Zürich Opera Mastersingers

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg [concert performance]

Hans Sachs – José van Dam
Pogner – Matti Salminen
Vogelgesang – Martin Zysset
Nachtigall – Cheyne Davidson
Beckmesser – Michael Volle
Kothner – Rolf Haunstein
Zorn – Volker Vogel
Eisslinger – Andreas Winkler
Moser – Boguslaw Bidzinski
Ortel – Giuseppe Scorsin
Schwarz – Guido Götzen
Foltz – Reinhard Mayr
Walther von Stolzing – Peter Seiffert
David – Christoph Strehl
Eva – Petra-Maria Schnitzer
Magdalene – Brigitte Pinter
Nightwatchman – Günther Groissböck

Apprentices – Olivera Dukic, Mariana Rewerski, Carine Séchehaye, Katja Starke, James Elliott, Mauricio O’Reilly, Eric Rieger, Matthew Bridle, Stefan Fiehn, Thomas Gleichauf, Richard Rost, Hans Tübinger

Orchestra and Choruses of Zürich Opera
Franz Welser-Möst

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 21 June, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is unique in Wagner’s oeuvre in a number of ways. The only one of his mature stage-works to be nominally comic in nature and, no less importantly, the opera’s title emphasises both a specific location and, with its plural, the notion of a community. There are no mythical legends or objects at its core, instead a populace is brought to life with much affection by the composer.

One of the strengths of Zürich Opera is its sense of ensemble. A number of the cast took part in last year’s concert performance of Tannhäuser and lent similar distinction to that gathered for Die Meistersinger.

José van Dam is now a seasoned Hans Sachs, his interpretation caught on disc in Chicago in 1995 on Sir Georg Solti’s second recording. One admires van Dam’s diction and, perhaps above everything else, his sheer stamina – Sachs is a very long part – but in spite of his agreeable demeanour, he does not fully suggest the worldly-wise and warm cobbler so beloved by the Nuremberg community. His timbre is insufficiently dark – indeed one or two low notes were well-nigh submerged – and, ultimately, rather too monochrome to project the variegated facets of the character. But there was some splendid interplay and banter between him and Michael Volle’s excellent Beckmesser, and van Dam certainly conveys a degree of aristocratic authority. His final apostrophe to German art was, ultimately, touching.

As the fussy Town Clerk and ‘marker’ for the Masters (for ‘marker’ read ‘critic’, as Wagner was making some none-too-subtle swipes at his antagonists), Michael Volle presented a credible person, as opposed to the wheedling caricature which often disfigures interpretations of this role. His singing was strong, full-toned, even heroic, and he made for a convincing would-be husband for Eva. It was good to hear the part properly sung, rather than partially cackled, in a supposed attempt at ‘characterisation’, and Volle’s performance was one of the unquestionable successes of the evening.

The same can be said of Matti Salminen’s magisterial portrayal of Pogner, the goldsmith who is offering the hand of his daughter in marriage to the winner of the song-contest. His every utterance bespoke experience and empathy with the role, and his orotund tone captured to perfection Pogner’s pride in both his daughter and at being one of Nuremberg’s leading citizens. A Beckmesser would have to report that the very highest stretch of the part – which reaches up to a top F – is not totally comfortable for him, but this was insignificant compared to the dignity and authority of his singing as a whole.

Petra-Maria Schnitzer presented a forthright, determined Eva who was perhaps a degree or two overly forceful in her declamations. Her outburst of “O Sachs! Mein Freund!” seemed to convey anguish rather than an outpouring of heartfelt affection. If earlier she missed some of the flirtatious quality in her interchanges with Sachs, she gave a deal of compensation by starting the Quintet with ravishing tone.

