Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Pietari Inkinen
Opera Australia Chorus
Orchestra Victoria
22 November 2018
State Theatre Arts Centre Melbourne
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Hans SachsMichael Kupfer-Radecky
Veit PognerDaniel Sumegi
Kunz VogelgesangJohn Longmuir
Konrad NachtigallAndrew Jones
Sixtus BeckmesserWarwick Fyfe
Fritz KothnerLuke Gabbedy
Balthasar ZornJoshua Oxley
Ulrich EißlingerRobert Macfarlane
Augustin MoserKanen Breen
Hermann OrtelMichael Honeyman
Hans SchwartzRichard Anderson
Hans FoltzGennadi Dubinsky
Walther von StolzingStefan Vinke
DavidNicholas Jones
EvaNatalie Aroyan
MagdaleneDominica Matthews
Ein NachtwächterAdrian Tamburini

Holten’s Meistersinger comes to Melbourne

Perhaps the most controversial work in Wagner’s incendiary output, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg demands careful handling. Composed just before the unification of Germany in 1871, its mixture of folkloric settings, rousing tunefulness and an ending rich in overt nationalist rhetoric made it a favourite in the Third Reich. In postwar Germany, productions have had to wrestle with the work’s tainted history. In 1956 Wieland Wagner (grandson of the composer) attempted to take the curse from the work by minimizing its connection to Nuremberg in a highly abstract staging. Last year at Bayreuth, Australian expat Barrie Kosky provided a brilliantly provocative reading which situated parts of the action in the Nuremberg trial courtroom. The character of Beckmesser is another problematic element: on one level the pantomime villain the comedic story needs, he has also been read as an anti-Semitic stereotype.

In this Covent-Garden co-production, Kasper Holten presumably felt less impelled to address Meistersinger’s tangled history. His conceit was to situate the entirety of the action within a masonic temple, the all-male secret society standing in for the all-male guild of mastersingers, each with its own set of arcane rituals and laws. The set designed by Mia Stensgaard was in itself a thing of beauty, all geometric shapes and fluted panels. However, the darkness of the wood gave it all a rather oppressive feel, as did the retention of the same set throughout in contradistinction to Wagner’s setting of Act 2 and part of Act 3 in the open air. This claustrophobic feeling was clearly deliberate: the world of the mastersingers was stifling, exclusionary and chauvinist. The darker forces beneath the ritualistic surface arose at the end of Act 2, where Wagner’s riot was reimagined as a tacky Eyes-Wide-Shut orgy. Sachs’ great meditation on madness loses its bite when it is merely a ‘stag night’ that gets out of hand.

Into this world comes Walther, the outsider whose instinctive musical talent cannot express itself within the hallowed norms of Mastersinger practice. Here Wagner’s aristocrat became a loutish long-haired rebel, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and jeans. Stefan Vinke was typically forceful; his voice was not uniformly beautiful throughout the long sing, but it soared impressively above the orchestra. His rival, Beckmesser, was played as an impotently malevolent schemer by show-stealing Warwick Fyfe, whose comedic gestures and crisp patter-singing made his scenes unforgettable. Nicholas Jones was another undoubted highlight, his easy high tenor sound making David’s lengthy recitation of the guild rules positively pleasurable rather than something to be endured.

Natalie Aroyan turned the often milk-and-water Eva into something much more characterful (her response to her father “An obedient child speaks only when asked” was deliciously marinaded in sarcasm) with some lovely unforced singing to boot – her solo at the start of the quintet was especially delightful. As Pogner, Daniel Sumegi was the picture of authority, projecting through Wagner’s dense textures with ease. Among the Mastersingers Luke Gabbedy was especially strong as Fritz Kothner, and the ever-reliable Dominica Matthews exuded quality as a prim but playful Magdalena. The chorus, such a vital part of the action, was outstanding, with a rare on-stage cameo for chorus-master Anthony Hunt.

Less happily, the Orchestra Victoria strings sounded underpowered from the opening of the Prelude, and the direction by Pietari Inkinen was overly spacious, making an already long afternoon feel still longer. Also disappointing was Michael Kupfer-Radecky the eleventh-hour draft for the vital role of Hans Sachs (two singers having pulled out earlier); while he did well in quieter solos like the ‘Flieder’ monologue, he was seriously underpowered in his cobbling song, where he failed to shout down Fyfe’s well-projected Beckmesser.

