Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
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Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

IN AN INTERVIEW PUBLISHED IN THE Berlin Morgenpost in advance of the Deutsche Staatsoper’s season-opening Meistersinger von Nürnberg on October 3, the company’s general music director, Daniel Barenboim, asserted that Wagner’s comedy was “[not] a political work.” That clearly wasn't the thinking behind Andrea Moses’s new production of Meistersinger, the first for the Staatsoper since Harry Kupfer’s staging in 1998. And it was far from coincidental that the premiere was timed to the twenty-fifth anniversary of German Unification. Clearly, the Staatsoper wanted to make a statement (seen Oct. 15). 

What that statement might have been was far from apparent, despite the proliferation of German flags on stage (the most I've ever seen outside of a soccer match) and various other markers of Germanness, including lederhosen, dirndls, old master paintings and even the Berlin city palace of the Hohenzollerns that is currently (and controversially) being rebuilt on Museum Island. Moses threw all this at the viewer with a slickness and naive glee that was disarming. The production traded generously in clichés, mocking German corporate culture by assigning the Masters executive logos in the swanky boardroom where they met. The punks, beer, marijuana and crazed soccer fans (not to mention the panic-stricken Hassid who scurried across the stage) that collided in the chaotic climax of Act II seemed yet another way to evade the opera’s more serious and often-troubling themes. 

Does Meistersinger contain problematic elements? Yes. Is it a masterpiece? Yes. Yet Moses, in her blithe refusal to establish a directorial point of view for the work and its place in German history, consistently dodged Meistersinger’s most salient motifs: the representation of an ideal society based on exclusion; what happens when art is harnessed for a nationalistic program; how newness comes into the world through art. The final act seemed to reveal the core of Moses’ thinking. The raucous yet good-natured festival, lit up by red, black and yellow balloons and attended by Miss Bavaria 2015 and two Arab sheiks (and their bodyguard), seemed to complete the picture of a robust contemporary Germany that has miraculously escaped from the quagmire of history. 

The musical caliber of the evening stood in stark contrast to the twisted wish fulfillment of this festive production. In a sense, this disparity mirrored the dissonance that often attends Wagner's operas (between sublime music and repugnant politics). In the end, it was a maddening, never less than enthralling production that just reinforced the sense of cognitive dissonance that this opera invariably produces in this listener between sublime music and troubled message. For it was truly difficult to imagine this music possibly sounding any better, thanks to Barenboim’s superbly prepped Staatskapelle and a dream cast that would make Bayreuth green with envy. 

Leading the pack was the magnificent Wolfgang Koch as a down-to-earth, somewhat frumpy Sachs. His entrance was disarmingly gruff, yet he quickly established an intimate rapport with the rest of the cast and imbued his measured, psychology-astute performance with generosity, communicated in his warm, occasionally ragged baritone. Koch was a perfect counterweight to Kwangchul Youn’s authoritative Pogner. The South Korean bass, a former ensemble member here, sang with his characteristically firm, seductive tone, yet also seemed genuinely disarmed when it dawned on him that Eva might not appreciate being offered as a prize. Markus Werba’s prim Beckmesser was refreshingly free of conventional histrionics and ticks. By the same token, the Austrian baritone didn’t try too hard to elicit sympathy for the marker. Werba simply made him a social climber, fastidious and mediocre perhaps but not necessarily likable or unlikable. Werba’s conversational ease (he sometimes hissed his lines at Sachs through clenched teeth) and his mildly obsequious tone enlivened a production that clearly wasn't interested in the interior life its of its characters. 

If complexity is a welcome quality in Beckmesser, it isn’t really anything you miss in Stolzing. Klaus Florian Vogt lent his otherworldly, effortless wafting voice to the role in a performance that for all its lush beauty sounded a touch monotonous. German soprano Julia Kleiter, a Mozart and Strauss specialist, made a fine role debut as an uncommonly frisky Eva, although I was more taken by the slyly seductive Madgalene of Anna Lapkovskaja, a frequent guest to the house. An added bonus of this production was the impressive roster of veterans the Staatsoper assembled for the cantankerous alte Meister: Rainer Goldberg (b. 1939) as Eisslinger, Siegfried Jerusalem (b. 1940) as Zorn, Graham Clark (b. 1941) as Vogelgesang and Franz Mazura (the oldest of the crop at ninety-one) as Schwarz. Next to them, the Foltz of fifty-seven-year-old baritone Olaf Bär seemed a sapling. And on the even-younger side of the scale, the Hungarian baritone Gyula Orendt, a recent and much appreciated ensemble addition, struck a fine figure as Konrad Nachtigall, while the always-winning house tenor Stephan Rügamer was an excellent David, providing some of the most dramatically evocative vocal acting of the evening in his colorful explanation of the masters’ art to Stolzing.

There was a tremendous sweep to Barenboim’s conducting that made itself heard in the finely detailed performance by the Staatskapelle. Both maestro and orchestra were also attuned to Meistersinger as a conversation between the pit and the stage, with a generous pace and the breathing room given to the soloists and the excellent chorus. The musical caliber of the evening was a cause for celebration, but Moses’s equivocal production seemed, on most every level, like a missed opportunity. —A. J. Goldmann 


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