Saturday, December 13, 2014

Eva outside Paradise

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - Metropolitan Opera, 12/02 & 12/09/2014
Morris/Volle, Dasch, Cargill, Botha, Appleby, Kränzle, König / Levine

This revival, which has three more shows after this afternoon's moviecast matinee, is simultaneously an unmissable representation of Wagner's masterwork and a relative disappointment that leaves out much significance. Which aspect is more evident will, of course, depend on your familiarity, expectations, and priorities.

The success is, I suppose, more remarkable. The Met managed - on rather shorter notice than usual - to find not one but two excellent Hans Sachses. James Morris has excelled in the part before, first in the landmark 2001 run (on DVD) and in two less starry revivals since... but the last of those was in 2007, and his last major Wagner part here was five years ago. Still, in his 45th season at the Met, not long before his 68th birthday, Morris remains a match for this titanic part. There's a bit more wear on his sound, but the scale and basic character remain (and, as ever, he's a new man in Wagner compared to his Italian outings). The acclaim for Sachs at the end could not be more apt.

Michael Volle, singing this afternoon, debuted this spring as Mandryka - a success, but on a smaller scale than required by Sachs. But the leap to Meistersinger brought no problems, as his voice and character remained strong and clearly delineated throughout. He's a more temperamental Sachs than Morris, less genial and more inclined to give David a thrashing, which is a nice counterpoint to Morris' wise man.

The other brutally hard part here is Walther, and Botha - in stronger form than I remember from his past attempts - makes it seem easy. There's not much to be done with his physique and uncompelling stage presence, but that should be and is secondary given the role.

So the hard roles are done well, but the one that should be (and historically has been) easiest to cast - requiring not much more than a lyric soprano with some life in her - lets the proceedings down. Annette Dasch made her Met debut five years ago and was frankly bad: her agent deserves a prize for getting her a return engagement in this big revival. Here she doesn't have noticeable pitch issues, but it's perhaps because her voice barely makes an impact against this cast and orchestration, lapsing into inaudibility for what should be her vital moments. Worse, Dasch is either complicit with or the main victim of the show's overdirection: revival director Paula Suozzi (assisted by Eric Einhorn and Stephen Pickover) has tuned the action heavily towards a certain kind of comedy, so that all but the two main men are flattened a bit by/into the tics of a certain type. This works for some things - the bit-part Masters have some amusing dynamics going on, with Zorn exasperated by Pogner's long-windedness and so forth - but for Eva it's annihilating. The Plautus/sitcom/wherever-you-want-to-source-it tics reduce Eva to a small, flailing teenager, and like Damrau's too-clever Gilda the change is psychologically insightful but artistically destructive. For Eva is not only a girl struggling with an intolerable arranged marriage prospect: she's also - within the literal plot - the muse for Walther's unexpected poetic outpouring and - within the symbolic story - the bearer of all value within society (as Walther is the bearer of value without, which Sachs successfully and improbably reconciles), Sophie and Marschallin in one.

This does not require the explosion of vitality and spirit that Karita Mattila (as ever) brought in 2001 (never more so than in the unfortunately untaped November 27 show), but it does require more than the small commonplace figure Dasch and her directors are giving us. With Evas like this there would never have been any Walthers.

One more note about the direction: two bits of the final scene are changed for the worse. First, instead of dropping the paper almost immediately, as Wagner's stage directions specify to get around the problem of Walther changing (for the better) his prize-song lyrics from their initial appearance in at the start of the act, the Masters pass it around as he's singing, apparently in discussion or disputation. This unnecessarily raises the issue Wagner deftly avoided in order to have more action going on (which the audience shouldn't be looking at anyway because all focus should be on the song). Second, Eva breaks immediately after the close of Walter's song to give him a huge smooch (before giving him the crown). This not only further flattens her into an uninteresting appetitive teenager, it undercuts the glorious quiet climax that Wagner actually wrote: entranced by the song's spell as much as all others present, Eva gives a simple, rapt echo of the crowd's acclaim that "no one can woo as well as you" while presenting the wreath, adding a delicious long trill that seems to encompass all joy (interestingly, this was apparently improvised during rehearsals by the original Eva). Act 3's first scene ends with a moment of pure joy and harmony in private - "Selig, wie die Sonne" - which this second scene has expanded to encompass the entire social universe. But we should learn from this one quiet line (not so well sung here, though Dasch at least attempts a sort of trill) that the original perfect moment of suspension has persisted... The kiss must be after.

*     *     *

That said, much of the show does not involve Eva. And the other parts are quite well handled: Hans-Peter König is near-ideal as Pogner (he doesn't have to be threatening in this part), Matthew Rose (impressive as Talbot two seasons back) a standout as the Night-Watchman, and Karen Cargill (who played Anna a bit too much like Lene) of particular note. Johannes Martin Kränzle, who debuted on December 2, seems to be an excellent character singer, and though I'd prefer a more humanizing Beckmesser a la Thomas Allen, Kränzle's sharply-drawn antagonist better suits the flattening tendency of this production. In fact all the men are good, particularly the entirely new (vs. previous revivals) lineup of Masters.

With Meistersinger, there are so many pieces and so many difficulties that an ideal run can hardly be expected. (The 2001 revival, so impressive on video, had in its live shows Ben Heppner fighting cracks in the third act each time.... the ones since then had Botha in lesser form and a merely passable Eva.) That Sachs, Walther, and the orchestra/ensemble are in good hands this time is much, particularly if you haven't seen the show in person yet - its ambition is sui generis within the genre. But for those to whom Meistersinger is familiar, this run probably plays better on radio.