Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera (SFO) presented the second of six performances of a new production of Richard Wagner’s monumental Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (the master-singers of Nuremberg). Directed by David McVicar, this interpretation received its world premiere with the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in May of 2011 as a co-production with SFO and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The staging had to account for seventeen principal roles, augmented with choreography by Andrew George, whose work was being seen at SFO for the first time. The music was conducted by Mark Elder, also making his SFO debut.
Those who attend performances of Wagner are a picky bunch. Where Meistersinger is concerned, they know that they are committing themselves to over five and one-half hours of time. Indeed, they tend to be rabidly averse to cuts; and none were taken last night. However, they tend to take Wagner’s original conceptions very seriously and can therefore be very discriminating over whether or not that five-and-a-half-hour commitment was worth the time.
As SFO audiences know from his staging of Hector Berlioz’ five-act Les Troyens this past June, McVicar is no stranger to working over the course of a long duration. Unfortunately, his approach to sustaining attention over such periods has a strong tendency to fall back on spectacle, often to the detriment of both the music and the drama being depicted by that music. In this case there seemed to be a clear and valid case for how he chose to approach Meistersinger, but too many of the details were beset by no end of devils.
On the plus side McVicar recognized that the heart of Meistersinger is a highly elaborately structured social world. (When you have seventeen characters singing expressively, how could it be otherwise?) Furthermore, it is a world of very complex relations involving domination and authority. Thus, McVicar seems to have given considerable attention to the vast number of “links in the social network” that reveal themselves through Wagner’s words, as well as his music.
We appreciate how the financial straits of the Franconian knight Walther von Stolzing (tenor Brandon Jovanovich) led to his relationship with the goldsmith Veit Pogner (bass Ain Anger, making his SFO debut), which then led to his meeting Pogner’s daughter Eva (soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen, also making her SFO debut). However, as is the case with any hero-narrative, Walther must endure an imposing trial before winning the object of his affection. The detailed attention that McVicar lavishes on each of these characters, as well as all the others, both major and minor, makes this one of the most refined “narrations” of a narrative that every Wagner-lover already knows in every detail by heart.
Unfortunately, it is at that level of detail that McVicar first goes astray. Wagner set his libretto in Nuremberg around the middle of the sixteenth century. This was a time of major social transition. Walther’s noble class no longer commanded the necessary “instruments of domination,” such as wealth and military power. As a result, Nuremberg had become a free city, sustained by the capitalist infrastructure of its craft guilds and merchants rather than either royal or noble authority. Power resided in the skill of making necessary things and the capital accrued through the sale of those things. Almost all of the male characters we encounter in Wagner’s libretto are craftsmen, except for Walther, the night watchman, and Sixtus Beckmesser, who is a civil servant.
The problem is that McVicar decided to transplant the narrative to Wagner’s Nuremberg in the early nineteenth century, rather than a major city in the social history of the Renaissance. This allows him to present Beckmesser as a more explicit parody of the music critic Eduard Hanslick, but it also establishes a layer of confusion for anyone trying to make sense of the words of the libretto. Furthermore, the more “contemporary” setting gives McVicar an excuse to dump some of the most striking visual impressions of the plot in favor of what is little more than time-wasting silliness. This is most evident in George’s choreography, much of which is as anachronistic for the nineteenth century as it is for the sixteenth; but it also involves undermining several plot-critical elements. Most important is that the entire second act, complete with the street brawl and the clueless night watchman, feels entirely out of step, simply because it is all occurring in the wrong place at the wrong time. Similarly, the parade of the different guilds in the second scene of the third act becomes a single chorus singing all of the music while surrounded by stilt-walkers, jugglers, and well-soused merrymakers. In the midst of that mundane porridge of spectacle, some of Wagner’s finest music loses all of its significance.
Sadly, under Elder’s baton, much of that music was already at a loss. It is not often that a performance deflates during the very first measure; but in the opening prolog Elder never seemed to recognize that the music was a march (which is how it would emerge in the third act), whose first step involves multi-string bowing in both the violins and the violas. Instead, the ear was suffused in a wash of overly-loud mushy legato playing in the brass section, all of which smothered the contribution of the strings to that opening downbeat. Fortunately, Elder’s work with the vocalists was, on the whole, much more satisfying, particularly in the rich contrapuntal crowd scene in which each character is singing a different text. However, when Elder had to shift his attention to the orchestra pit, everything seemed little more than incidental.
In fairness, all of this may have been the product of a bad night at the opera, so to speak, which is why my current plan is to revisit the production on the final day of its run.