‘Die Meistersinger’: Evening-Length Glory At The Met

A scene from Act Three of the Metropolitan Opera production of 'Die Meistersinger.'  (Production photos by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
A scene from Act Three of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.’
(Production photos by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
By Judith Malafronte

NEW YORK — By the third measure of the overture, you know if the next six hours of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg are going to be a joy or a chore. While the combination of James Levine and Wagner’s only comedy used to be a sure thing, Levine’s recent outings in other repertoire have been hit-or-miss. Happily, on Dec. 2 at the Metropolitan Opera, the conductor’s clear and buoyant reading, full of contrapuntal details and glowing lyricism, carried through a long evening of glorious music-making, firmly anchored by the splendid Met orchestra and chorus. Act Three began with a poignant and beautifully shaped prelude and concluded, in spite of the finale’s ponderous praise of Holy German Art (with its fear of decadent foreign influence), in sunlight and triumph.

Hans Sachs (James Morris) chats with Eva (Annette Dasch).
Hans Sachs (James Morris) chats with Eva (Annette Dasch).

Otto Schenk’s historically realistic 1993 production, which will be retired after the current season, focuses on the cozy community of artisans in 16th-century Nuremberg and their willingness to accept a stranger, even of noble birth, provided he can win the local song contest. No trace here of Wagner’s possibly anti-Semitic portrayal of the critical, uptight Beckmesser. No references to 20th-century Nuremberg rallies or Nazi appropriations of the opera’s nationalistic theme. Schenk’s little corner of Nuremberg allows interpretation on a human scale, as the philosophical cobbler Hans Sachs relinquishes claim to the lovely young Eva when he realizes she is destined for Walther, the wildly talented artist who needs the careful tutoring only Sachs himself can provide.

Johan Botha’s stand-and-deliver approach can be disastrous (remember Otello?), but as Walther von Stolzing, the hefty heldentenor exuded amiability, flirting boyishly with Eva as she sits in church, listening impatiently to the apprentice David’s rambling instructions and transforming the raw, passionate poetry of his Act One song into the well-crafted Dream Song of Act Two and finally the transcendent, inspired prize-winning Master Song of Act Three. While his climactic top Gs and As rarely thrilled, Botha’s solid vocalism, lyrically delivered text, and unparalleled stamina fit the bill perfectly.

Annette Dasch captured Eva’s impetuous innocence and womanly transformation with full, sweet sound and blooming high notes that still suggested youthful vulnerability. Paul Appleby brought fine acting and energetic delivery to the role of David, but his singing was uneven, often underpowered, and included some alarmingly pushed high notes. As the watchful Magdalena, rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill also over-sang at times, but her characterization was alert. In his Met debut, Martin Gantner sounded pressed as the exasperated Mastersinger chairman Kothner, but the excellent Hans-Peter König dominated his scenes as Eva’s wealthy father, Pogner, with massive, dark-hued voice and personal warmth.

Walter (Johan Botha) sings his Prize Song in Act Three.
Walter (Johan Botha) sings his Prize Song in Act Three.

In a most successful house debut, Johannes Martin Kränzle brought handsome, burnished tone and a witty edge to the role of Sixtus Beckmesser, delivering the stiff, rule-bound character’s horrible songs with studied, art-song fussiness. Kränzle managed to turn this distasteful character into the town fussbudget and crank, pathetic in his posturing and deficient only in talent and kindness.

James Morris so perfectly inhabited the character of Hans Sachs that only in moments of vocal strain (and there were a few) did one realize how artfully and subtly the veteran American bass-baritone was working. There were moments when Morris wanted to move more quickly, and high notes were courageously managed, but the completeness of his characterization—touching, wise, strong, and quietly intense—brought focus to the entire performance. Biding his time in Act One, Sachs begins to dominate the show in the second act, and Morris knows just how to accomplish this; with Levine’s help, the “Fliedermonolog” was beautifully shaped, climaxing richly on the word “spring” (a word and concept that permeate the opera). Of the many subtle touches Morris brought to the role, the most heartbreaking was Sachs’s inability to look at the happy union of Eva and Walter amid all the final rejoicing.

Additional performances run through Dec. 23, with Michael Volle singing the role of Sachs on Dec. 9 and 13. The Met’s “Live in HD” broadcast of the production is at noon (EST) on Dec. 13.

Lecturer in Music at Yale University, Judith Malafronte writes for Opera News, EMAg, and other print and online outlets, while continuing a career as mezzo-soprano, continuo player, and vocal coach in the New York City area.