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A modern Meistersinger for grown-ups

05/16/2016 -  & May 22, 26*, 29, June 4, July 28, 31, September 30, October 3, 8, 2016
Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Wolfgang Koch (Hans Sachs), Christof Fischesser*/Georg Zeppenfeld (Veit Pogner), Kevin Conners (Kunz Vogelgesang), Christian Rieger (Konrad Nachtigall), Markus Eiche*/Martin Gantner (Sixtus Beckmesser), Eike Wilm Schulte (Fritz Kothner), Ulrich Reiss (Balthasar Zorn), Stefan Heibach (Ulrich Eißlinger), Thorsten Scharnke (Augustin Moser), Thorsten Scharnke (Hermann Ortel), Peter Lobert (Hans Schwarz), Christoph Stephinger*/Dennis Wilgenhof (Hans Foltz), Jonas Kaufmann (Walther von Stolzing), Benjamin Bruns (David), Sara Jakubiak*/Emma Bell (Eva), Okka von der Damerau*/Claudia Mahnke (Magdalene), Tareq Nazmi*/Goran Juric (Nachtwächter)
Chor und Exta-Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Sören Eckhoff (chef de chœur), Bayerisches Staatsorchester, Kirill Petrenko (conductor)
David Bösch (Production), Patrick Bannwart (Sets), Meentje Nielsen (Costumes), Michael Bauer (Lighting), Falko Herold (Video)

W. Koch, J. Kaufmann (© Wilfried Hösl)

In these days where there are tales of the Met struggling to fill at capacity, of the EUYO orchestra being discontinued... it is warm-heartening to see a place like the Munich State Opera at full capacity with a Bayreuth-like silence and concentration. It is also a tribute to the standards of the place and the audience to have the ability to present a production that manages to mix a strong dramatic and musical performance with a thought-provoking staging that treats its viewers as educated grown-ups.

First things first, all eyes were on Kirill Petrenko. Munich has always had a special spot for Die Meistersinger. It was premiered here and is traditionally the work that closes the Summer Opera Festival and the season. More than the Ring, this is the trophy work that every Munich Opera conductor has to carry and it is no surprise that Kirill Petrenko wanted to add this to the many list of works he conducts here.

He certainly delivered a stunning performance. The overture to start with delivered lots of decibels but this was not loud, the difference is important, it was very powerful. Germanic color and clarity were not lost and the orchestra moved forwards. The many spoken-like dialogues which require careful coordination between stage and pits were done with great care. The chorus sang beautifully and Petrenko hold the “Wach Auf” fermata for so long that this was just stunning. There were many details particularly from the woodwinds that were audible but not just to bring out background instruments for their own sake. When the music required it as in the Quintet, the sense of line and care to support the singers was wondrous. This was a Master-conducting.

His cast was strong and speaks on the vast inventory of German-able singers Munich works with. Best of all was Wofgang Koch’s Sachs, now a Bayerisches Staatsoper Kammersänger. The voice has warmth and projection, the character has presence and authority. More important, his sense of characterization was high and he made many singers go deeper, may it be the Act 2 scene with Eva or the Act 3 ones with Beckmesser and Walther.

Sara Jakubiak’s Eva was actually more dramatic and steely than expected. Her stage father Christof Fischesser had vocal clarity but did not look and sounded like a father. His “Sachs, mein Freund” rang a little hollow. Benjamin Bruns’s David should have studied a little more the various colors in his Act 1 discussion with Walther but his genuine tenoral tone was delightful. The Meisters were all well-matched and yes, as the production highlights it, Munich veteran Eike Wilm Schulte may have indeed sung Kothner 50 years.

All eyes were also on Jonas Kaufmann. Germany’s star tenor was aware of this and kept wisely his resources for the Act 3 aria. One could notice that his tone tends to be increasingly barytonal and dark but his sense of artistry leaves no doubt but phrasing was done with lieder-care and his youthful acting makes him so credible. He is at his best when delivering forte ringing high notes whenever the music requires.

As in his Geneva’s Alcina, David Bösch modernized the settings in quasi modern days. Costumes felt like coming of American Graffiti with the apprentices sipping Coca-Cola bottles. Walther came in in jeans, T-shirts, sneakers, a guitar box and headspeakers (which may not have existed at the time) around his neck. Sachs runs his shoe shop from a ran-down truck parked in a pretty grey suburb.

There were many comic passages and light touches. I should not spoil them to future audiences but the use of projections was really smart and entertaining (look for Kothner’s explanation of the Tabulatur). Beckmesser’s Act 3 singing competition was aptly ridiculed. The Act 1 exchanges between Eva and Walther were fresh and joyous...

But behind this, this modern-days Nürenberg was a dark and violent place. Beckmesser zapped electricity to Walther when he was seated to the singing stool in Act 1. Beckmesser’s beating at the end of Act 2 was very brutal and probably made to have viewers uncomfortable. The ending had a surprising but violent twist that I do not want to reveal that made so much sense in the context.

But the topic of Meistersinger is an opera about genuine art and the capacity of the everyday people and not the masters to recognize it. In David Bösch’s conception was a dark and pessimist one. The Singing contest is portrayed like a Eurovision singing contest with the Masters taking footballers-like postures. Art is perverted and let us not forget that Pogner is ready to give his daughter as a prize. In this respect, Walther’s refusal to join the Masters at the end takes lots of sense. He is the true uncompromising artists unlike Sachs whose ending monologue praising the German art takes a sinister tone underlined by the projection (and I was not sure if what we saw were Pegida activits).

This was a complex, mind- and sound provoking performance that treated this work seriously and gave it a modernist and current spin. This was a masterful and revelatory Meistersinger. It will be revived at the Festival and next season and will likely stay on. Do not miss it.

PS: on a last note, may I point out that while Pogner was driving a Bavarian BMW, Eva who was wearing Converse (until she wore Sach’s local shoes for the contest) but Walther had the same non-Adidas sneakers through the work.

Antoine Lévy-Leboyer



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