November 24th, 2015
Jake Heggie’s 2010 opera “Moby Dick”, the most successful 21st century American opera to date, has added the Los Angeles Opera to the list of companies that have launched this tale of doomed men at sea.
[Below: in a scene from “Moby Dick’s” second act, the whaling ship Rachel implores captain and crew of the Pequod for assistance in vain; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
James Conlon’s Conducting
“Moby Dick’s” Los Angeles performances are under the baton of Maestro James Conlon, the Los Angeles Opera Music Director, who has become an important advocate for the opera.
Conlon stated joyously before the performance that the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra was excited about this opera. That excitement was translated into a brilliant performance by Captain Conlon and his symphonic crew.
Maestro Conlon is ebullient when he loves an opera and his conducting gave full expression to his enthusiasm for the work. This is a work that contains soaring melodies that variously represent dynamic seascapes, and the inner thoughts of Ahab or his first mate Starbuck.
[Below: Maestro James Conlon; resized image of a publicity photograph from jamesconlon.com.]
In his pre-performance lectures, in which Conlon tutors both the veteran opera aficionado and the uninitiated newcomer curious about the art form, he methodically drilled down into the opera’s rich thematic structure, proposing names for the ideas he associates with particular melodies.
He described the musical context for each theme. He wants us to know that when Ahab talks about the doubloon that he will award to the man who first sights Moby Dick, his words are accompanied by a theme written with a twelve-tone structure, not present anywhere else in the opera. He assures us that buried deep in Ahab’s themes is a rhythmic pattern suggesting the effect of his wooden leg on his gait.
Jay Hunter Morris’ Captain Ahab
I have reported on Texas tenor Jay Hunter Morris’ performances as Ahab in San Francisco [see Another Opera House Conquered: Ovations for Heggie’s “Moby Dick” at San Francisco Opera, October 10, 2012 and A Second Look: A Bright Future for Heggie’s Magnificently Melodious “Moby Dick” – San Francisco Opera, October 21, 2012.]
I suspect that few will disagree with my assessment that Morris, who has performed the role of Ahab more than any other artist, rightfully is recognized as the definitive Ahab.
[Below: Jay Hunter Morris as Captain Ahab; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Even though Heggie originally wrote the role for Ben Heppner, who has since retired, Morris possesses the large, healthy heldentenor the role requires and the stamina to meet the role’s extraordinary physical demands [for the tenor’s thoughts on this role, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Jay Hunter Morris.]
Observing his well-sung performance for a third time, I was struck at the power inherent in the Morris’ interpretation of Ahab – an authoritarian figure, introspective, but unwavering in his conviction that what he seeks to do is the right path, displaying sufficient human qualities to win the crew’s confidence – even momentary compassion from Starbuck, the man most wary of his Captain’s obsessions.
Morgan Smith’s Starbuck
All five performances that I have experienced shared the presence of Washington State baritone Morgan Smith as Ahab’s first mate, Starbuck, the god fearing Nantucket man, who is confronted with the question of whether murder is justified when you are certain that a man’s actions will lead to the deaths of all around him.
These performances by Smith include the Dallas and San Diego premieres [see World Premiere: Heggie’s Theatrically Brilliant, Melodic “Moby Dick” at Dallas Opera – April 30, 2010 and A Majestic West Coast Premiere for Heggie’s “Moby Dick” – San Diego Opera, February 18, 2012.]
[Below: Morgan Smith as Starbuck; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Few operatic roles written after Puccini’s “Turandot” nine decades ago contain as much effusive melody as Starbuck’s, and Smith’s lyric baritone is a beautiful instrument for realizing Heggie’s melodies.
Joshua Guerrero’s Greenhorn
Los Angeles native Joshua Guerrero sang the role of the Greenhorn. He is the third artist I’ve seen portray Greenhorn, each of whom brought their own talents to the role. I found Guerrero’s singing and acting to be intense, illuminating and effective.
[Below: Joshua Guerrero as the Greenhorn; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Greenhorn is the opera’s character who most vividly represents the method by which Heggie and his librettist Gene Scheer have adapted Melville’s sprawling opera into a linear drama (taking place on four separate days of the multiyear voyage).
Melville’s novel famously begins with the phrase “Call Me Ishmael”. The character Ishmael then narrates the story of Ahab and Moby Dick in the past tense.