So did this Meistersinger provide a strong reading of the problematic ending? It did, just not the one it had teed up, nor arguably the one the work needed. Beckmesser here was properly humiliated: his singing was mocked and he was stripped of his masonic insignia and robes. Disconsolate, he remained slumped at the edge of the stage, a spectre at the otherwise triumphant feast. However, he was radically upstaged by events of the last few minutes, when Eva ultimately rejects Walter for succumbing to the glamour of the Mastersingers. Her departure from the scene while her suitor was excessively garlanded with memorabilia until he looked like a masonic Christmas tree was shocking, not just for its incompatibility with the happy ending loudly proclaimed by the music, but for its unexpectedness. With hindsight, the masonic world was ripe for a feminist protest (for instance, Eva had been offered as a prize to the guild by her father), but there was precious little to indicate her incipient rebellion earlier. Holten’s much-lauded Copenhagen Ring offered a strong feminist take on the tetralogy; here it felt like a lazy afterthought.

David Larkin | 19 November 2018

Herald Sun

As the only comedy among Wagner’s mature operas, the laughs don’t come thick and fast in Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg.

But Wagner’s gargantuan work of more than four hours beats dryly in its celebration of the underdog and artistic tradition.

On the surface, Opera Australia’s imaginative new co-production by director Kasper Holten explores the themes with touching nobility. It’s also fabulously staged with swathes of spectacular regalia (sets by Mia Stensgaard, costumes by Anja Vang Kragh, lighting by Jesper Kongshaug).

The opera’s first focus is on preparations for a rigorously regulated singing competition. The denigrating trophy is Eva, the daughter of a Meistersinger. But Eva is in love with Walther, who needs to learn the rules fast.

Walther’s mentor, Hans Sachs, recognises beauty in Walther’s passionate style. Sachs is the second focus whose ideologies become thrashed out in extended introspection. What Holten creates is a hybrid reading.

Act 1 packs a powerful Art Deco punch. Action is moved from the story’s Renaissance setting to a kind of elitist secret society club, an enormous vaultlike room resembling the innards of a grand organ. By Act 2’s fantastically giddy end, it’s all simply theatrical illusion.

In its breathtaking conclusion, Holten brilliantly jackknifes the nationalism that gushes in declarations of “Honour your German Masters” with Eva gesturing the last assault.

Performances shone in all directions. Burnished and succulent baritone Michael Kupfer-Radecky depicted the ambiguity of Sachs superbly.

Natalie Aroyan was deliciously radiant as Eva. When Stefan Vinke hit his stride, he was formidable as Walther. And the comic seasoning would have been stale without Warwick Fyfe’s sensational turn as the sneering object of ridicule, Beckmesser. Daniel Sumegi’s stolid Veit Pogner, Nicholas Jones’s happy-go-lucky David and Dominica Matthews’ perky Magdalene all impressed.

And how welcome it was having Pietari Inkinen back, conducting with energy and careful support after two eloquently driven distant Melbourne Ring seasons.

Paul Selar | November 14, 2018


Poetry and Dreams

An essentially slight plot of “boy meets girl” set against a local singing competition belies the enormity of Wagner’s only comedy. The expansive splendour of Germany’s cultural, literary and musical heritage is a platform for the composer to construct a treatise on change, tradition and the power of self-interest. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg becomes then, a massive canvas upon which Wagner paints loving portraits of artistic conventions imbued with equally doting studies of the central characters, their loves, wants and foibles.

Nothing of the immensity of the opera is lost in Opera Australia’s premier of its new co-production, first seen in London in 2017. The orchestra is greatly expanded as for all of Wagner’s works; the Chorus seems to have gathered together every musician at the company’s command; the sheer size and scope of the revolving set; hundreds of opulent period and modern costumes; dozens of dancers, supernumeraries and aerial artists and not least, the fifteen principal singers. This is no small-scale undertaking and Opera Australia brought it off with polish and confidence.

