Arts & Events

Wagner’s DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG at San Francisco Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday November 23, 2015 - 10:03:00 AM

If, as the saying goes, brevity is the soul of wit, then how astonishing is it that Richard Wagner’s comic-opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg somehow manages to be witty in spite of a running-time of over five hours. Of brevity, of succinctness, Wagner knew nothing. As in all his operas, here Wagner rambles on as if he had all the time in the world – and his audience’s world --at his beck and call. He belabors every dramatic issue and even manages to belabor some of the admittedly beautiful musical issues he explores in Die Meistersinger. Yet, somehow, Wagner brings it off admirably in this opera. To this day, Die Meistersinger remains Wagner’s most accessible and most popularly acclaimed opera. 

However much the listener might wish that Wagner would simply “get on with it,” one almost has to admire the way, in Die Meistersinger, Wagner sets up a conflict between conservative respect for hidebound tradition, on one hand, and creative innovation, on the other. Likewise, one can’t help noticing that, in this conflict, the aristocratic but displaced newcomer to Nürnberg, Walther von Stolzing, offers the creatively innovative element while the stolid bourgeois guild members of the Mastersingers represent the backward-looking provincial community stuck in old, out-of-date models. And all this at a moment in history -- mid-16th century Germany -- at a time when Martin Luther’s theses were challenging the old aristocratic Catholic order and the bourgeoisie was on the rise all over Europe.  

What differentiates Die Meistersinger from all of Wagner’s other operas, however, is the fact that here his characters are no mythologized, larger-than-life abstractions, as are the Dutchman and Senta in Der Fliegende Holländer; both of the principals in Tristan und Isolde; Venus, Tannhaüser and Elizabeth in Tannhaüser; Lohengrin and Elsa in Lohengrin; and, needless to say, all the characters in the Ring cycle and in Parsifal. Here, however, in Die Meistersinger, and only here, Wagner’s characters are not superhuman gods, heroes or cold, albeit often overheated, abstractions. They are full-blooded human beings drawn from life, with all the complex web of good, bad, and ambiguous characteristics common to us all as human beings.  

In Die Meistersinger, the pivotal character is Hans Sachs. A truly historical figure, Hans Sachs of Nürnberg was a 16th century poet, composer of songs, and playwright, who was well-loved in his native city. To this day, a statue of Hans Sachs stands in a main square of Nürnberg. In Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, Hans Sachs occupies a central position between the hidebound conservatism of the Master-singers’ guild and the romantically inspired innovations of Walther von Stolzing.  

In this San Francisco Opera production, Hans Sachs is sung by English baritone James Rutherford, who makes his debut here. Compared with other singers I’ve heard in this role, such as James Morris and Bernd Weikl in San Fran-cisco, and the great Theo Adam in Munich back in 1969, James Rutherford was an adequate but by no means outstanding Hans Sachs. While I can’t fault his singing, Rutherford’s baritone lacked both the power and the depth needed to make this role stand out as it should. On the other hand, tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Walther von Stolzing turned in a superb performance, his voice ever supple though perhaps not as robust as usual because, as we learned from an announcement between Acts II and III, he was singing with a cold. Rachel Willis-Sørensen sang the role of Eva Pogner, and while she was certainly not on a par with Cheryl Studer in this role, she sang with a clear, bright soprano and good German diction. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and tenor Alek Shrader were a perfectly matched couple as Magdalene and David, each singing beautifully and endowing their roles with great dramatic presence. As Eva’s father, Veit Pogner, Estonian bass Ain Anger was another standout performer. His supple bass and dignified demeanor made his character a believable burgher offering his daughter in marriage to the victor in a song-contest presided over by the Master-singers of Nürnberg. Baritone Martin Gantner was an appropriately ridiculous Beckmesser, the pedantic town clerk who lusts after Eva and therefore corrupts his role as judge (or Marker) of Walther’s attempts to win acceptance to the Mastersingers’ guild. The character of Beckmesser, by the way, was originally named Hans Lick in Wagner’s first draft of Die Meistersinger. In thus naming this character and endowing him with a critically conservative attitude in musical matters, Wagner was satirizing the noted Viennese music critic Edward Hanslick, who had resoundingly criticized Wagner’s earlier operas. Die Meister-singer has too many characters to credit all of them in a review, but one more singer, bass Andrea Silvestrelli, deserves mention for his fine performance as the Night Watchman.  

Making his company debut in Die Meistersinger was English conductor Sir Mark Elder, who presided over about as taut a performance as this often flaccid opera can hope for. Particularly beautiful was the Act III vocal quintet when Hans Sachs, Magdalene and David, and Walther von Stolzing join with Eva in praising Walther’s newly created song, which will ultimately win him the approval of the Mastersingers, admission to their guild, and Eva’s hand in marriage. The Opera Chorus under the leadership of Ian Robertson sang beautifully. This was a new production of Die Meistersinger, actually a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago and Glyndebourne Festival Opera, conceived by David McVicar, who decided to set the opera in Wagner’s youth (early 19th century) rather than the time of Hans Sachs (mid-16th century). I can’t say I approve of this choice, but the sets provided by Designer Vicki Mortimer were pleasant to look at. Co-directors Marie Lambert and Ian Rutherford did their best to keep things moving even in the longwinded passages where little happens. Oh, if only Wagner had an editor! 

Die Meistersinger continues through December 6.