At the opera’s end, in response to the question of Captain Gardiner of the Rachel, Guerrero’s Greenhorn identifies himself as Ishmael. Greenhorn’s response to Gardiner is meant by composer and librettist to suggest that Greenhorn is uttering the first words that after the opera will become Melville’s Moby Dick. The opera explains in the present tense the key events as they occur.
Musa Nsqungwana’s Queequeg
The South African bass-baritone Musa Nsqungwana performed the role of the mysterious harpooner Queequeg, who is a prince on the tiny, but seemingly idyllic island of Kokovoko, from whence he comes. He made a strong impression vocally, and, exotically costumed and tattooed, was a powerful physical presence.
[Below: Musa Nsqungwana as Queequeg; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Queequeg’s role in both novel and opera is symbolically important, an alternative morality to the “Western” ethos that prevails in the whaling communities of New England.
Queequeg has the first words in the opera. This is what I call the Spouters’ Inn scene because of its location in Melville’s novel, but which in the opera – which narrates the action in the present tense and does not dwell on backstories – takes place, as does the whole opera, onboard and around the Pequod.
Jacqueline Echols’ Pip
The role of the cabin boy Pip has been assumed for this performance run by Michigan soprano Jacqueline Echols. Her performance was nicely sung and believably acted.
[Below: Jacqueline Echols as Pip; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Other Cast Members
California baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, who had sung the offstage role of Captain Gardiner in the work’s San Diego performances, made a strong impression in the onstage role of second mate Stubbe.
Indiana tenor Matthew O’Neill, whose career is centering around opera’s character roles, recreated a role he has “owned” in its American performances, the third mate Flask.
Alabama bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee who sang the role from a position above the audience gave a sympathetic potrayal of the anguished Captain Gardiner.
[Below: the devout Christian Starbuck (Morgan Smith, left) and the agnostic Greenhorn (Joshua Guerrero, right) both wrestle with moral issues raised on the Pequod; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathew photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
The elements of the original Dallas Opera production, with some tweaks here and there, were retained. It was directed by Leomard Foglia with set designs by Robert Brill and costumes by Jane Greenwood and amazing projections by Elaine J. McCarthy.
Every discussion of Heggie’s “Moby Dick” should observe the critical contributions to the opera’s success of Elaine McCarthy’s projections that reinforce the idea of events occurring in real time. McCarthy’s powerful images chart the Pequod’s voyage, and that provide us with our own encounter with the White Whale as it shatters the whaleboats and the Pequod itself.
For Los Angeles Opera, the chorus director was Grant Gershon.
A Whalewatcher’s Thoughts on the Opera and Performance
There exists what I would describe as a deep concern by some critics about Heggie’s operas, as if these works represent something unsettling to an old line operatic establishment. They are concerned that the operas cater to what audiences want to see and hear. “Accessibility” to opera audiences is good or evil depending on the critic.
I have been present at first performances in three other cities – its world premiere at The Dallas Opera, its West Coast premiere at the San Diego Opera, and its San Francisco Opera premiere.
In each city not only was “Moby Dick” embraced, but the local opera company committed to performing one of Heggie’s next two works “Great Scott” (Dallas and San Diego) or “It’s a Wonderful Life” (San Francisco).
Reporting on the first performance runs of a relatively new opera in a new city, I believe, should be approached differently than reporting on how an opera company performs, say, Puccini’s “Tosca”.
Every opera in the performance repertory has its own history of diffusion from city to city. The Los Angeles Opera production was yet another confirmation of the long term viability of this opera, and of Heggie’s and Scheer’s genius.
Tags: 2005-2015: William's Reviews
November 23rd, 2015
Los Angeles Opera assembled a cast of rising American stars for Vincenzo Bellini’s opera “Norma” that met and exceeded the opera’s bel canto imperative.
Washington state soprano Angela Meade was cast as Norma, joined by Georgia mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Adalgisa, Florida tenor Russell Thomas as Pollione and Georgia basso Morris Robinson as Oroveso, each artist chosen for an opera expressly created to exemplify beautiful singing,
[Below: Norma (Angela Meade, front right) summons the Druids for a fateful admission; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Angela Meade’s Norma
Bellini’s “Norma” is one of two operas (the other being Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”) that exemplify the legendary bel canto era of Italian opera. Angela Meade has emerged as one of the 21st century’s bel canto divas.
