Richard Wagner - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Metropolitan Opera, 2014
James Levine, Otto Schenk, Annette Dasch, Karen Cargill, Johan Botha, Paul Appleby, Michael Volle, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Martin Gantner, Hans-Peter König, Matthew Rose
Met Live in HD - 13 December 2014
There's been quite a contrast between how New York's Metropolitan Opera present a mixture of modern and classic traditional Wagner productions. On the one hand you have the abstract otherworldly modernisations of Parsifal and the high-tech concepts of their Ring cycle, and on the other you have literal realism of the Otto Schenk's twenty year old production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. It demonstrates how opera tastes and approaches to production design and direction have changed over the years, but what hasn't changed (in my view anyway), and specifically in relation to Wagner's operas, is that they each in their own way seek to represent the essence of Wagner's music on the stage, as well as the literal narrative depiction of the drama.
Although the approach is quite different then, and the subjects evidently are as far apart as you can get on the Wagner scale, the Otto Schenk's production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and the Robert Lepage's Ring cycle for the Met both adopt the necessary approaches that they find best convey the qualities of the work. And, inevitably, both in their own way are doomed to fail to cover the totality of what is in each of those respective works, but that's the challenge you face when taking on works of such enormous richness and complexity. It's precisely because there is so much to be gained from those works that Wagner's music-dramas continue to inspire new ideas and radically different approaches and interpretations.
Despite the differences in the content and length, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is indeed a work that is just as rich and expansive in its outlook as the combined works of the Ring cycle. One specific common aspect of the Met's Ring and their Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg that serves as the backbone for each of the productions, is the necessary impression of solidity and firmness of purpose. That of course ought to be there, as it reflects the muscular complexity of the music score, which in turn serves to reflect the enduring universality of the subject - whether that be the nature of the gods in one or the nature of being human in the other. The Met's Machine gives a firm and consistent foundation to explore the Ring, while the detailed wood and stone structures for the set for Schenk's production give a little more of a human presence, one that is perhaps no less enduring, but also subject to change. The period setting for Meistersinger and the universality of the situations within it reminds us of that fact.
Aside from the strictly literal depiction of Nuremburg in the 16th century and the impressive visual impact of seeing whole streets, houses and workshops recreated in meticulously realistic detail and scale, the sets for Schenk's production fulfil another vital aspect of the work - the question of community. Whether you want to see the humanity within the work as Christian in nature - the opera even opening with a mass scene - other elements suggest that it's the community aspect that is what really matters. That's retained in the context of the period here, in the Christian worship and in the religious subjects that are the basis for the Meistersinger's songs. This of course is challenged by the youthful irreverence of Von Stolzing, but he is cautioned and coached by Hans Sachs not just in the rules of being a Meistersinger, but also how to respect the traditions and the values that underpin them. The community and the rules that govern it might seem restrictive, but - as the inclusion of the watchman suggests - it provides order and protection from, well... let's just for the purposes of this review politely call them "outside threats" to our way of life.
The Met's sets hold all this together, as well as being simply perfect for the functional demands of how the stage is used and filled by the huge choruses. Everything that occurs in Die Meistersinger is designed towards bringing about a showpiece conclusion that has real impact and meaning, and everything should lead towards this. The community and the values they hold are all there in the church setting of Act I, in the craft of the Meistersinger's trades, in the whole street scenes of Act II, in the setting of St John's Eve and the twilight evening, and in the honest labour of Hans Sachs' workshop where von Stolzing learns the value of the song. Act III's conclusion then is everything it ought to be, gathering together the youth and experience, the wisdom and folly, the generosity and the mean-spiritedness of the preceding acts into one glorious celebration of life.
If it's difficult to put all that humanity into the production design (even as it remains one of those challenges that will always attract ambitious directors like Stefan Herheim), the direction of the orchestra and the singing performances are there to bring in that very necessary dimension, and the Met's production consequently does that tremendously well. Principally, it's Levine's conducting of the work that brings all the human colour and nuance out of the score and it's representation of so many facets of the human condition that are there in Die Meistersinger. It is a glorious work, expressing a warmth, a humour and a human sensitivity that does not exist in quite the same way in any other Wagner opera. And although it exalts the qualities and capabilities that love brings to human existence, Wagner also recognises - intentionally I believe - the flaws, the meanness, pettiness and the vainglorious side of human nature that is there in Hans Sachs and Walther von Stolzing as much as in Sixtus Beckmesser. Maybe I'm being overly generous in that view.
Levine's conducting brings all those elements out, but not in isolation. He's clearly working with what is depicted on the stage and is sensitive also to the nature and characteristics of the individual singers. You would expect nothing less from James Levine, but in the context of this particular work, it's more important than ever, and the rewards it yields are even greater. The measure and the pacing through Acts I and II are delightful, revealing the beautiful flow of this work through to its epic conclusion, but with wonderful attention to detail in individual instruments - the individual or the artist's contribution in the harmony of the whole being part of what this work is about. Levine's conducting makes this aspect beautifully meaningful and relevant.
The singing is not quite as nuanced as Levine's contribution - I suspect a lack of direction in this revival - but all of the performances supported the work as a whole. There was perhaps not as much warmth and humanity in Michael Volle's Hans Sachs as you might like, and you didn't really get the sense of what he and Eva meant to each other, but he was drafted in at short notice and his singing was nonetheless marvellous. There's brightness and life in the timbre of his voice, his line was assured, and he has all the ability and charisma required to carry such a role. Johan Botha was perhaps not as strong in the role of Walther von Stolzing as he might have been in the past or in other Wagner roles, but if there is any decline in performance it's minor. Annette Dasch might have had one or two moments of unsteadiness but was a good Eva, although again failing to exude any warmth or character. This production's Beckmesser was more of an amiable blustering buffoon, posing no real threat to the "natural order", but whatever way it's played, Johannes Martin Kränzle experience of this role injects it with the good-natured humour and humanity that is lacking elsewhere.
Led by Levine, it was the underlying humanity that shone out of this production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and that's what marks it as one of the greatest operas ever written. It's remarkable that it takes six hours to perform this work, but there's nothing you would have taken out or reduced, nothing that seems too much or unnecessary. The impression you should be left with rather is that everything feels absolutely right. The genius of Wagner's Die Meistersinger is that it leaves you with a sense of wonder and satisfaction that there may indeed be purpose, order and meaning to life that is within our grasp. In Die Meistersinger, art is the force that elevates humanity, demonstrates man's capacity to express and endure their condition and achieve their potential. It's a philosophy that lies at the heart of all Wagner's work, and it's recognised and brought out marvellously in this New York Met production.