Opera News, August 2016
Jeffrey A. Leipsic
Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Bayerische Staatsoper, 22. Mai 2016
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
A STAGE DIRECTOR CAN reexamine a work’s time frame or message without violating the composer’s intentions or insulting the audience’s intelligence. Such was the case in Bavarian State Opera’s new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, seen at its second performance in Munich’s Nationaltheater (May 22). Director David Bösch showed, for the most part, a light touch, replacing the dreariness of most modern interpretations with a sense of the comedic, underscoring the absurdity of some very absurd situations, artfully delineating the enormous social and economic differences between the very rich Veit Pogner and the simple, down-to-earth quality of, for example, the baker Fritz Kothner.

This was not Nürnberg in the middle of the sixteenth century, with fairy-tale winding lanes and late-Renaissance interiors, but a more-or-less contemporary Nürnberg, and not a pretty one at that, as designed by Patrick Bannwart and lit by Michael Bauer. The first scene took place not in St. Catherine’s Cathedral but on a plaza in front of the church, with the opening chorus in the form of an imposing procession. Walther von Stolzing was dressed by costume designer Meentje Nielsen as a rock-rebel in black leather, carrying his guitar and duffle bag over his shoulder.

To Bösch’s enormous credit, there was veracity in the interpersonal interactions of the story’s characters that lent not only intimacy but credibility to the whole plot. He presented generations in conflict, the conservatives fighting to hold on to ring-binder after ring-binder (we saw literally scores of them onstage) of rules and regulations, the younger generation pushing for freedom from the insanity of too many rules, leading them at times toward chaos and violence. Hans Sachs, here a hippie-like ex-flower child with long, flowing hair, tried to make sense of a changing world. Sachs’s cobbler studio was a mobile van on the street; the neighborhood was a run-down settlement with apartments, in buildings of premade concrete slabs, dating from the postwar era. Transportation was on bicycles or motor scooters, with the exception of Pogner, who traveled in a fancy car with his name engraved on the driver’s door. Beckmesser sang his Act II serenade on a hydraulic lift, the functionality of which seemed hilariously beyond his comprehension.

The Act III festivities were a “happening” sponsored in their entirety by the firm of Veit Pogner. Bösch’s dozens of ingenious ideas never became fussy, making the evening into one of perpetual amazement and amusement. Directorially, he seemed to go wrong at only two crucial moments. The vicious violence inflicted on Beckmesser during the finale of Act II by masked, club-wielding ruffians (who turn out to be the apprentices) was overdone and did not really fit into the tenor of the production. In addition, the finale of the opera had a sour taste: Beckmesser returned with a pistol, aiming it at Hans Sachs but, in the end, turning it upon himself, and Walther and Eva departed without the former reacting at all to Sachs’s plea to respect the Masters. The musical jubilation in C-Major did not mesh at all with the confused activity onstage.

Nevertheless, Bösch created a fascinating, compelling stage world peopled by characters one could believe in. A cast of world-class singers and an incomparable conductor made this an evening of operatic heaven. Wolfgang Koch was a Sachs whose every nuance hit the mark, whose voice caressed the vocal line where sensitivity was needed or soared when the music so demanded. His “Fliedermonolog” could not have been more tender; his “Wahnmonolog” was a supreme articulation of despair, crowned by hope and love. Koch’s voice has plenty of thrust and size, but like the consummate character baritone he is, he built his role with intelligence, creating an unforgettable figure.

Jonas Kaufmann not only sang a matchless Walther von Stolzing but also looked like one. His voice is heroic, his top notes are awe-inspiring and his phrasing is impeccable. He is not afraid of singing softly, particularly when matching the size of his voice to that of his partners onstage. American soprano Sara Jakubiak, making her Bavarian State Opera debut, was a sublime Eva, her tone radiant, her personality incandescent. Bass Christof Fischesser, a youthful-looking Veit Pogner, sang impressively, with dark-hued suavity and unfailing security.

Baritone Markus Eiche almost stole the show as Beckmesser. As his voice is perfect for the role, there was no need for caricature in his singing. Beckmesser is portrayed as a loser, the arrogant overestimation of his own abilities leading to his downfall. Eiche’s characterization was a perfect symbiosis of singing and acting. Tenor Benjamin Bruns showed a voice of great range and tonal beauty in the demanding role of David, here an awkward bumbler who evoked enormous sympathy. Eike Wilm Schulte, himself at one time a world-famous Beckmesser, used his still voluminous voice to great advantage as Fritz Kothner. Alto Okka von der Damerau was an exquisite Magdalene, an opulent piece of casting if ever there was one. The Masters were all cast from extreme strength, as was the Night Watchman (Tareq Nazmi).

Kirill Petrenko conducted with a transparency that beggers description. His was generally a rapidly flowing interpretation, but he left plenty of space for romantic indulgence. He carried his singers on his every gesture, and his eye for detail made his performance into a journey of constant discovery. The introspective piano in which the entire—and I mean the entire—quintet in Act III was sung set this performance apart from nearly all others. The Orchestra responded with an enviable level of perfection. Sören Eckhoff’s chorus, including the Apprentices, was flawless. The final curtain brought long, well-deserved ovations from an enraptured public.

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