Meade’s Norma successfully navigates one of the most difficult roles in the soprano repertory. Her extraordinary breath control is evident in the ethereal aria Casta Diva with its long Bellinian melodies.
Angela summons her technically brilliant coloratura, and her dramatic vocal intensity to display a range of emotions. These emotions range from maternal compassion to ferocious anger to desperate internal conflict in her encounters with the three principals and with the community to whom she is supposed to be a spiritual leader.
“Norma” focuses less on action than on the several emotional interchanges between its protagonist, the Druid priestess Norma; her estranged husband Pollione, whom she had secretly married; her friend Adalgisa who unknowingly is the rival for Norma’s husband; and her Druid chieftain father, Oroveso, to whom she reveals that her life as a virginal priestess is a lie.
[Below: Angela Meade as Norma; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.],
I have been fortunate to report on Angela Meade’s role debuts both in the title role of Norma in Washington D. C. [see my review at Legend Making at the Kennedy Center: Angela Meade’s First Norma – Washington National Opera, March 9, 2013] and as Matilda in Turin, Italy [Osborn, Meade and Jenis in Graham Vick’s Mounting of “Guglielmo Tell” – Teatro Regio Torino, May 7, 2014.]
While these were landmark performances. nowhere has Meade excelled above what Los Angeles audiences experienced than in Meade’s two duets with mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, particularly the close harmony fireworks of Si, fino allore, allore, estreme.
[Below: Norma (Angela Meade, left) shares remembrances of a man’s attentions with Adalgisa (Jamie Barton, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Jamie Barton’s Adalgisa
Jamie Barton, like Angela Meade, has been a recipient of the prestigious annual Richard Tucker award. Her extraordinary voice has a brilliant top and strength in the lower register. It is her voice’s lower range that often brings to mind a similar feature of the great mezzo voice of Marilyn Horne, one of the previous generation’s greatest Adalgisas.
It would be difficult to imagine a wholly satisfactory performance of “Norma” without an accomplished Adalgisa. Maestro James Conlon, the conductor, refers to as the most important female role in early 19th century Italian opera not to have her own major aria, but it is how her role is constructed to interact with Norma and Pollione that makes the absence of an individual aria beside the point.
It is Adalgisa’s duets with Norma and the act-ending trio Oh non tremare, o perfido between the two women and the Pollione, the man both love, that makes Adalgisa such a significant role.
I have personally experienced such extraordinary Norma-Adalgisa pairs as Beverly Sills with Tatiana Troyanos (San Diego Opera) and Joan Sutherland with Marilyn Horne (San Francisco Opera) and believe that the Meade-Barton pairing appropriately belongs with this stellar list.
Russell Thomas’ Pollione
This was the fourth opportunity for me to review performances in which Barton is teamed with the young spinto tenor Russell Thomas [See A Second Look: “Norma” at the San Francisco Opera – September 14, 2014 and Review: Hurt, Bauer, Angeletti, Barton, Thomas in “Nabucco” – Seattle Opera, August 9, 2015
[Below: Pollione (Russell Thomas, left) insists that Adalgisa (Jamie Barton, right) return with him to Rome; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Thomas possesses a true spinto voice and uses it effectively as Pollione. His voice possesses the lyricism that enriches the first scene cavatina Meco all’altar di Venere and Pollione’s heartfelt reconciliation with Norma as both go to their deaths at opera’s end. Elsewhere, he uses his large voice effectively in the furious exchanges with Norma.
Thomas’ artistry continues to attract attention from opera managements worldwide. He is in the early stages of a major career.
[Below: Russell Thomas as Pollione; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Morris Robinson’s Oroveso
The sonorous bass voice of former football star Morris Robinson is beautifully matched with the melodious passages Bellini composed for the Druid leader Oroveso. Robinson’s Oroveso was a formidable, dramatically convincing presence.
Robinson’s career has been associated with Francesca Zambello’s immensely popular production of Joseph Kern’s and Roger Hammerstein’s classic musical Show Boat in which Robinson, as Joe, sings Ol’ Man River [See DVD Review: Francesca Zambello, the American Musical and the San Francisco Opera, Part I: “Show Boat”.]
[Below: Morris Robinson as Oroveso; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
In a recent interview [Rising Stars – An Interview with Morris Robinson] described the importance of Maestro James Conlon, the evening’s conductor to his career and Conlon’s encouragement of Robinson to assay a variety of operatic styles.
