Lyric Opera of Chicago
Die Meistersinger von
By Richard Wagner
By Lori Dana
The Wagnerian is a special breed of opera fan. This is someone who is prepared to participate in a musical marathon. Someone who comes with their own picnic supper packed in their handbag, ready to be washed down with a robust glass of Riesling (or in the case of those of us who worked an eight hour day beforehand, a brisk cup of coffee – or two.) Lyric Opera’s current production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is a look at a different side of the iconic composer. Noteworthy on a number of fronts, Meistersinger is primarily known as Wagner’s only comedy, and it marked a distinctive turn away from the themes of Teutonic myth that characterize the masterworks of his Ring cycle operas. Though no less lengthy, (the Lyric performance runs five and a half hours and includes a dinner break and intermission) this co-production with Glyndebourne Festival Opera and the San Francisco Opera Association is warm, accessible and very charming.
The story is a familiar one in the world of opera: an outsider faces a test of his mettle, in order to win the hand of the lady that he loves. In this case, our hero seeks to win a song contest sponsored by Nuremberg’s guild of Master Singers in which the victor will take the hand of a beautiful maiden as his prize. One has to give Wagner credit for at least making our heroine Eva (soprano Amanda Majeski) a woman who has set her own sights on the young nobleman Walther von Stolzing (tenor Johan Botha), rather than being a totally compliant trophy in a man’s contest of ego. Wagner, who, unlike most opera composers of his day authored his own librettos, turns the contest on its ear here with the workingman’s guild of Meistersingers (master singers) initially turning its back on the high-born von Stolzing in favor of the ridiculously narcissistic and questionably talented town clerk, Beckmesser (baritone Bo Skovhus). At the spiritual center of the piece is the cobbler-philosopher Sachs (bass-baritone James Morris), who has mentored Eva since her childhood and has fallen in love with her as an adult. Always a Lyric favorite, Morris is perfectly cast as Sachs; his passionate performance and beautifully burnished vocal tone investing his character with just the right emotional nuances. Tenor David Portillo is charming, funny, and in superb voice as Sachs’ eager apprentice, David.
Once we got past the somewhat leaden conducting of music director Sir Andrew Davis’s overture where the brass frequently trod on the toes of the string section, and the interminable sung dialog of the first act, Die Meistersinger was all charm. With just the right balance of philosophy, romance, and wacky comedy, four-and-a-half hours flew by. Designer Vicki Mortimer’s warmly lit chapel set, soothing in tones of beige, taupe and gray, yielded to jewel toned courtyards and fairgrounds, their brilliant blue skies framed by the same soaring vaulted ceiling employed in the opening scene. Her period costumes added a welcome realism to the wonderful crowd scenes imbued with such life by the marvelous singing of the Lyric Opera chorus. The Lyric Orchestra also found its feet in the second act, fleshing out the aural landscape with all the sweeping grandeur we expect from a Wagner score. From Act II’s lovely quintet (“Prize Song”) to Sachs’ deeply felt poetic monologues, to the celebratory fervor of the Midsummer Festival that closes the production, the vocal performances were outstanding. Lyric Opera’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is an uplifting experience and a rare opportunity to see a lesser known but compelling Wagner work — one of warmth, light and conviction in the power of art to elevate our lives.
(“Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” runs through March 3, 2013 at the Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-332-2244)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg production photos by Dan Rest.