Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Opera in three acts [Libretto by the composer, sung in German with English Met Titles by Christopher Bergen]
Hans Sachs James Morris
Veit Pogner Evgeny Nikitin
Kunz Vogelsang Eduardo Valdes
Konrad Nachtigall David Won
Sixtus Beckmesser Hans-Joachim Ketelsen
Fritz Kothner John Del Carlo
Balthasar Zorn Ronald Naldi
Ulrich Eißlinger Roy Cornelius Smith
Augustin Moser Bernard Fitch
Herrmann Ortel Patrick Carfizzi
Hans Schwarz LeRoy Lehr
Hans Foltz Michael Devlin
Walther von Stolzing Johan Botha
David Matthew Polenzani
Eva Hei-Kyung Hong
Magdalene Maria Zifchak
Night Watchman John Relyea
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
Otto Schenk Production
Günther Schneider-Siemssen Set design
Rolf Langenfass Costume design
Gil Wechsler Lighting design
Carmen de Lavallade Choreographer
Peter McClintock Stage director
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 13 March, 2007
Venue: The Metropolitan Opera, New York City
The Metropolitan Opera has revived Otto Schenk’s realistic and charming 1993 production of Richard Wagner’s comic masterpiece “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” for its fifth run. This opera is at once grand and intimate: grand in the scale and richness of its score, in the poetry and philosophical content of its libretto, and in its portrayal of the life of a thriving medieval community; intimate in its depiction of the principal characters as real people with very human emotions, virtues, faults and foibles. Schenk’s production captures both aspects perfectly. It pays meticulous attention to detail in Rolf Langenfass’s costumes and in Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s realistic sets, depicting both the large-scale settings of St Katharine’s Church, the street adjoining Sachs’s workshop, and the meadow outside the walls of Nuremberg, and the much smaller-scale interior of Sachs’s shop. Peter McClintock’s stage direction (in collaboration with choreographer Carmen de Lavallade) is also outstanding, not only in the spectacular Act Two riot and Act Three St John’s Day festival, but also in Sachs’s monologues and in Beckmesser’s solo turn in Sachs’s shop in Act Three.
This performance, the last of four this season, was conducted by John Keenan, whose association with The MET dates back to 1988 and includes stints as assistant conductor and chorus master, as well as appearances in the pit for several Mozart operas in the early 1990s. Although not known as a Wagnerian (he did serve as an assistant conductor at the Bayreuth Festival in 1991, 1992 and 1993, however), Keenan acquitted himself very well indeed, keeping the pulse of the music flowing without dragging and allowing the rich details of the score to shine through. He was quite adept in collaborating with the singers in shaping orchestral phrasing and rubato to complement the vocal line, this being particularly visible in Sachs’s Act Two monologue.
The casting of the opera was outstanding across the board, with all of the principals in superb vocal form. James Morris, who came to the role of Hans Sachs quite late in his career, has made it his own, exuding the quiet dignity, wisdom and humanity of the philosopher-poet-cobbler, whilst singing with a rich bass sonority that was as strong in the final scene as in the first nearly six hours earlier. South African tenor Johan Botha was a vocally ideal Walther, beautifully depicting the evolution of his ‘Prize Song’ through the course of the opera, and finally delivering it in definitive form in glorious clarion tones before the assembled populace of Nuremberg. This wins him the hand of his beloved Eva, sung beautifully by Hei-Kyung Hong. This revival marked her first appearances in this role, and she did quite well, shining especially in her solo preceding the marvellously sung Act Three quintet.
