‘Die Meistersinger’ Takes Prize After Lethargic Start

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Act II from 'Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg' (Cory Weaver-San Francisco Opera)
David McVicar’s ‘Meistersinger’ production revved up slowly at the San Francisco Opera, but finally snapped into gear.
(Production photos by Cory Weaver)
By Richard S. Ginell

SAN FRANCISCO — Do they give pep talks at opera companies? Or did they spike the coffee during an intermission? I have no idea, but something happened at the War Memorial Opera House on Nov. 18 that suddenly turned a routine performance of Wagner’s magisterial comedy Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg into something beautiful and special.

It was as if Wagner’s extraordinary Act III music lesson on how to develop an undisciplined yet inspired idea into a hit aria was being translated into the general arc of this performance. Not everyone who attended stuck with it to find out; after all, it was a weeknight, and the hour was getting late for workaday San Francisco (the performance started at 6 p.m. and didn’t end until a quarter to midnight). But the payoff was well worth the wait.

Act 1, Die Meistersinger, David McVicar production, SFO (Cory Weaver)
Gothic arches framed the action in the church scene and throughout.

Depending upon the tempos, Die Meistersinger may be the longest opera in the general repertoire, although it often seems to go by more quickly than many a shorter opera. Only Parsifal and Götterdämmerung can challenge it in length, and the sprawling Act III alone could make for a full evening at the opera. As David McVicar, the director of the Glyndebourne production that was exported to San Francisco, said in the program notes about Act III, “We had to keep a lot of energy in reserve.”

So they did — and perhaps they overdid the restraint. Conductor Mark Elder’s slow, lumbering pacing and heavy legato phrasing in the Act I Prelude gave the impression that this was going to be a long, long night at the opera. Most of Act I sounded a little flat, with brief spurts of energy, and things picked up only somewhat in Act II. The singers seemed to be holding back; sometimes they could not be heard properly over the orchestra from a vantage point of Row P in the orchestra section unless they were at the edge of the stage (in the case of tenor Brandon Jovanovich, it was announced that he was suffering from a cold). Only bass Ain Anger’s solidly authoritative Pogner was consistently in full gear from act to act.

San Francisco City Hall decked out in the French tri-color. (Richard S. Ginel)
French tri-colors lit up San Francisco’s City Hall across the street. (Richard S. Ginell)

If there was a turning point, it might have been Hans Sachs’s famous monologue “Wahn! Wahn!” shortly after the beginning of Act III. Baritone James Rutherford, an experienced Sachs brought in to replace Greer Grimsley after the latter withdrew from the production in October, gave the monologue an impassioned fervor in which Wagner’s words about the squabbles of 16th-century Nuremberg resonated with current atrocities in the news. (As if to drive home the point, operagoers leaving the theater were immediately confronted with the French tri-colors lighting up City Hall across the street.)

From that point onward, everything — like Walther’s “Prize Song” — seemed to bloom. Elder’s conducting achieved a flow, richness, and passion that were lacking earlier. As Eva, Rachel Willis-Sorensen turned up with newfound radiance in voice as well as appearance. Despite Jovanovich’s condition, his Walther displayed hardly any signs of illness in his highly moving multiple renditions of the evolving “Prize Song.” The scene in which Beckmesser steals the manuscript of the “Prize Song” from Sachs crackled with fine comic acting, and the Quintet surged and ebbed poignantly. The burst into bright daylight in the meadow in Scene 2 also found the chorus bursting forth with a new resplendency, and the Mastersingers’ march achieved a grandeur that was completely missing in its first exposure during the Act I Prelude.

The festival on the banks of the Pegnitz River from 'Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg' (Cory Weaver)
McVicar updated the locale and dress to the early 19th century, Wagner’s own world.

Unlike most of his brethren on the European continent these days, McVicar didn’t send this Meistersinger through the fun-house rituals of Regietheater: neither a swastika nor a neon tube was in sight. Although McVicar updated the locale and dress to around the year of Wagner’s birth (1813), this was a more-or-less traditional production in which the director was interested in unorthodox character interpretations that grew from what Wagner wrote.

His idea of Beckmesser was not the common caricature of a carping, incompetent music critic (thank you, McVicar!), for he seemed to realize that Beckmesser after all is a fully-vested master himself, and in this rigid society, you didn’t get to that point by faking your way there. Thus, baritone Martin Gantner was permitted really to sing Beckmesser’s part. Even in the passage where the overmatched pedant tried to interpret Walther’s new song, Gantner actually did a very musical job while still getting laughs with the help of the hilarious supertitles.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Eva) and James Rutherford (Hans Sachs) in 'Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg' (Cory Weaver)
Sørensen (Eva) and Rutherford (Hans Sachs), credible in their mutual attraction.

Physically, Rutherford seemed rather young to be playing the middle-aged cobbler Sachs — he looked barely older than Eva — but in a way, it made the mutual attraction more credible. Act III revealed an angrier, lonelier Sachs than most, flinging a chair across the stage in the “Wahn! Wahn!” monologue as he seemed as distressed about his attraction to Eva as he was about the state of the world, and losing his composure altogether when Wagner slyly quotes the Tristan chord progression as Sachs faces giving up Eva.

The final, usually triumphant bars of the opera were shadowed by an unusual poignancy this time, for when Sachs was given the laurel crown by Eva, he hurled it away to the folks on an elevated platform and walked dejectedly into the crowd — a celebrated fighter for the cause of German art, yet unlucky in love. In any case, Rutherford sounded remarkably fresh at the end of the marathon. (Reeling back the years, I remember how exhausted even a great Sachs like Karl Ridderbusch seemed at the end of another San Francisco Opera Meistersinger, in 1981.)

The Nurembergers riot in Act 2 of 'Die Meistersinger.' (Cory Weaver)
The Nurembergers work themselves into a full-stage frenzy in the Act 2 riot scene.

As the secondary pair of lovers, tenor Alek Shrader was an eager young David, pointing out the words effectively in his long Act I discourse about the song contest rules, and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was a generally strong Magdalene. Co-directors Marie Lambert and Ian Rutherford packed the War Memorial stage to bursting with Nurembergers in the Act II riot scene — and everyone in town, not just the apprentices, kicked up their heels in deliberately clumsy dancing out on the meadow in Act III, Scene 2. All of the locales were framed within the same set of Gothic arches, most effectively deployed in Act I (which opens in a church) and somewhat incongruously elsewhere.

It takes a lot of resources to bring Die Meistersinger off, and San Francisco Opera has them. Hopefully, they will be able to bring the energy of the earlier acts closer to the soaring level of Act III in future performances, which run through Dec. 6.

For details of remaining performances, click here.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.