“Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” Richard Wagner’s only down-to-earth and happy opera shares the gigantism of other Wagner works. The San Francisco Opera production, opening Wednesday night, requires 138 artists on stage and in the orchestra pit, and it runs close to six hours.
The company meets all logistical and the even more difficult artistic challenges splendidly in the War Memorial Opera House. There are many heroes in the production and no weak links – a rare happening with a work of this size, and so it is one to be treasured.
Pulling it all together is Mark Elder’s musical direction. Presiding over an orchestra and working with a company whose Wagner expertise has developed under former SFO Music Director Donald Runnicles, Elder’s approach is different from Runnicles’ robust and taut direction, but equally valid in its balance (supporting voices and woodwinds without holding back the orchestra), and realization of Wagner’s superbly layered orchestration. Ian Robertson’s Opera Chorus is repeating its “Les Troyens” triumph.
Among the many sterling individual performances in the orchestra during this demanding marathon, there were remarkable solos by principal violist Carla Rodrigues, principal cellist David Kadarauch, and harpist Olga Rakitchenko. It was a special night for the woodwinds, and superhuman breath control demanded from the horns for the unusually slow tempi.
The David McVicar production, directed in San Francisco by Marie Lambert and Ian Rutherford, works fine, notwithstanding the pointless transition of centuries from the original medieval setting. Kudos to fight director Dave Maier, and the brave chorus members and supers who duke it out in the riot, celebrate with glee at other times. Vicki Mortimer’s vaulted stage design makes sense in the church, but not in Hans Sachs’ home.
James Rutherford, taking over the extensive, key role of Hans Sachs from a singer who withdrew from the production, built the performance steadily, peaking when it required the most five hours into the evening. Act III was also the high point for Rachel Willis-Sørensen, making her debut here as Eve.
Brandon Jovanovich, singing Puccini roles a few years ago, then triumphing as Siegmund in the “Ring” cycle here, is perfect now as a dashing Walther von Stolzing, with a vocal performance both heroic and lyrical. Alek Shrader’s David makes the most of a smallish voice with a fine musical and stage performance. Sasha Cooke is outstanding as Magdalene.
Two notable house debuts are Martin Gantner’s Beckmesser and Ain Anger (heard several times across Grove Street, in Davies Hall) as a big-voiced, resonant Pogner. Among the many singers with solo roles, especially notable are Philip Horst (Kothner), AJ Glueckert (Vogelgesang), Corey Bix (Augustin Moser), and Sam Handley (Konrad Nachtigall).
Because of its size and production challenges, “Meistersinger” is rarely performed – the last three times here were in 1986 (Kurt Herbert Adler’s last appearance), 1993 and 2001 (both with Runnicles) – so it is not to be missed, and there are only five more performances, ending on Dec. 6. Given the opera’s length, the $10 standing room is not a realistic option, but there are various discounts available for students and seniors. Where there is a will…