Review: Wagnerian comedy is no joke in the Met’s “Meistersinger”

There were bands of empty seats at the Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday night, when Wagner’s sprawling comedy “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” returned to the house after seven years.

Was it the limits imposed on foreign tourists, soon to be lifted? Persistent fears about the Delta variant, despite a vaccinated and masked audience? More permanent changes in audience habits, driven by the pandemic? Distrust of a very Wagnerian performance, lasting six hours?

It’s probably all of the above, and more; arts institutions across the country complain about the sale of soft tickets when they reopen. But whatever the reasons at the Met, it’s a shame: this “Meistersinger” is excellent, an ode to a community that happily bickers and makes music together that has touched me deeply in this time of reckoning with all that. which we have missed for a year and a half.

A love story interwoven with a song contest, in a storybook vision of medieval Germany, she brings back to the company after 24 years the eminent conductor Antonio Pappano. He covers one of the scores most closely associated with the Met with James Levine; the last time anyone other than Levine conducted any part of this opera was in 1985.

With Levine in “Meistersinger” there was greatness, richness, not heaviness but glaring weight. Pappano, the longtime musical director of the Royal Opera House in London, delivers a lighter and smoother reading, not rushed but fluid, airy even when agitated. From the prelude to the first act – more lyrical than majestic – it was tender and mellow Wagner, most remarkable in the quieter moments: the warm loops of orchestral reactions to the rules of the song in the first act, the scintillating music of the fall. of the night in the second, the hushed prelude of the third.

As shoemaker Hans Sachs, the leader of the Nuremberg Traders’ Guild who works in the moonlight as “master” singing poets, baritone Michael Volle is fiercely articulate. He is not the gentle Santa Claus often associated with this role, but rather a changeable, ambivalent, even surly, very human Sachs.

Klaus Florian Vogt – the tenor playing Walther, the knight who burst onto the Nuremberg scene with an innovative approach to songwriting and love at first sight for young Eva Pogner – remains one of the most important major artists. oddities of the opera. Her appeal has been her eerily pure voice, which, emerging from classic beautiful blonde looks, gives her an otherworldly quality in otherworldly roles like Wagner’s Lohengrin.

But this voice has become in recent years more nasal and glassy. While some high notes, especially towards the end of the opera, come out like the sun, and although he is an effortless noble presence, Vogt’s sound is increasingly an acquired taste.

There is no ambiguity for the cheerful and assertive Eva of this revival: the soprano Lise Davidsen, whose voice is luminous when it is soft and surprisingly large at full cry. Her rising embrace of Sachs and the sublime quintet debut that follows in the third act has only sparked excitement for the remarkable Met season she is entering, with the title role of Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” and Chrysothemis in his upcoming “Elektra”.

Baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle was comically awkward but sang with direct fervor as Beckmesser, the official city clerk competing (at least in his mind) for Eva’s hand in marriage. Resonant bass Georg Zeppenfeld, one of Europe’s finest Wagnerian but an inexplicable absence from the Met over the past decade, was beautifully awesome as Veit Pogner, Eva’s father. Tenor Paul Appleby was keen as Sachs’ apprentice, David; mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke made her Met debut as Magdalene, Eva’s maid; and bass-baritone Alexander Tsymbalyuk sang with calm consolation as the night watchman.

It is to Volle’s credit that he doesn’t skimp on the darkness that suddenly engulfs the room in his dying minutes, when Sachs, trying to persuade the victorious Walther to join the Masters, warns of alien encroachment. on the country and its “German saint”. of art. ”It’s a call echoed with rallying fervor by the crowd, and it’s hard not to hear premonitions of what was to happen in Nuremberg four decades after Wagner’s death.

The quaint and utterly literal staging of the Met by Otto Schenk and Günther Schneider-Siemssen, now nearly 30, offers no comment on this notoriously explicit drift towards chauvinism – nor on the sentiment that many have. had Beckmesser represent Wagner’s anti-Semitic obsessions, nor on much of anything else beyond the letter of the libretto.

But Volle, at least, forces us to reckon with a scene as baffling as any opera scene – a vivid portrayal of how easily community celebration can tip into nationalism, a reminder that even the good guys can have. terrible inclinations. Sachs’ monologue is no reason not to perform “Die Meistersinger”. It seemed like Tuesday, more than ever, a reason to see it.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Until November 14 at the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan;

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