Met’s ‘Meistersinger’: An Uneven Return To Time-Worn Tradition

Lise Davidsen (Eva), Michael Volle (Hans Sachs), and Klaus Florian Vogt (Walther) in the Metropolitan Opera production of Wagner’s ‘Die Meistersinger.’ (Photos by Richard Termine / Met Opera)

NEW YORK – Many in the large, but by no means house-filling, audience at the Metropolitan Opera‘s initial Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg of the season on Oct. 26 seemed thrilled by the experience. There is a subset of opera fans whose thirst only Wagner will slake. After the long pandemic drought, here were the five-hours-plus of his only mature comedy — moreover, the company’s sole Wagnerian outing this season.

The utterly traditional Otto Schenk production, utilizing the Austrian director’s usual hyper-realistic designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen, dates from 1993 but could have been produced 25 years or more before that. Gil Wechsler‘s Old Flemish Master-inspired lighting remains the staging’s most distinguished element. Schenk worked steadily at the Met from 1968 through 2006. The best of his stagings included Tannhäuser (1977), Les contes d’Hoffmann (1982), Arabella (1983), and Rusalka (1993), all conventionally conceived but coherent and quite ravishing to see. There were misfires along the way (notably 1989’s nondescript Rigoletto), but under James Levine the Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen “storybook” approach to Wagner became the template for the house’s widely popular but proudly interpretation-free Ring (unveiled in segments 1986-88) and rather neutral Parsifal (1991) before culminating, if that is the word, in this Meistersinger.

Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther in Act 1 of ‘Die Meistersinger.’

The production has hosted its share of fine individual performances over the years, and this outing showcased an impressive cast which, by the end of the run (Nov. 14), will surely coalesce more than in the fine but sometimes spotty opening-night reading. But it has become a lax, routine staging. One suspects the revival’s director, Paula Suozzi, suffered from the same lack of rehearsal time that perceptibly hampered Antonio Pappano‘s generally praiseworthy conducting; but some of the underlying dramatic problems stem from Schenk. In particular, the blocking of the apprentices — their stances and arch, jocular attitudinizing — was of the “acting funny” variety one associates with stale Broadway musical tours. Plus, Act Two had Eva Pogner, the richest, most coveted young woman in town, sitting down in the middle of the street not once but thrice. And Lise Davidsen, in the role of Eva, had several onsets of “ingenue twirls,” which Diana Damrau seems to have made endemic to Met stagings in the last two decades. Act Two’s poorly executed street riot had at best six or seven active participants, with most of the chorus simply standing still and waving their hands. Except for a lot of pillow feathers, none of it was witnessed by the rich-voiced Nightwatchman (Alexander Tsymbalyuk, showing a terrific voice and presence meriting starrier assignments at the Met) and so missing entirely the ironic point of his second, dazed pronouncement.

On the positive side, it was salutary to see and hear (in the final scene in the fields outside Nuremberg) so many Black and Asian choristers, symbolically offsetting the unpalatable Teutonic nationalism of that scene’s text. In that regard, one also welcomed among the Meistersingers the debut of rising Missouri tenor Chaz’men Williams-Ali as Zorn — only the second Black principal this opera has ever had at the Met, after Arthur Thompson’s run as Ortel in 1976. By way of comparison, San Francisco Opera cast Lawrence Winters as Kothner in 1959, Covent Garden featured George Shirley’s David in 1969, and Betty Jones sang Eva for New York City Opera in 1976.

Michael Volle as Hans Sachs and Lise Davidsen as Eva.

Pappano’s only previous Met engagement was the 1997 new production of Eugene Onegin. Returning two dozen years later, after stewarding London’s Royal Opera for two decades and many other international gigs, he had the orchestra, particularly the string section, sounding the best I’ve heard it yet this season. But the first act sounded rather shapeless and ponderous, and some issues of balance (not least in the Quintet) had yet to be worked out. The brass encountered some stress in setting up several highly exposed moments. Pappano’s control of the contemplative Act Three prelude showed considerable improvement on the boisterous, headlong approach to its Act One equivalent.

Peter Gelb and his casting department deserve praise for maintaining the same starry ensemble of leads throughout the run, not ever a constant in the company’s history. The 1976 revival, for example, presented three Evas and Sachses plus two Walthers. Five of the current cast’s members — Michael Volle (Sachs), Klaus Florian Vogt (Walther), Johannes Martin Kränzle (Beckmesser), Georg Zeppenfeld (Pogner), and Martin Gantner (Kothner) — would be on anybody’s list as among the very best Europe has to offer in these parts. Individually or together, all have appeared in recent productions of cutting-edge “Regietheater” interpretations of this far-from-simple piece in Paris, London, Munich, Berlin, Salzburg and Bayreuth, and one wondered how they felt about appearing in such “Classic Comics”-style, concept-free circumstances.

