Wagner’s only mature comic opera returned to the Met this season, in a six-performance revival of Otto Schenk’s gorgeous storybook production, which premiered here in 1993. Pre-pandemic rumors held that it was due for replacement by a more abstract European production favored by management. But with much of the rest of the company’s Wagner repertoire now dubiously entrusted to François Girard, and a prospective new Ring Cycle by Richard Jones (already described as “bleak”) now unfolding at London’s English National Opera, we can be grateful for whatever budget cuts allowed the old warhorse Meistersinger to survive.
The production has aged well. Its vibrant return after a seven-year absence should have been a landmark revival and one of the highlights of the Met’s new season. Musically, it met the mark. The energy on stage, in this as in other productions earlier this season, was palpable, as the company roster and soloists returned to full employment for the first time in eighteen months. Despite dire predictions of mass departures and serious labor disruptions, the Met’s orchestra lost only eleven of its 96 full-time members, while the company reached what appear to be durable deals with its nineteen unions.
The revival featured the glorious Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen in only her second role with the company, with many more coming her way. Later this season, she will sing the title role in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Chrysothemis in the same composer’s Elektra.
The revival also featured the long-overdue return to the podium of Sir Antonio Pappano, music director of the Royal Opera House, who has only ever conducted one production at the Met: Robert Carsen’s austere Eugene Onegin, way back in 1997.
Pappano’s return also marked the first time since 1985 that someone other than the Met’s late music director James Levine conducted Meistersinger for the company. Comparisons are inevitable. Levine’s approach was invitingly meditative without sacrificing an authoritative orchestral line that evoked the finest traditions of Wagnerian conducting. Pappano’s reading of the score was more buoyant—dare one say upbeat?—and only enhanced the opera’s color and powerful sense of movement. In some ways it drew out the work’s humor and irony with greater aplomb than a more classic approach might offer. The orchestra and chorus delivered a performance reaching the company’s highest standards. The Act III “Wach’ auf” chorus—which introduces the song contest at the opera’s heart—resonated with a clarion nobility matched only by the oft-encored “Va, pensiero” chorus in the Met’s production of Verdi’s Nabucco.
Davidsen’s Eva, the prize of the opera’s song contest who desperately hopes to be won by the knight Walther von Stolzing, had an appealingly gentle quality, but her powerful technique lost nothing as the evening, which began at six p.m., soldiered on toward midnight. Her strongest singing only seemed to build on triumphs scored earlier in the evening. At just 34, her alluring middle register resounded with a solidity that portends a stratospheric future.
She was well matched with the German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt, whose voice may once have sat a bit too high for the sturdier Wagner parts. Long the world’s Lohengrin of choice, Vogt’s instrument has darkened and thickened in ways that have led him convincingly to the true Heldentenor status that seemed to elude him before.
Michael Volle reigns internationally in the role of Hans Sachs and brought a rough and ready characterization to the historic poet, known for the matter-of-factness that the Germans call Sächlichkeit. This is a man who knows the world, its problems, and its hurts, and Volle understands that well enough to resist the temptation to reduce the part to a dreamy wizard. Volle’s performance held firm nearly until the end, when understandable exhaustion in this longest of all baritone parts caused him to flag on the opera’s ending declamation glorifying die heilige deutsche Kunst.
Luxuriously cast supporting roles sustained the momentum. Johannes Martin Kränzle sang a full-voiced but suitably nerdy Beckmesser, delivering his unselfconsciously irritating qualities without taking the part into uglier directions of yore. The stentorian bass Georg Zeppenfeld sang a noble Pogner, Eva’s duty-bound father. David and Magdalena, whose romance is a foil to the central one uniting Walther and Eva, can seem superfluous if left to lesser talents, but the able American tenor Paul Appleby and impressive German mezzo Claudia Mahnke brought them into focus. Alexander Tsymbalyuk, who has sung Boris Godunov on European stages, made a solid impression as the Nightwatchman who imposes order on Nuremberg, or tries to. Mark Delavan, a past Wotan with other companies and a frequent Verdi baritone hero at the Met, was notably present in the smaller part of Konrad Nachtigall, Sachs’s fellow mastersinger, as was the fine German baritone Martin Gantner in the role of Fritz Kothner.
The only disappointment was to be found in the audience. The revival’s first performance reportedly filled just 57% of the seats. The situation had not much improved by the third performance, which I attended, amid row after row of empty places. Everyone seems to have a unique explanation. Some operagoers might not care to sit through six hours of Wagner mandatorily en masque as the pandemic continues (all persons entering the Met must also show proof of full vaccination). For most of the run (October 26 – November 14, 2021), travel restrictions barred foreign visitors, who used to flock to New York to go to Wagner productions staged in a traditional idiom, but who may not be eager to return for a while. Critics of the Met’s management continue to find the company’s marketing uninspired, its prices too high, and its atmosphere stale and lugubrious. Many New Yorkers, especially among the older demographic that largely supplies the Met’s traditional hometown audience, remain virus-shy. And, it needs to be said, due to certain political, social, and economic realities, significant numbers of that traditional hometown audience are no longer New Yorkers.
While the evening’s artistic achievement was magnificent, I left the theater close to the stroke of midnight wondering, for the first time in my life, how many more evenings like this can realistically be had.
Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University.