Saturday, November 28, 2015

San Francisco Opera goes full-throttle with grand "Meistersinger"

Walther's Prize Song from "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" with Brandon Jovanovich (Walther)
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Fourteen years have gone by since “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” was last staged in the War Memorial Opera House; so San Francisco Opera filled in the gap with a full-throttle production, which I heard on Saturday, November 21st. That was an especially challenging undertaking, because no cuts were taken, resulting in a production that lasted (including intermissions) five and a half hours. When it comes to Wagner’s operas, there’s a tongue-in-cheek adage about suffering for art, but for anyone who loves glorious music, the performances at the War Memorial by the principals (17), chorus (90), and orchestra (76 in the pit and 14 backstage) was spectacular.

San Francisco Opera’s production of “Die Meistersinger,” envisaged by Sir David McVicar, received its premiere in 2011 at Glyndebourne and was revived at the Lyric Opera of Chicago before arriving at the War Memorial. Revival co-directors Marie Lambert and Ian Rutherford skillfully guided the huge undertaking so well that all of the action flowed smoothly even during the riot-scene when everyone filled the stage at the end of Act II. They topped that by adding jugglers on stilts to the fully-stuffed mix for the final scene of Act III when all of the townspeople turn out for the song competition.

Wagner’s comic tale about love, loss, civic pride, and the acceptance of new art hinges to a great degree on the complex character of Hans Sachs, the cobbler/poet/Mastersinger. English baritone James Rutherford gave Sach’s character plenty of depth without becoming mired in it (such as when he touched the portrait of his deceased wife and children). Rutherford’s voice was never rough around the edges, and his top notes were pure and lovely.

Making his debut in the role of Walther von Stolzing, tenor Brandon Jovanovich superbly conveyed the urgency of the young knight’s quest to win Eva’s hand. His singing brought out the legato lines so well that it caused one of the audience members to break into applause – a real no-no for Wagner operas – after the initial rendition of the prize song in Act II.

Another superb debut was Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Eva, the young woman who was the prize to be given to the winner of the Mastersinger’s song contest. Willis-Sørensen’s soprano sounded just a tad harsh in Act I, but it soared beautifully in the Acts II and III.

Alek Sharader’s energetic David brimmed with vim and vigor. Sasha Cooke created a comely Magdalena who was graced with pluck and understanding. Together with Sachs (Rutherford), von Stolzing (Jovanovich), and Eva (Willis-Sørensen) they exquisitely expressed the famous quintet in Act III, “Selig, wie die Sonne.”
Act III quintet "Selig, wie die Sonne" from "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg": Sasha Cooke (Magdalene), Alek Shrader (David), James Rutherford (Hans Sachs), Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Eva) and Brandon Jovanovich (Walther von Stolzing)
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Martin Gantner’s interpretation of rules-bound town clerk and Mastersinger, Sixtus Beckmesser, had oodles of nuance and spot on timing, including the untrusting way that he stepped onto the podium before making himself the laughingstock of the town during the prize song competition.
Martin Gantner (Sixtus Beckmesser) in "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg"
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Ain Anger’s portrayal of Veit Pogner (Eva’s father) was solid as a rock. Projecting his hauntingly distinct voice from the rear of the stage, basso profundo Andrea Silvestrelli’s proved just the right touch for the Night Watchman.

The San Francisco Opera Chorus, expertly prepared by Ian Robertson, sang with gusto, delivering one knock-out piece after the next until it all culminated in the final scene when everyone is thinking “how can they top this!”
Act II riot scene from "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg": Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Eva), Brandon Jovanovich (Walther), James Rutherford (Hans Sachs)
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
The acoustic of the War Memorial allowed the orchestra to sound boomy and at times the volume got a little too loud for some of the principals. Still, Sir Mark Elder conducted with passion and verve, sculpting a sound wave that erupted majestically at the very end.

Set in early Nineteenth-century Nuremberg, the scenery (designed by Vicki Mortimer) hinted at the art of German woodcuts. An elegant yet simple high-vaulted ceiling helped to frame each scene from the church, to Hans Sachs living room, the town square, and finally the meadow.

There are only two more performances of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” remaining (Wednesday, December 2nd and Sunday, December 6th) at the War Memorial Opera House. If you can endure so much terrific music (including an Act III that lasts 2 hours), then by all means get yourself a ticket, because it is a life-enhancing event.
Opening Scene from David McVicar's production of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg"
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera


Curtis Heikkinen said...

Nice review, James. I remember being very disappointed when Seattle Opera cancelled its planned performances of that opera for budgetary reasons. I would certainly love to see and hear that work. We can rest assured it will never appear here in Portland and most likely won't be seen in Seattle for some time. Have things improved in Seattle financially?

James Bash said...

Thanks Curtis! Believe it or not Portland Opera did Die Meistersinger back in the 1976-1977 season. It is probably one of the things that got its general director, Stefan Minde, in trouble with the board. There would have to be some mega donations for it to reappear again on the stage here. With the economy recovering, Seattle Opera is doing better. I don't know if the new fellow there would want to risk a production until after he has the next Ring under his belt. But that is just a guess on my part. They are supposed to present a new Ring. We'll see if they can pull it off.