Dec 2nd 2015

Review of San Francisco Opera’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”

by James Bash

 

James Bash writes articles fora variety of publications, including magazines such as Opera America, OpenSpaces, Opera, MUSO, International Arts Manager, American Record Guide, Symphony, Opera Canada, and PSU Magazine. The newspapers include Crosscut, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Oregonian, The Columbian, The Portland Tribune, The Register-Guard, and Willamette Week. James has also written a number of articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and contributed articles to the 2nd edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music. James was a fellow to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera. He is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America (mcana.org) and lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, Kathy.


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.

James Rutherford as Hans Sach 

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.

Rachel Willis-Soerensen as Eva

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.

Brandon Jovanovich as Walther von Stolzing

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.” 

Alek Sharader as David

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.

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!”

Martin Gantner as Sixtus Beckmesser

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.

Ain Anger as Veit Pogner

Because of the high production costs, “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” probably won’t be mounted at the War Memorial Opera House for good long while. Let’s hope that opera goers won’t have to wait another fourteen years.

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