Kasper Holten’s re-imagining of the plot was his final contribution as Artistic Director of The Royal Opera. Nürnberg is a gentleman’s club. Uniformed, wood-panelled, bound by secret rules and resistant to any form of change much less the presence of an outsider; it is pre-occupied with preserving itself and reinforcing its loyalties. The set by Mia Stensgaard is unarguably German; variously resembling a cathedral choir, a town hall or registry office. It revolves both around the stage and as a tumbling cylinder during the monstrous bacchanalia of the Johannesfest celebrations at the conclusion of Act 2. Less easily understood is the reverse of the set where we are transported backstage at a massive theatrical event during Act 3. Anja Van Kragh’s costume designs complete the plush visual spectacle with huge variety and time-shifts from medieval to modern.

As something of a partner-piece for OA’s Ring Cycle (2013 & 2016), this production re-unites Maestro Pietari Inkinen with German heldentenor Stefan Vinke in a collaboration which showcases the overall strength of the company and the male principals in particular. Having originally scheduled James Johnson (2016’s Wotan) to sing Hans Sachs, the company have twice had to re-cast the role, ending with German baritone Michael Kupfer-Radecky as only the second non-Australian performer in the roster.

Maestro Inkinen returns to Melbourne a firm favourite. Warmly greeted at the beginning, he was received with cheers reminiscent of a football final or pop concert at the curtain calls. He brings a calm, authoritative understanding of Wagnerian nuances into an orchestral performance which flowed luxuriantly throughout. Tempi and volume were varied and intricate, seeming to float just under the singers. The glorious cellos and basses deserve particular mention for the subtlety and surety of their performance. The effusive audience response for the orchestra is testament to the special place this wonderful band hold in Melbourne’s heart.

Preparation of the Opera Australia Chorus by Anthony Hunt was nothing less than superb. Clarity of diction, laser accurate musical entrances, constantly audible division between the vocal registers and sheer quantity of sound were matched with marvellous on-stage presence and individual acting performance to create a crowning achievement for the ensemble.

Stefan Vinke is a first rate Wagnerian whose reputation and engagements around the world attest to his abilities. His voice is clarion clear and he modulates it with rapid movements through the rich chest notes to a brilliant, silvery top. His was an outstanding performance which judged perfectly his ensembles with the other principals and created a gorgeous combination with the Eva sung by Australian soprano Nathalie Aroyan. Ms Aroyan’s vocal strength and acting abilities were evident throughout the opera. She has a powerful instrument which is capable of reaching bell-like highs and plunging seamlessly into a dark and velvety lower register. We can eagerly look forward to her future appearances with OA.

As Hans Sachs, Michael Kupfer-Radecky brought extensive experience in the role and a beautiful if sometimes quiet voice to this production. He is an accomplished singing-actor who gave a solid performance which was well received.

Returning to Wagner for OA after his triumph as Alberich in 2013 and 2016, stalwart baritone Warwick Fyfe produced the performance of his career as the ever-complaining, wheedling Beckmesser. The immensity and power of his voice juxtapose against the snivelling small-mindedness of his characterisation. Mr Fyfe loves a comic turn and this portrayal is a masterpiece which highlights his astonishing stagecraft. The audience response was close to hysteria as he feigned surprise during his ‘in-character’ curtain call.

Without doubt, the revelation of the night was the striking performance by young Australian tenor Nicholas Jones as David. He has a dazzling voice, previously utilised in minor roles but now allowed to shine. His athletic and strapping physique imbued his character with courage and audaciousness and augmented his stupendous singing with captivating acting. This is a young man to watch and to await with high expectations his next major role with the company.

The overall strength of this production lies with the depth and vigour of the male voices in OA. Daniel Sumegi as Pogner and Luke Gabbedy as Kothner gave sterling performances. So too did the other male parts and the ever-reliable mezzo Dominica Matthews as Magdalene.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is an immense achievement for Opera Australia: a triumph of partnership with a prestige company like The Royal Opera; a challenge for the audience to wrestle with the massive Wagnerian masterpiece; and, a stunning showcase for the depth of talent and ability within the company.

Gregory Pritchard | 11/13/2018

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256 kbit/s CBR, 48.0 kHz, 519 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (ABC Classic FM)
A production by Kasper Holten (2018)