Johannes Martin Kränzle as Beckmesser.

The three baritones had all performed their parts at the Met in previous revivals. Volle has the large, craggy, and warm personality of a Hans Sachs and the acting chops to carry off the part in a large house, although both he and particularly Kränzle, (who can be a riveting performer) seemed at times to react to the absence of perceptible direction by indulging in “gemütlich” shtick. Never opulently colored, Volle’s voice has grown craggier and less consistently legato-based since his 2014 Met HD performance. Vocally he evokes more a Norman Bailey than a James Morris in this respect, but like Bailey he’s a more than worthy, telling, and all-too-human Sachs. Kränzle works wonders with a grayer and less penetrating instrument, and although he offered perhaps more than his share of well-worn buffo trickery, he could also summon enough legato to make his membership in the singers’ guild credible. Gantner started faintly but warmed to stronger form, showing precise articulation in his ritual reading of the guild rules, “Ein jedes Meistergesanges Bar.”

There have been grander-voiced Pogners on this stage than Zeppenfeld, but surely few more tonally pleasing and graceful. This Westphalian bass was in peak form and carried off the evening’s top honors for vocalism. He also made Pogner a younger and more three-dimensional character than he has sometimes appeared. Few Walthers in history can have looked apter in the role than Vogt. Though the tenor’s dramatic performances tend to the generalized, rendering his Lohengrin and Parsifal hard to distinguish from one another or from his Bacchus, he’s got the Pre-Raphaelite hero thing down and also utters the text with admirable clarity. His rather airy, choir-boyish timbre allows for precise triplets, where few Heldentenors bother to articulate them, and somehow he manages to project what sometimes sounds like an ideal voice for David beyond its expected limits: virtues all. But to my ear, Vogt gets reedy and monotonous over a long stretch, and certainly by Act Three’s rehearsal and performance of the Prize Song, he was having trouble sustaining top notes at pitch, constantly tuning up at climaxes, making Walther’s victory seem like a hard slog.

The company — indeed the entire industry — has invested high hopes in Davidsen, whose immense voice and sympathetic presence have won her plaudits the world over. It was a coup for the Met to present the Norwegian soprano’s first-ever Eva, but the part — fully within the means of a lyric soprano — doesn’t really cater to her remarkable strengths. She and Vogt made a very handsome couple in Rolf Langenfass‘ costumes. But her vocal format is simply much larger than his, making for a mismatch of forces even though in ensembles Vogt offered his best work. On Walther’s entrance in Act Two, Davidsen’s “Ja, ihr seid es! Nein, du bist es!” flooded the house with Isolde-like opulence and penetration that left Vogt’s replies in the dust. (I thought of the Met’s 1961 Tristan broadcast, in rotation on Sirius, where Birgit Nilsson’s clarion heroine confronts the musicianly but decibel-challenged Tristan of Karl Liebl, who sounds like he should be singing the opera’s Shepherd.)

The finale scene in the Met production of ‘Die Meistersinger.’

Davidsen was likable and musically idiomatic throughout (though the text could be more precisely uttered), but for much of the opera one had the sense of her dark, rich, heroic instrument banking its fires. She rang out thrillingly in “O Sachs, mein Freund,” giving us a taste of the opulence her Chrysothemis and Ariadne this season should guarantee. But the very end of the Quintet — the opera’s time-stopping highlight, which in future performances Pappano will surely coordinate more keenly — found Davidsen overweighting the line, and her trill in the final scene was merely indicated. It was worth her trying out the role, which neither Kirsten Flagstad nor Nilsson ever offered at the Met, but it’s time for her — and Schenk’s production — to move on.

Dwarfed by Davidsen in height though not in vocal caliber or artistic stature, Frankfurt-based mezzo Claudia Mahnke made a luxury-cast Magdalene — a voice of international quality and a lively, imaginative participant in the romantic plot. Opposite her, Paul Appleby, the lone American lead, held his own as David, though his always musically deployed tenor took some time to open out. Precision and technical facility marked all of his singing, and once he got going, some of his upper tones outdid Vogt’s in ring and pitch steadiness. Surely Appleby will tackle Das Rheingold‘s Loge in time. Other admirable voices among the Meistersingers guild included Miles Mykkanen (Vogelgesang), Scott Conner (Schwarz), and — sounding like a potential Sachs — veteran baritone Mark Delavan (Nachtigall).

A long, uneven evening, but one offering definite pleasures to the Wagnerian faithful.

Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt and many other venues and has done program essays for companies including the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden and the Wexford and Glyndebourne festivals.