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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Opera Review: Things Are Going to Get Merry Here

Salzburg's new Die Meistersinger is just...dreamy.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Hammer time: Michael Volle is Hans Sachs in Salzburg.
Frame-grab from the live stream of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
Image and likeness © 2013 Salzburger Festspiele.
It is a small miracle of modern technology that blogs such as this one (given a limited budget for travel) can write about important new opera productions on another continent. It's true that the live opera house performance is always preferable to the recording, but in the case of this new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Salzburg Festival, the availability of a live stream is very welcome indeed, especially as this new production may be bound for the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in the near future.

Stefan Herheim's new Meistersinger is a 'conceptual' staging, but one with vision and a sense of humor that is badly needed in this opera. The first two acts are presented as the dreams of Hans Sachs, the heroic (and historic) cobbler and poet that serves as the linchpin of the action. The first act takes place on his writing desk, with the charaters reduced to Lilliputian figures against a backdrop of books and polished wood. The staging is imaginative and well caught on the digital video, especially when you realize that Beckmesser is using the back cover of a well-worn copy of Das Knaben Wunderhorn as his marking-slate. (He gets up to 25 "faults" before being disqualified, instead of the usual seven.)

The second takes place on the floor of Sachs' workshop/living quarters, continuing the Lilliputian scale.  The Cobbling Song is preented with Sachs wielding a giant hammer and then an enormous shoe that could have comfortably housed an old lady and an awful lot of children. As Beckmesser sings, Snow White and the seven dwarfs dance out of the pages of Grimm's Fairy Tales  along with the Frog Prince, Jack Sprat and his wife and many other nursery school characters. And yes, they are gleeful participants in the violent merriment of the Polterabend.

It is only in Act III that we are back to what might be reality--or at least "normal" size. Newly awakened, Sachs does the "Wahn, Wahn" monologue in his dressing-gown. The remainder of the act takes place in his workshop, which can somehow accomodate the entire singing, dancing and drinking population of Ye Olde Nuremberg. However, elements from the "dream acts" remain: a pair of giant stick puppets recall the Jonathan Swift-like size disparities of the first two acts. And the platform for the song contest is a pair of giant-sized books, suggesting that nothing is real in this show. In the closing chorus, Beckmesser is revealed to be the one in his night-shirt--this whole act has been his surreal dream.

At the August 2nd performance, the  musical standard of the Vienna Philharmonic playing under the baton of Daniele Gatti is very high. The cast is led by Michael Volle's gruff, blustery Sachs. Mr. Volle (who was last seen by this writer as Beckmesser in the 2010 Bayreuth DVD of this opera) plays up the tenderness and even obsession with Eva, with the two characters engaging in heavy flirting in all three acts. The tragic backstory of the historical Sachs is not ignored, with a small, abandoned nursery (the domain of the wife and children he lost to the Black Plague) at one end of the stage. His dry baritone lacks the sweetness and warmth one ideally wants in this role, but he sings and acts the role with energy, stamina and a welcome willingess to take dramatic risks: he drops dead onstage at the end of his long oration on "holy German art."

Roberto Saccá is an ardent Walther, noble of tone and presentation with something of the artificial qualities of Lohengrin in the third act. The moment when his bellow of "Fanget an" knocks the Mastersingers off their stools is a comic highlight. Anna Gabler is a lovely Eva, again with a touch of the surreal that hints that she may be nothing more than an imaginary figure. Peter Sonn is a strong David, with his long "Tones" monologue helped by visual aids to good comic effect. He is well matched with Monika Bohenic as Magdalene, and the five singers make this an Act III quintet to remember.

The dream-states (and the decision to cast Mr. Volle) make Sachs and Beckmesser mirrors of each other--there's no coincidence that they have similar attire and even the same facial hair. This is a welcome break from the trad "Wagnerian" way of presenting the character with all of the composer's racist venom kept within the character. Baritone Markus Werba is both funny and dignified in his failed "Prize Song", but there's a definite feeling of relief when he awakes with a start and conducts the choristers as they respond to Sachs' final address. It's nice to see the Stadtschreiber get the last word for once.

And that is where Mr. Herheim succeeds. He recognizes that the joyful, Disney-like medieval life that we see in so many "traditional" productions of this opera is nothing more than Wagner's own peculiar brand of German propaganda--so why not present the opera as a series of events cooked up in the subconsciences of German burghers after too much beer and wurst?

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