening. Under Ian Robertson’s direction, the chorus sang with magnificent power, well-blended polish and sensitivity as needed.

Lawrence A. Johnson | Feb 09, 2013

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
256 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 483 MByte (MP3)
A production by David McVicar
Possible dates: 8, 12, 16, 20, 23, 27 February, 3 March 2013