I have previously reported on Conlon teaming with Robinson for Mozart [Shining L. A. Opera “Magic Flute” on Sunny Matinee Day – January 11, 2009] and Wagner [Achim Freyer’s Fascinating “Rheingold” Begins L. A. “Ring” – March 11, 2009.]
James Conlon’s Conducting and Other Cast Members
Maestro James Conlon, music director of the Los Angeles Opera, has assumed the status of a major Los Angeles institution by presenting pre-opera talks for virtually all performances he conducts. [For background on how this practice evolved, see An Interview with Conductor James Conlon, Part 1 and An Interview with Conductor James Conlon, Part 2.]
Conlon is an impassioned advocate for Bellini and the music of “Norma”, whose influence on opera composers Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi (each of whom was age 20 when the opera was first performed), he demonstrated at his lecture. He also shared with his audience his belief that the cast of Meade, Barton, Thomas and Robinson was as great as cast as any company would be able to assemble.
[Below: Maestro James Conlon; edited image of a J. C. Steinberg photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
He led the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra in a spirited sinfonia that is the opera’s prelude, followed by a rousing performance that was unambiguously a labor of Conlon’s love.
Two other members of the cast, both Domingo-Coburn-Stein Young Artists, sang with distinction.
Texas Tenor Rafael Moras was the centurion Flavio (even though Pollione’s subordinate, obviously a friend and operative who helped enable Pollione’s complex double life). Mezzo-soprano Lacey Jo Benter was Clotilde, who had similar responsibilities regarding Norma (as well as being the caretaker for Norma’s and Pollione’s children).
Anne Bogart’s Production
I had written at some length about Anne Bogart’s production at the Kennedy Center (see above reference), including Neil Patel’s abstract sets and James Schuette’s imposing costumes.
[Below: Norma (Angela Meade, right) and Pollione (Russell Thomas, left) reconcile before their deaths by fire; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
In general, I find the production to be effective, it’s particular strength being its movement of principals and choristers, employing Bellini’s music advantageously. (For example, the Druids use the last section of the sinfonia to begin to move into place to hear Oroveso declaim Ite cul colle, e Druidi.)
Six priestess/dancers that have a variety of ceremonial functions and help move us from scene to the next. We are always conscious, whether Romans or Druids are onstage, that this is the borderland between two cultures, usually with a Roman in battle gear observing from the high windows of a structure at stage left.
Bogart’s direction displays a nervous energy in every encounter between Druids and Romans. She uses designer Patel’s extensively raked stage to suggest a tentativeness, reflected in choreographed movements when the outnumbered Romans venture into areas that the Druids hold.
The image of a rising moon is the dominant presence in the opera’s second act, particularly as it reddens in the final scene when Norma and Pollione go to meet their deaths by fire.
I recommend this performance and cast enthusiastically both for the veteran opera-goer and lover of great singing.
Tags: 2005-2015: William's Reviews
November 20th, 2015
For David Gockley’s final season as General Director of the San Francisco Opera, Sir David McVicar’s 2011 Glyndebourne Festival production of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” was mounted. Even for an opera company with a strong tradition of great Wagner performances, the McVicar “Meistersinger” was an extraordinary success.
[Below: the unit set for David McVicar’s production of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger”, here staged for the second act; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
During Gockley’s tenure, British or American directors created productions shown at San Francisco Opera of nine of Wagner’s ten major operas (all but “Parsifal”).
As a celebration of the ten season Gockley era, the McVicar “Meistersinger” – the last of the Gockley “Wagners” – had special meaning.
Gockley regarded the 2007 Graham Vick new production of Wagner’s “Tannhauser” with its singing contest of minnesingers and the 2015 McVicar “Meistersinger” with its singing contest of mastersingers, as monuments to San Francisco Opera’s and Gockley’s commitments to the celebration of vocal performance.
Brandon Jovanovich’s Walther von Stolzing
“Meistersinger” continued the identification of Gockley-era San Francisco Opera with the career of tenor Brandon Jovanovich, whose exploration of the “youthful” Wagnerian tenor roles has taken place at the War Memorial Opera House.