I enjoyed Peter Seiffert’s Stolzing rather more than his portrayal of Tannhäuser last year. His burnished tenor conveyed the young knight’s impetuosity, and his delivery of the various stages of the ‘Prize-Song’ was quite admirable, its final ‘version’ in the last act being rapturously sung. In the first act, when presenting himself to the Masters for the first time, it was unfortunate that he was so hustled along that he was almost struggling to keep up with the swift tempo. He was not helped by occasionally being covered by orchestral tone – Franz Welser-Möst could (and should) have restrained the accompaniment more at times. Seiffert did not neglect the other aspects of the character. His rather shy initial exchanges with Eva were endearing and his occasional bouts of impatience were well projected

The role of Magdalene lies rather low for the bright mezzo of Brigitte Pinter, though she undoubtedly conveyed a strong personality. I was impressed with Christoph Strehl in Tannhäuser and was pleased to encounter his finely sung portrayal of David, again eschewing caricature and heckle in favour of well-projected tone and excellent diction with his well-focussed tenor.

The group of Apprentices – some of them from the International Opera Studio – were similarly distinguished in both spirit and projection. Rolf Haunstein was last year’s Biterolf but demonstrated his versatility through a rounded depiction of the amiable Kothner and was amusing in the exposition of the Master’s rules, which Wagner cleverly sets to a Handelian parody.

It would be invidious to mention all the Masters in turn; there were no weak links.

Turning now to the conducting. It goes without saying that Franz Welser-Möst has had a distinctly mixed press, particularly in London where his tenure as Music Director of the London Philharmonic is perhaps something both he and the orchestra might prefer to forget. His Music Directorship of The Cleveland Orchestra has recently been extended to 2011 and he is currently Principal Conductor of Zürich Opera. He is quoted as having said to Norman Lebrecht: “My career can only go up and up”. Be that as it may, this performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was less than satisfying on a number of levels. The augers were not good. At the opening of the Prelude, the players were apparently confused as to whether he was beating 4 or 2. In any event, the brass was at sea for a few bars, as was the ensemble as a whole. Quite apart from the fast speed, there was no attempt to make Wagner’s carefully crafted contrapuntal lines register; instead, much of the texture was blurred and undifferentiated.

Welser-Möst set rapid tempos throughout the opera, often disregarding indications to ‘broaden’ or ‘hold back’ and the whole effect was consistently – and inappropriately – restless. This nullified many of the more contemplative passages such as Sach’s ‘Wahn’ monologue, the moving Prelude to the third act, and the Quintet, where quite apart from the pace being simply too fast, the music was delivered at far too high a dynamic level for the repeated ‘piano’ markings.

In fact, this was the ideal performance for those who might consider Wagner’s operas to be too long or too slowly paced. But, quixotically, Welser-Möst conducted the ‘riot’ scene towards the end of the second act quite brilliantly. This is terribly difficult to bring off, but this performance was breathtaking, with the various strands of orchestral and vocal textures extraordinarily clear. What a pity it did not lead naturally out of the drama which preceded it, or that the subsequent music which suggests a sudden calm and return to ‘normal’ was not more affectionately evoked. The young bass Günther Groissböck, however, was an impressive Nightwatchman in this scene.

In the aforementioned tumult, the chorus was outstanding – credit due to Jürg Hämmerli – as it was in the final scene, event though one wanted more sheer amplitude in the ‘Wach auf’ chorale – whose text is by the historical Sachs.

The Zürich Opera Orchestra was on variable form. There were some uncertain and hesitant entries, which, given similar qualities emanating from the podium was understandable, and solo woodwind lines were unable to fully register. Solo viola and cello were very good, though the cello section as a whole was thin-toned in the expressive lines that open the third act Prelude. And the horn section was having an uncomfortable evening, with numerous imprecisions.

What shone above any shortcomings, however, was the indomitable spirit of Richard Wagner, and the heart-warming quality that places Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in a different region from the hothouse of Tristan und Isolde which immediately precedes it and the cosmic calamity of Der Ring des Nibelungen whose completion followed. Die Meistersinger is a celebration of art and life, and the Zürich company made this plain in the joyously uninhibited conclusion of this magnificent opera where, as Wolfgang Wagner pertinently reminds us: “come what may, art transcends the nation and national sentiment.”

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