Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

James Levine
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Date/Location
23 January 1993
Metropolitan Opera House New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast
Hans SachsDonald McIntyre
Veit PognerJan-Hendrik Rootering
Kunz VogelgesangPaul Groves
Konrad NachtigallKim Josephson
Sixtus BeckmesserHermann Prey
Fritz KothnerJohn Del Carlo
Balthasar ZornRobert Brubaker
Ulrich EißlingerCharles Anthony
Augustin MoserJohn Horton Murray
Hermann OrtelPhilip Cokorinos
Hans SchwartzLeRoy Lehr
Hans FoltzRyan Allen
Walther von StolzingFrancisco Araiza
DavidLars Magnusson
EvaKarita Mattila
MagdaleneBirgitta Svendén
Ein NachtwächterJulien Robbins
Gallery
Los Angeles Times

Met Offers a New, Old-Fashioned ‘Meistersinger’ : The Met mounts a picture-postcard version of the Wagner warhorse that looks a lot like one staged 30 years ago

The Metropolitan Opera stands alone when it comes to the grandiose challenges of Richard Wagner.

Other important companies around the world, from Bayreuth to Seattle, regard these Germanic monuments as opportunities to expand and explore the possibilities of modern stagecraft. Other companies search–sometimes with enlightened success and sometimes with dismal failure–for psychological credibility, for undertones of sociological and even political meaning.

Modern Wagner productions elsewhere deal in symbols, in abstractions and stylizations. They try to focus more on poetry than on prose, to rely more on vague lights than on literal props.

The mighty, stodgy Met turns its back on a century of theatrical progress and concentrates on quaint, naive, lavish, let’s-pretend realism. The local guardians of the reactionary treasure–if it can be called that–are James Levine, the maestro in excelsis, Otto Schenk, his picturesque-traffic cop accomplice, Gunther Schneider-Siemssen, the storybook-set designer in residence, and Rolf Langenfass, the compliant creator of pretty-pretty costumes.

This team has already given appreciative New Yorkers a fairy-tale “Ring” and a kitsch-paradise “Parsifal.” And now, folks, a picture-postcard version of “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg” . . . .

Thirty years ago, during another cautious Met regime, Nathaniel Merrill and Robert O’Hearn collaborated on a lovely, essentially conservative “Meistersinger” that, apart from a sketchy final scene, looked as if it had been plucked from the pages of an early edition of “The Victor Book of the Opera.” The new version, which was given its first, rapturously received performance Thursday night, looks very much like the old one.

At least it looks like the old one for 2 1/2 acts. Then, for the climactic confrontations on the so-called festival meadow, it confuses the verdant banks of the Pegnitz with the grubby expanses of Central Park, even incorporating an oddly familiar phony-fortress arch in the background.

At the Met, a church always resembles a church, an alley resembles an alley and a tree resembles a tree. (A leaf of grass still cannot resemble a leaf of grass, but not for want of trying.) The decors are decorated in loving detail, down to authentic shoe buckles, ornate nameplates on all the masters’ desks, and a small Durer woodcut adorning the wall of Hans Sachs’ study.

To some, the uninspired verisimilitude no doubt inspires wonder and comfort. To others–this other, for instance–it just looks lazy and fussy. No one can complain, however, that this new old-fashioned “Meistersinger” impedes or distorts Wagner’s intended message. Until pompous ugliness sets in with the finale, the Met provides stagy pictorialism at its unabashedly regressive best.

Schenk may not have any compelling thoughts on the meaning of “Die Meistersinger,” but he does direct his singing-actors–an uncommonly sensitive, uncommonly attractive, reasonably well-matched ensemble–with serious concern for character development.

Stereotyping is avoided wherever possible. One must be grateful.

The pivotal character is, of course, Hans Sachs–cobbler by profession, philosopher by inclination. Old enough to be wise yet young enough to be passionate, he must dominate the stage for nearly six hours as the moral magnet in the action.

The role was originally entrusted here to Bernd Weikl, but the German baritone reportedly had to withdraw while recovering from back surgery. To replace him, Levine & Co. turned to Donald McIntyre, a celebrated Bayreuth baritone from New Zealand whose name does not even appear on the current roster. It turned out to be a fortunate move.

McIntyre never was the world’s loudest or most plangent Wagnerian, and, at 58, his voice shows some honorable signs of wear. He uses it, however, with extraordinary finesse over the very long haul, mustering incisive power for the aggressive outbursts and a fine-edged pianissimo, bordering on parlando, for the introspective passages. Unlike some illustrious, more restrained predecessors, his Sachs vacillates with startling speed between depression and elation, but the emotional extremes are poignantly motivated.