I have reported on the back-to-back evenings in which Jovanovich’s role debuts as Froh [“Rheingold” Evolves in First Full Zambello “Ring” – San Francisco Opera, June 14, 2011] and Siegmund [Power Singing, Powerful Imagery in Zambello’s “Walkuere” – San Francisco Opera, June 15, 2011] occurred, as well as his later role debut as Lohengrin [Jovanovich is a Joy in Luisotti’s Luminous “Lohengrin” – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 2012], before this evening’s role debut as Stolzing.
[Below: Brandon Jovanovich as Walther von Stolzing; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Jovanovich’s performance suggested that Walther will be a felicitous role for him, although an early hint of uncharacteristic vocal tentativeness was confirmed when an announcement was made prior to the third act that Jovanovich was battling a mild cold. Even so, Jovanovich appeared fully at ease and performed strongly in the very long and demanding third act.
James Rutherford’s Hans Sachs
During both the 2011 Glyndebourne and 2015 San Francisco runs of the McVicar “Meistersinger”, British baritone James Rutherford was cast as Hans Sachs. Rutherford’s previous appearance in San Francisco had been as Wolfram of the Wartburg Minnesingers in a Graham Vick production [see Charismatic S. F. “Tannhauser” – October 12, 2007.]
Rutherford proved to be an engaging, very human Sachs, easily establishing rapport with the San Francisco audience.
[Below: James Rutherford as Hans Sachs; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera. ]
Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s Eva
I had previously admired an appearance by Willis-Sørensen in a Mozart Opera [Review: Classy Cast in Classic “Cosi fan Tutte” – Houston Grand Opera, October 31, 2014.] One of the many alumni of the Houston Grand Opera Studio now assuming principal roles in the world’s opera houses, her gleaming soprano voice resonated in the War Memorial Opera House.
Her stage presence in her San Francisco Opera debut and her attractive soprano sound suggested a sucessful career in Wagner as well as Mozart.
[Below: Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Eva; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Alek Shrader’s David
It is possible to underestimate just how large and important the role of the apprentice David is in “Meistersinger”. In this production, David is sung by tenor Alek Shrader, who is a master of the light lyric roles of Italian opera. Shrader brings to all of his performances, as in this “Meistersinger”, audience-pleasing comic flair and athleticism.
[Below: Alek Shrader as David; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Sasha Cooke’s Magdalena
Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke appears as David’s sweetheart, Magdalena. Another brilliant casting choice, she is an effective actress.
(Having created the title role in Mark Adamo’s opera [See Warm Reception for Adamo’s “Mary Magdalene” – San Francisco Opera, June 19, 2013] it cries out for Cooke to be cast as yet a third Magdalene – Verdi’s Maddalena – the next time “Rigoletto” appears in the San Francisco Opera repertory.)
[Below: Sasha Cooke as Magdalena; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The Third Act Quintet
There is an important reason for assigning the role of Magdalena to a first rate artist like Sasha Cooke, because Magdalena joins Eva, David, Hans Sachs and Stolzing for Selig, wie die Sonne in one of the greatest ensembles in all of German opera.
McVicar staged it magically, with the five artists seated side by side. Beautifully accompanied by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra led by Sir Mark Elder, it was one of the San Francisco Opera season’s high points.
[Below: singing the third act quintet are, from left to right Sasha Cooke as Magdalena, Alek Shrader as David, James Rutherford as Hans Sachs, Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Eva and Brandon Jovanovich as Sir Walther von Stolzing; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Martin Gantner’s Sixtus Beckmesser
In McVicar’s conceptualization of the opera, the character of Sixtus Beckmesser should not be played as a buffoon, as he often is, but, as a respected member of the mastersingers who rightfully thinks of himself as an obvious person to woo and win Eva.
Cast in this role is German baritone Martin Gantner, whose last appearances in California were as Wolfram for the Los Angeles Opera [see Powerful, Edgy “Tannhauser” at Los Angeles Opera – February 28, 2007.]
Gantner’s performance proved that one can make Beckmesser an endearing character.
Yes, his unfortunate exploits were funny – he first attempts to serenade (accompanied in the orchestra by a Celtic harp) the woman he thought to be Eva and he later attempts to fit the imperfectly memorized lyrics of Stolzing’s song he filchered from Sachs to his own melody. Even so, we feel sorry for him when the crestfallen Beckmesser could not be persuaded to stay for the festivities and wandered offstage disconsolate.
