Monday, January 02, 2012

Meistersinger @ Nuremberg

DIE MEISTERSINGER New Production
Nuremberg 23 December 2011

© Sam H. Shirakawa

Trial by song: Albert Pesendorf (left), Michael Putsch (right)


I’ve never made a secret of it: a performance of Meistersinger is for me always special. But how to celebrate what I believe is my 50th live performance of Wagner’s finest work?

Hear it in Nuremberg!

I happened to be in Nuremberg in time for the penultimate performance of Staatstheater Nürnberg’s new production, so I went, albeit unwillingly. Unwillingly, because the live broadcast of the premiere struck me as lacking lustre. The production looked pasty pop art, the musical pacing sounded rushed, the video direction seemed workaday, the performances standard issue and in some instances sub-standard.
Albert Pesendorfer, Michaela Maria Mayer, Jochen Kupfer


I’m glad I went because I learned a couple of things. First, never judge a production of any kind by its telecast. Second, try to avoid seeing the telecast before you see the production live -- you enter the theater severely prejudiced. Third, and possibly most important, don’t evaluate vocal quality from a broadcast. You can discern pitch issues, though even that can be fixed these days, but not much else. Everybody sounds equally loud or soft. Visually, video directors usually have their cameras pointed in the right direction, but their calls for close-ups largely are distracting, even disgusting. Let’s face it -- most singers under pressure -- bulging eyes, sweaty brows, gaping quivering jaws -- look in close-ups like they’re undergoing a rectal probe.
Leila Pfister, Guido Jentjens, Michaela Maria Mayer

In the opera house, though, that separation between spectacle and spectator puts all that grimacing into acceptable perspective. And you get to choose the close-ups. Which brings me to David Mouchtar-Samorai’s fluid production, evolving constantly between the broad strokes of spectacle and the tiny grains of telling details in the intimate exchanges of the second act and the first scene of the third. And how much better the graphics-savvy sets by Heinz Hauser work when framed by the proscenium instead of the tyrannous 16:9 video ratio in every shot. Urte Eicker’s contemporary costumes also look prettier live.
The Quintet: (left to right) Albert Pesendorfer, Michael Bosch, Tilman Lichdi, Leila Pfister, Michaela Maria Mayer
Photo: Arte


Even in the theater, Marcus Bosch’s tempi were a tad too swift for my taste, but he drew some lovely moments in the prelude to the Third Act as well as numerous details from his outstanding house orchestra and augmented chorus, the latter under the supervision of Tarmo Vaask. Too often the work of the harpists in Tannhäuser and Meistersinger go for granted. As a recovering harpist, it would be remiss of me to forego saluting Lilo Klaus, who made the treacherous switch between her grand full size Obermayer-Horngacher and the custom-made Beckmesser harp (conceived by Wagner) sound effortless. Few in any audience attending Meistersinger have any notion of the difficulties confronting every musician playing this opera.


Now for the cast, drawn mostly from the company’s ranks. I found it hard to believe that the Michael Putsch I heard as Walther von Stolzing was the same singer as the tenor I heard on TV. Live, he was singing with a cold, according to the announcement from the stage at the start of the third act. But he sounded better than he sang on the broadcast -- warmer, entirely focused, with slender vibrato. May he always have the sniffles.
Of the 30-odd Beckmesser’s I’ve heard live, Jochen Kupfer is about the most agreeably irritating. For once, I found myself thoroughly enjoying this notary making an utter fool of himself. If Guido Jentjens is in part Italian, his elegantly sonorous Veit Pogner owes much to his Latin genes. It quickened the pulse to anticipate his entrances, and his closures induced regret. To look at Martin Berner, you’d tend to think croupier rather than Kothner, but his frizzy Fritz was all the more surprising with his aspirant-free coloratura in reciting the Master’s Riot Act.
Act III finale: Albert Pesendorfer and friends  


If handsome is as handsome does, Albert Pesendorfer proves that tall is towering in both physical and vocal stature. His Sachs is not the most moving I’ve heard, but it is certainly the most imposing in decency, directness and implicit wisdom. Again, TV does nothing to suggest Pesendorfer’s sheer height. What a Godunov he might be...

Michaela Maria Mayer is still developing her prowess as an artist, but hers is a sweet, evenly modulated Eva, whose outburst at “O Sachs, mein Freund!” has yet to find its hoch-dramatisch footing. Still, she more than held her own in Eva’s contribution to the Quintet. It’s hard to say where Leila Pfister’s Magdalena will take her, but she possesses the kind of mezzo voice that can be a lively Lola as well as an alluring Laura.
Tilman Lichdi


Tilman Lichdi looked and sounded okay as David on the broadcast. But in the theater, he hands-down stole the show. Starting with a masterful “Mein Herr! Der Singer Meisterschlag” in the first act, he made every succeeding moment on stage into an opportunity for further developing his somewhat uppity character without ever appearing to make the effort. Lichdi has recently made successful debuts in New York and Chicago and he stands on the threshold of a topline career. There is clearly a future for him in musicals too; he has cheeky charm reminiscent of Jim Dale and Aaron Tveit and Michael Crawford’s riveting physical dexterity. God forbid, this guy should chuck it all for a doll.


Joshua Monten’s break-dancing accented choreography seemed plain silly on the tube, but looked inevitable and right on stage.

Despite drizzly weather, the Old City of Nuremberg provided an atmospheric backdrop to the opera worthy of Joseph Urban. The stalls in the expanded Christmas Market were bustling with activity, as vendors hawked last-minute bargains and fresh home-made delicacies in the final hours before all Germany snapped shut like a collective clam, making way to observe the second most important event on the Christian calander.
St. Katharina ruins: summer open air concerts still take place here.
Photo: Google Photos


The weather was too overcast to take photos, but I managed a brief pilgrimage to St. Katharina, also located in the Old City, where Wagner set the first act of Meistersinger. All that remains of the church today are the outer walls, one of the few visible scars left from Allied shelling as World War II drew closer to its denouement. St. Katharina was gutted by a direct hit during an air raid on 2 January 1945, exactly 67 years to the day before this report is being posted. But the spirit of the Master Singers who assembled here during the 17th and 18th centuries lives on today: the open-air space is used in summer for concerts and recitals.
All is far from well with the world as we enter the New Year, but as long as there are artists gifted enough to bring Meistersinger to life in Nuremberg and elsewhere, and a public to experience it anywhere, the outlook can be no less than good.

Photos (unless otherwise noted): Ludwig Olah

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