Saturday, April 17, 2010

MORE MEISTER SINGING

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg
Cologne 5 April 2010


If you’re an opera lover (and if you’re not, why are you reading this?), you probably know that Europe is the place to be at Eastertide. Nearly every major city, and even a lot of minor municipalities mount non-stop lyric theater events. The choices you have to make can be bewildering. If you found yourself in the westernmost part of Germany this past Easter Monday, did you attend a Traviata in Bonn, a Gypsy Baron in Pforzheim, or a Parsifal in --let’s see now-- Stuttgart, Frankfurt or Düsseldorf?

I opted for Meistersinger in Cologne because it had three things going for it: of all the alternatives, it’s my favorite opera, the opera house is a 10 minute trolley ride from where I’m staying at the moment, and the cast featured an only-appearance-this-season appearance by Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther von Stoltzing. I can’t get enough of this voice, and Vogt, wisely, doesn’t sing that frequently.

I was sort of dreading my final choice, because Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s controversial staging has several complicated moments for Walther. But the cash-strapped Cologne Opera found the stash to fund sufficient rehearsals for the performance, which went much more smoothly than when I attended the production’s first performances last autumn. Not necessarily a good thing, for its infelicities, especially in the final scene became all the more apparent.

In place of the meadows outside Nuremberg, Laufenberg puts the Song Trial in a recreation of the plaza outside the Cologne Opera House. The set is dominated by a jumbotron that shows, among other scenes, video of the Mastersingers and honored guests entering the theater before taking their places on the stage. That makes sense enough. Mixed in with these proceedings, though, are a newsreel of vignettes showing Cologne before, during and after World War II plus scenes from a previous production of Meistersinger. Huh? When Walther finally takes the stage for his Prize Song, the projections switch to close-ups of Vogt looking dreamy before a background of amber-hued landscapes. To put it charitably, it’s distracting, not to mention awful.

Nonetheless, Vogt sang with even greater persuasiveness than in Berlin several weeks ago in the same role. His is a phenomenal voice: bright, light, penetrating and, for me, soulful. Admittedly, it is so unusual, that it’s not to everyone’s taste. A vocal professor I met during the breaks complained of a “disembodied” quality that left him cold. That quality is evident in the broadcasts of Meistersinger at Bayreuth, where Vogt is currently cast as Walther in Katharina Wagner’s production under Christian Thielemann. The microphone does not love him.

Vogt was partnered in this performance by Barbara Haveman, stepping in for ailing Astrid Weber. She was no disappointment, projecting a well-focussed sound that retained its sucrose in the heftier portions of “O Sachs, mein Freund...” and the Quintet.

The other principals in the cast have grown into their parts since the production’s premiere (see my report). Especially rewarding was Robert Holl as Sachs. Could but all singers mature with such grandiose gracefulness! Despite a moment of breath-catching in Sach’s Oration, Holl’s shoemaker was indeed a masterful singer.



General Music Director Markus Stenz led the Gürzenich Orchestra and the augmented chorus with sensible tempi and majestic sweep, but he still needs to parse out the dynamics. The outset of the prelude to Act One is marked “mezzo-forte.” And with good reason: the forte at the conclusion of the prelude must sound significantly louder Throughout the performance, the difference between loud and loudest was minimal.

All told, though, a richly satisfying performance.

©Sam H. Shirakawa
Photos: Forster

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Friday, October 02, 2009

Disdaining the Master's Art

Sam Shirakawa went to Cologne last week to see Wagner's Die Meistersinger:

WAGNER: DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG
26 September 2009
Cologne

As I was leaving the Cologne Opera House, following a performance of Die Meistersinger last Saturday night. I couldn’t help but overhear two women conversing behind me:

“I didn’t understand the production at all,” said one in a distinctive Kölner accent.

“Neither did I,” replied the other.

I could barely keep myself from turning around to add: “And neither did I.”

Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s new production starts off with all the characters, with the exception of Walther von Stolzing, in period costumes--possibly the Wilhelmenian era. He is sporting a tie-less black suit that could possibly bear a Hugo Boss label. He is also snapping photos with a camera that is presumably digital. (The flash didn’t function on Saturday night.) The set sketches out a church -- presumably St. Katharine’s Church in Nuremberg. Is Walther then a visitor from the future?

In the second Act, the outdoor setting, top hats and bustles suggest the same period. Walther’s white satin dress coat suggests that he has quickly adjusted to the fashions of the times.

The interior of Hans Sachs’ house in the final act, though, is decked out in what looked like 1960s Bargain Outlet or maybe DDR Moderne. And the final scene takes place, not on the meadows outside Nuremberg’s walls, but on the plaza outside the Cologne Opera House -- presumably NOW. A mini-Jumbotron flashes a video montage of Cologne’s history over the past century, using archive photos, newsreels and other films, many of which I have never seen before. As a bonus, televised excerpts of from an earlier production of Meistersinger (no sound though) are interspersed with the other images.

Confusing? Distracting? No, just awful.

Thanks largely to Markus Stenz’s leadership at the podium, the performance withstood most of the on-stage shenanigans. Stenz’ love of Wagner was palpable in every measure of the score, as he moved the musical impulses in a seamlessly ascendent direction from start to finish. Only in the final scene did the powerful images on the Jumbotron overwhelm the thrust of the music. Despite a flub here and there, the Gürzenich Orchestra produced continuous incandescence.

Before the performance started an announcement from the stage informed the audience that Marco Jentzsch (Walther) and Johannes Martin Kränzle (Beckmesser) were suffering from colds and asking for indulgence. Kränzle fared better of the two. In fact, his scrivener was one of the most touchingly sung I have experienced live. Kränzle plays Beckmesser as an infatuated middle-age schoolboy. The desperate desire to please in his protracted second act serenade was well-nigh embarrassing.

Jentzsch, singing the role for the first time, got through the first two acts with style and in full, rounded voice. In the third act, he nursed his voice through the first scene and managed to deliver a prize-winning Prize Song in the finale. Given the circumstances, it’s difficult to assess what appears to be potential revealed, rather promise fulfilled. Jentzsch is young, tall and good-looking with a bright sizable tenor in the middle range. Since he sang most of the exposed upper notes between F and A in half voice, it’s impossible to say whether he’s in full possession of The Right Stuff for middle-weight Wagner.

Astrid Weber delivered a charming, occasionally neurotic Eva. Her voice shows signs of turning acidic at the top, but it retained its focus throughout the long evening.

Carsten Süß as David has two voices -- a candy-sweet lower and middle voice and another voice in the upper register that falls back into the head. If he can knead the two voices into one instrument, he could become a Lohengrin to be reckoned with.

The two glories of the evening were Bjarni Thor Kristinsson as Pogner and Robert Holl as Sachs. I never have heard Kristinsson before, and I wondered where I’ve been keeping myself. If you remember Gottlob Frick and Kurt Boehme, remember this: they live on in Kristinsson.

I’ve heard Robert Holl here and there for many years, but it’s hard to believe that nearly four decades have gone by since he started making the rounds on the international opera circuit. He is one of those blessed few singers who last long enough to implement the experience they acquire. Holl is still going strong and sounding better than ever.

As he struck a solid F in Sach’s peroration, I wondered what he thinks of some of his colleagues, who, though much younger, can barely make it through a performance.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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