Saturday, December 13, 2014

Meistersinger at the Met

As Wagner's only comedy, Meistersinger is the thing that is not like the other things in the Wagner canon. Where the other operas present a variety of strange and damaged relationships that easily transcend their 19th century trappings and feel immediately relevant, Meisteringer (at least on its surface) trades in a bunch of dated patriarchal bullshit. While one might be able to dismiss a lot of the ahistorical reasons that Meistersinger makes us uncomfortable, you're still never quite sure how invested you are in this story about someone's boring pretty daughter and the 16th century dudes that alternately want to hit it with her and/or offload her. With any luck you get distracted by the glorious score before going too far down that rabbit hole.

So I was pleased at how truly moving I found last Tuesday's installment of the old Schenk production, currently getting a final airing before Herheim's Meistersinger arrives in 2019. Seeing the thing live for the first time, I really got just how much everything turns on the depth and complexity of Hans Sachs, and in German baritone Michael Volle (who shares the role with JMo for the run) the Met has a truly great interpreter of this role. Volle, who had his Met debut in Arabella last year (which I missed for some stupid reason), offers an eminently watchable, relentlessly intelligent Sachs, at once melancholy old man, sarcastic grump, and serious thinker. Not to mention the voice is always sure and beautiful--despite such a punishing stretch of singing he never slipped into the wooly sound that tends to plague Sachses.

OK. So you have an insightful, penetrating Sachs, there are full size old-timey German houses on stage, and the chorus and orchestra sound great. Now you want better Evas and Walthers too? I've seen this production taking some flack for Johan Botha and Annette Dasch as the young couple, and while not entirely wrong, let's not get greedy. Also, let's admit that part of the problem is comparing this outing to the widely distributed 2001 incarnation featuring Ben Heppner, arguably the greatest Wagnerian of his generation in this rep, and Karita Mattila, world's greatest singing actress, in some awfully decadent casting.

Here's what I want from an Eva and a Walther: voices. I want a Walther that applies a real big voice to the priddy songs and serves up a nice generic level of heroic in the rest. I want an Eva who can handle the demands of the part with ease, especially her quintet stuff, while avoiding that mewling quality that reminds you what a drip that character is. So maybe Annette Dasch is like a really top of the line 50s era Eva who mostly stares blankly and gets led around by the orchestra. And maybe Johan Botha's scenes with Michael Volle remind one a bit of what it would look like if Daniel Day Lewis did a movie with Rob Schneider. So what. Botha sounds great as he bangs through the Preislied, launching that big bear of a voice up the staff and coming away with consistent W's. Dasch has the perfect light, ever so slightly pinched timbre for Eva, and sounds lovely in the ensembles.

The rest of the cast offers much to appreciate as well. Paul Appleby, last seen on the Met stage in Nico Muhly's Two Boys, delivers a bright and affable David, while Hans Peter Konig is an ideal Veit Pogner. The orchestra and chorus, so integral to this behemoth, sounded wonderful. Levine's work stood out in the brought profound beauty and thoughtfulness to the finale, as well as the third act prelude, though early slow pacing did not help with Meistersinger's draggier bits.