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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Opera Review: The Very Long Goodbye

The Met goes back to ye olde Meistersinger.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A tender moment: James Morris and Annette Dasch in Act III of Die Meistersinger.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2013 The Metrropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera's current revival of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (seen last night in its season premiere) has a feeling of finality about it. Not only is this the last gasp for the company's picturesque Otto Schenk production, but it is also probably the last major Wagner role for James Morris, the Baltimore-born bass-baritone who won New Yorkers' hearts in the '80s, singing over 70 performances as Wotan in the Ring Cycle.

Tuesday night's season premiere marked conductor James Levine's first major Wagner performance since 2011. Tempos were broad, with the conductor indulging in his favorite lyric passages, adding extra rubato and extending the evening by another twenty minutes. Despite the length of this show, the reliable  Met orchestra played with astonishing clarity and purpose, from the bright, lilting (and for once audible) harps in the Prelude to the trumpets-and-drums fanfares that closed the final act.


Mr. Morris was a late replacement for Johan Reuter, but his voice showed the benefit of rehearsal and careful coaching from Mr. Levine. The once plush textures of his low register have worn to a steely sheen, but the singer coped by producing a compressed tone that still retained its emotional clarity. This is a distant echo of the Sachs that he first sang at the Met in 2001, but it was still a compelling and interesting performance. The Wahn monologue was moving and particularly tender, and with careful singing, Mr. Morris endured through the punishing final scene,

An energized (and healthy-looking) Johan Botha was in excellent voice as Walther von Stolzing, although he too has a tendency to brighten and tighten in the marathon third act. His Fanget An! was ringing and bright, and the multi-stanzaed Prize Song emerged in all its chromatic glory. More importantly, his comic timing has improved, making the all-important dialogue with David in Act I one of the most entertaining scenes in the opera.

As David, Paul Appleby nearly walked off with the song prize. This tenor is arriving at the right time, proving bright, personable and pleasant to listen to with a colorful instrument that has just the right amount of sweetness. Johann Martin Kränzle made his company debut as Beckmesser. Mr. Kränzle sang the high baritone role with a tenorish quality and (thankfully) made the town clerk more pompous buffoon than caricature. His best comic moments were the scene with Sachs and his great show of unsteadiness mounting the podium in the third act.

Eva is one of the most un-Wagnerian of Wagner roles, and Annette Dasch's light soprano was well suited to her nimble music. The only hiccup was in Act III, where Mr. Levine's decision to linger over some particularly beautiful passages (including the famous Quintet) robbed this performance of its forward momentum. Far better was Karen Cargill as a pert Magdalena, lending depth and warmth to the Quintet and to her smaller role as David's love-interest.

Wagner's depiction of life in medieval Nuremberg has a lot of supporting roles, and the opera has become a vehicle for singers to stretch their toes into the deep waters of his repertory without the dangers of Tristan or the Ring. Mention must go to Hans-Peter König as a resolute, rich-voiced Veit Pogner, Martin Gantner (another debut) in the small but crucial role of Kothner, and finally, Matthew Rose as a stentorian and very funny Night Watchman.

Meistersinger starts at 6pm and runs six hours, counting intermissions. It is an endurance test for any hardened Wagnerian. Last night's performance was a testament to the hard work of this company's orchestra, chorus and technical department, with all three throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the meticulous recreation of Wagner's imagined Nuremberg. As the midnight overtime deadline ticked past with twenty minutes left in the opera, each of these unions earned their extra pay. And what's more, they deserved it.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.