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, February 19, 2010

A Wagner Valentine

WAGNER: DIE MEISTERSINGER
Deutsche Oper, Berlin
February 14, 2010

Berlin’s Deutsche Oper gave its supporters a valentine of sorts on Valentine’s Day: a performance of Die Meistersinger. Nothing special about that, were it not for the presence of Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther von Stolzing. Despite a uniformly upper drawer cast that included Michaela Kaune as Eva, James Johnson as Sachs, and Markus Brück, Kristinn Siegmundson and Paul Kaufmann as Beckmesser, Pogner and David respectively, it seemed as though the stage darkened to a pin spotlight on Vogt, whenever he was on the boards, which, as those familiar with the work know, is most of the time.

In the seven years since I first heard Vogt as Lohengrin in Bremen, he has become, justifiably, I think, internationally known as one of the finest Wagner tenors of this age. Considering how few really great Wagner singers there have been in any age, his emergence into pre-eminence may be more a matter of luck than talent simply outing itself. What is extraordinary is that he is also emerging as one of the great voices of this or any other age. That is a real accomplishment in the light of how many singers of widely varying quality are vying for attention via their press agents, recording companies and media machines.

Some listeners have described his unusual sound as “boyish” while others have called it sort of “androgynous.” Actually, it is neither. Vogt played the horn at Hamburg’s Staatsoper, before a vocal teacher suggested that he might have a brighter future singing above the pit, rather than playing out of it.
 
Sometimes things work out.

Vogt’s sound in its current disposition is indeed reminiscent of a French horn played by Philip Miller or Dennis Brain: sweet in soft passages, penetrating and dominant under pressure. It is immediately recognizable, it commands attention even in the thick of competition from other voices and other instruments. It never tires the ear. I’ve never heard anything quite like it. It is, in the grandest sense of the word, unique.

Wagner created a real character in Walther von Stolzing, and the role gives Vogt an opportunity to act. His Walther is youthful, quick to anger and ardently passionate, but the passion is imbued with intelligence and humility. You get the impression that he’s really listening to Sachs, matter-of-factly sung by James Johnson, when the Master of the Mastersingers gives him a lesson in songwriting in the third act. And the Prize Song in the next scene becomes, in Vogt’s voice, a cumulative rather than repetitive precipitate of the Master’s tuition.

With such masterful singing in a work about the Art of Singing (among a few other things), it’s hard to comment on the able efforts put forth by Vogt’s colleagues: the aforementioned aural pin-spot on Vogt tended to occlude them. Nontheless, Michaela Kaune was an effectively flirtatious Eva, Markus Brück portrayed a delightfully irritating Beckmesser, Kristinn Sigmundsson’s height enabled him to present a grandly imposing Pogner, Ulrike Helzel sounded pleasantly youthful as Magdalena, and Paul Kaufmann as David showed hopeful signs of becoming an Almaviva with whom to be reckoned.

The Deutsche Oper’s new Music Director Donald Runnicles stepped in for the originally designated conductor, so his somewhat lackluster reading may have been the result of brief rehearsal time and the effort to avoid disasters in such a wildly complex work.

Götz Friedrich’s production from the mid-90s hold up well, primarily because it never strays far from the composer’s stage directions. In fact, it is a delight to see the festival in the final scene look and feel festive.

The current run of Meistersinger is part of the Deutsche Oper’s Wagner Weeks, in which most of the composer’s works -- including a new production of Rienzi -- are being presented over the course of several months. Rienzi has attracted a lot of press coverage, largely because its producer has turned it into a quasi-allegory in which the eponymous hero bears the appearance of a certain Austrian-born dictator. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t report much more, except to say, I’m looking forward to hearing the Leipzig Oper’s production this spring with none less than Elena Zhidkova as Orsini.

If you’re in Berlin this weekend, do what you must to get a ticket to Meistersinger on Sunday, providing that Vogt is singing. There’s only one bad seat in the house: the one you don’t get. But caveat emptor: it’s pretty much sold out.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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