[Below: Martin Gantner as Sixtus Beckmesser; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Ain Anger’s Veit Pogner
The role of the goldsmith Pogner provided the opportunity for the San Francisco Opera debut of Esthonian basso Ain Anger. Pogner’s decision to link the idea of marrying his daughter Eva to a mastersinger who wins a song contest motivates the plot.
[Below: Ain Anger as Veit Pogner; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Anger is one of the outstanding basso voices of our time, now familiar to several companies [Radvanovsky, Zajick, Lopardo, Anger Star in Conlon-led Verdi “Requiem” – San Francisco Symphony, October 22, 2011 and Review: Fair Weather and a Well-Sung “Flying Dutchman” at Washington National Opera – March 7, 2015 and Review: Houston “Walküre” Showcases Christine Goerke’s Astonishing Brünnhilde, Karita Mattila’s Stunning Sieglinde – Houston Grand Opera, April 25, 2015.]. Anger’s debut in San Francisco proved to be impressive.
Others in the Cast
Of the mastersingers, A. J. Glueckert stole the show as a foppish Kunz Vogelgesang. The other masters were Philip Horst as an authoritative Fritz Kothner, with Matthew Stump as Hans Foltz, Anthony Reed as Hans Schwarz, Corey Bix as Augustin Moser, Joel Sorensen as Balthasar Zorn, Joseph Hu as Ulrich Eisslinger, Edward Nelson as Hermann Ortel and Sam Handley as Konrad Nachtigall. Laurel Porter was an Apprentice.
Italian born American basso Andrea Silvestrelli made a strong impression in the brief role of the Night Watchman.
David McVicar’s Production
“Meistersinger” is the fourth McVicar production of the Gockley era that also has included “Don Giovanni” [Kwiecien Excels in McVicar’s Dark Side “Don Giovanni” – S. F. June 2, 2007], “Il Trovatore” [Lyrical Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera September 11, 2009] and “Les Troyens” [Review: Susan Graham, Hymel, Antonacci in a Magnificent “The Trojans” from Sir David McVicar – San Francisco Opera, June 7, 2015].
“Meistersinger” celebrates German culture, a theme that was appropriated by Hitler’s propaganda apparatus. The opera’s glorification by Nazi officialdom seemed to infuse the opera with messages that McVicar clearly disbelieves that Wagner ever intended.
[Below: the Franconian knight Walther von Stolzing (Brandon Jovanovich, front right, on riser) wins the singing competition; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
McVicar has time-shifted the story from late medieval times to the beginning of the 19th century, associating it with Wagner’s birth in 1813 at a time when, instead of a German nation, a patchwork of weak principalities existed. Many of these tiny states had been occupied and/or terrorized by Napoleon’s France.
For McVicar, “Meistersinger’s” message is the determination of a community to establish standards for recognizing artistic excellence, that are rigorous, while not being so hidebound that they prevent the flowering of artistic genius. (Wagner takes the opportunity to swipe at pedantic critics.)
The production centers on these artistic “standards” rather than the opera’s “comic” moments – particularly the usual portrayal of Beckmesser as a loathesome and pathetic caricature. The emphasis on art illuminates the opera’s more important message.
McVicar stages the opera to emphasize the inherent theme of how such standards are implemented. Ultimately, no one, regardless of one’s credentials, can be excluded. Even a member of Nuremberg’s ruling Franconian nobility can compete and win in an artistic system established by Nuremberg’s trade guilds.
Each element of “Meistersinger’s” plot is a commentary on a community’s responsibility for its art and culture. The central plot – Eva Pogner being promised by her rich, goldsmith father to the winner of a mastersinger contest – is a metaphor. Whomever inherits the Pogner fortune should be a man who is committed to enriching the community’s cultural heritage with that fortune.
Here the opera’s final moments – Stolzing’s seemingly anticlimactic rejection of the title of master – has special meaning. Yes, you can prevail in a system by trying something new and unexpected, but don’t dishonor a community’s cumulative efforts to achieve high standards for an art. Stolzing understands Sach’s admonition (in McVicar’s staging Sachs forcibly sits the knight down for a stern lecture) and graciously accepts the medal.
I enthusiastically recommend this production and cast for all those who love and appreciate Wagnerian opera, fine Wagnerian singing, and the genius of Sir David McVicar.
Tags: 2005-2015: William's Reviews