Theoretically, the stentorian flourishes of Walther von Stolzing require a junior Heldentenor–which happens to be an exceedingly rare breed. The Met drafted Francisco Araiza, a fragile lyric tenor best known for his elegant Mozart and Rossini. The seemingly foolhardy casting experiment ended in triumph.

Araiza is no Mexican Melchior, and he could not ring any rafters in the great climaxes. It hardly mattered. He focused the sturdy if slender tone at his command perfectly (well, nearly perfectly), resisted the temptation to force and paced himself cannily. He brought dreamy pathos to the amorous musings, and uncommon urgency to the impetuous climaxes. Although less than heroic in stature, he cut a convincingly youthful figure and moved with persuasive ardor.

MARTIN BERNHEIMER | January 16, 1993

New York Times

New Met ‘Meistersinger’ Aims for Literalism

Something remarkable happened Thursday night during the third act of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.” Hans Sachs, a 16th-century cobbler and Mastersinger, was teaching the young aspirant Walther the rules of song. But it seemed as if the entire cast, supported by James Levine’s supple conducting, was attentive to his esthetic lessons. There were beautifully structured arias but also exquisite nuances; freedom accompanied law. One was tempted to paraphrase Sachs’s acclaim for Walther: this came close to being a Masterscene.

There were many highlights throughout the performance, but that scene — with its final quintet — was the heart of this impressive, uncut “Meistersinger.” Otto Schenk has again made a case for traditionally staged Wagner at the Met, following the composer’s detailed directions. In this case, the literalness made still more sense because Wagner violated his own principles for musical drama and used a realistic subject, not a mythical one, basing his story on the song contests once held by German guilds.

Gunther Schneider-Siemssen’s sets in turn emphasized realism, creating a medieval atmosphere without artifice or spectacle. The first act took place in a small section of a gothic church, its massive stonework giving an impression of grandeur; the second act’s street was finely detailed, at once photographic and hauntingly attractive. Even during the final festival scene, when it must have been tempting to create something to stir audiences to applause, the approach was restrained. In fact the only peculiarity was that Rolf Langenfass’s handsome costumes seemed a bit warm for a midsummer day.

The humility of the production spilled over into the performances, firmly led by Mr. Levine, who knew, after some initial bombast, precisely when to pull back and push forward, breathing with the singers. The extraordinary ensemble work in Sachs’s workshop was all the more surprising since most of the singers were hardly renowned Wagnerians.

Bernd Weikl, who was to have brought his acclaimed Sachs to the Met, had to cancel his participation in the entire season’s performances because of illness. (And in the minor role of Magdalene, Wendy White had to step in for Birgitta Svenden, who was ill.)

There was, though, Hermann Prey, who brought his virtuoso skills to Beckmesser, the legalistic pedant who steals Walther’s prize-winning song. Mr. Prey painted the villainous character with broad strokes, making him both buffoonish and vulnerable. (Following Wagner’s lines, Mr. Prey’s whole body can thump with stentorian aggression.)

Moreover, Donald McIntyre was a touchingly human Sachs. His complaint about the world’s madness began with a subtle weariness. The lines seemed to be pulled out of him; then, after a moment of reflection, they took on a wry glow. Gradually brightening his voice, Mr. McIntyre made Sachs’s resolution grow out of despair, revealing vocal and dramatic powers that had not been present during the first act, when problems with projection and line appeared.

As Walther, the young knight and singing novice, Francisco Araiza was drawn into the world Mr. McIntyre created. Earlier Mr. Araiza could seem callow, a skilled but relatively characterless tenor with decent instincts and a thin and sometimes strained top. But when he entered Sachs’s workshop, a dream was coaxed out of him and turned into the opera’s Mastersong, an extended lyrical declaration.

The Finnish soprano Karita Mattila was an extraordinary Eva, the object of Walther’s attentions. A little too coquettish at times, but possessing a light lyric voice, she was sure of pitch, exuberantly following Wagner’s propelling lines with a girlish innocence and energy. As David, Sachs’s apprentice, Jan-Hendrik Rootering’s voice sometimes seemed to fray, but that too was less important than the boyish character being created.

In fact, the only problem was ultimately Wagner himself. Sachs’s final aria is chilling with its militant call for honor to German Masters and for rejection of foreign influences; during the crowd’s cheers for Sachs, one is tempted to proclaim, “Today a cobbler, tomorrow a house painter.” But a profound wonder is inspired by this music. It seems to demonstrate its own subject. Just as Sachs teaches Walther, it constructs art out of dream. Then, by using rules of form as rigorous as those of the Mastersingers, all regulation seems to dissolve into expression. Art returns to the realm of dream, where it was met by this performance.

EDWARD ROTHSTEIN | January 16, 1993

Rating
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User Rating
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Remarks
Matinee broadcast
A production by Otto Schenk (1993)