The role of David, Sachs’s Lehrbube (apprentice), is a most important one. He is on stage much of the time and is a sort of ‘everyman’ character with whom the audience can readily identify. To a considerable degree, David serves as the audience’s guide, and we see much of what transpires through his eyes. He is entrusted with a great deal of the opera’s expository material (most notably his explanation to Walther – and to us – of the workings of the Mastersingers’ Guild and their art), his physical comedy plays a major part in the hostilities of Act Two and the festivities of Act Three, and we sympathise with him as his amorous relationship with Magdalene, Eva’s nurse, goes through its ups and downs, marked principally by her providing (or withholding) baskets of food. Tenor Matthew Polenzani was simply marvellous as David, both vocally and in his winning character portrayal, which contributed greatly to the energy and geniality of the entire performance. As Magdalene, Maria Zifchak was also noteworthy, with her clear mezzo voice holding its own in the Act Three quintet and other ensembles, as well as in her solo parts. This couple was most successful in charming the audience and winning over its affections.
Evgeny Nikitin gave a solid performance as Pogner, Eva’s well-meaning but somewhat misguided father, delivering his Act One monologue with stately dignity and in a beautiful and full bass voice. John Del Carlo was excellent as Kothner, the role he played when he debuted along with this production in 1993. His resonant bass was particularly effective in the florid passages of his reading of the ‘Tabulatur’ – the Guild’s rules – to Walter in Act One. Also effective in their portrayals of Mastersingers were Eduardo Valdes (Vogelsang), David Won (Nachtigall), Ronald Naldi (Zorn), Roy Cornelius Smith (Eißlinger), Bernard Fitch (Moser), Patrick Carfizzi (Ortel), LeRoy Lehr (Schwarz), and Michael Devlin (Foltz). Bass John Relyea was excellent in the brief but amusing role of the Night Watchman, intoning his messages with oblivious solemnity.
This leaves the character of Sixtus Beckmesser, the Town Clerk and would-be suitor of Eva, who comes to grief in the opera’s final scene. Of all the characters in “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”’, Beckmesser is the least defined by the text and music, and hence the most enigmatic. More than with any other character, it falls to the portrayer to flesh out his actions and emotions and thereby bring the character to life. Even within a single production, successive portrayers of Beckmesser can give the character a very different identity. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen’s portrayal of the Clerk is a case in point. Without ever departing from the comedic spirit of the opera, Ketelsen made his Beckmesser seem more malicious, angry and vindictive than the conniving, petulant and pathetic character that such predecessors in this MET production as Hermann Prey and Sir Thomas Allen portrayed. Ketelsen’s characterisation was vivid, his baritone voice rich and clear, and his physical comedy outstanding, evoking laughter for virtually his every move – his refusal to shake Walther’s hand, his antics in the Marker’s booth, his frustrated serenade and the ensuing assault upon him by David, his hilarious pantomime in Sachs’s workshop, and, finally, his humiliating failure to win the song contest. Ketelsen even emerged for his curtain call in character, slinking around the gold curtain before breaking into a smile and taking his well-earned bows.
The only quibble one might have with the casting of this production is a familiar one in the world of opera: the mismatch between the age of the singers and the characters they are called on to portray. Polenzani is really too old to be David, and Magdalena should be noticeably older than David, but Zifchak does not appear to be. Nikitin as Pogner is not enough older than Hong as his daughter Eva, and Ketelsen’s Beckmesser is too much older than she, as is Morris as Sachs. The solution to this problem is, of course, not re-casting the opera, but rather suspension of disbelief.
“Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” gives us many ideas to digest and ponder concerning the nature of art and the process of its creation. Wagner clearly identifies with the free-flowing creativity of Walther, and against the narrow-minded adherence to rules that Beckmesser embodies. In the end, it is Sachs’s more balanced view that emerges as the moral of the story. Tradition is important, yet must bend to accept new ideas, Sachs tells us. It was wrong of the Masters to close their ears and minds to Walther’s impassioned singing, appropriate for Walther to merge his artistry with the established forms and in so doing to advance them, but also wrong for Walther to reject the Masters’ traditions when it was their recognition of his poetic talent that gave him his life’s desire – Eva.
This performance of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” was as rewarding as it was lengthy. At the end of the final scene, laden with spectacle, humour, lyrical beauty and high philosophy, we left feeling entertained, enriched and ennobled.
- Preceding performances were given on March 1, 5, and 10
- Metropolitan Opera