Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - Opernhaus Zürich, 8 May 2010
A good opera production should acknowledge the period of the work's setting, the composer's own times, and the modern day - or so the maxim goes. It seems for this 2003 production Nikolaus Lehnhoff took the advice literally. So his first act is set in a jerkin-riddled Nuremberg that Dürer might recognise, the second in a misty Victorian dreamscape and the last as a contemporary village pageant.
Why? Beats me. But perhaps it's to camouflage how little he has to say about the characters. This cast was too good and too experienced to resort to stand and deliver, but they each fell back on their own ideas, honed in different productions, and there was little stylistic unity between for example Michael Volle's subtly caricatured Beckmesser and the posturing heroics of Robert Dean Smith's old-school, big-house Walther. The presentation was competent enough to be neither irritating nor distracting, but that's perhaps the kindest thing that can be said about it.
At least there were musical compensations. The wild cheers that local boy Philippe Jordan received simply for taking the podium didn't at first seemed justified by a raw and ragged Vorspiel. But he recovered to deliver a clear and well-paced reading that made the five hours seem to fly by. His responsiveness to the singers and the dramatic needs of the moment came at the expense of any overarching vision, but he should at least be congratulated for avoiding the ponderous wallowing that sinks so many performances.
If Die Meistersinger was a fair competition, Michael Volle would have won the prize for his perpetually-irritated Beckmesser, alert in every detail and sung with rare beauty. A Walther like Robert Dean Smith wouldn't have stood a chance. Smith had a rare off-night, with a charmless and vocally uneven performance that fell short of his usual standard, though he did manage to pull it together well for the prize song. Alfred Muff's competent Hans Sachs very much took a back seat, but held the stage well for his monologues. It was sad to see Matti Salminen still walking with a stick following last year's operation, but at least it was perfectly in keeping with his sage and imposing Pogner.
If Edith Haller could only manage those top notes, she'd be a peerless Eva, but as with her Covent Garden Elsa, she was stretched and flat where it mattered most. I was more impressed with Wiebke Lehmkuhl's dark and slightly tremulous contralto - it made her an intriguing Magdalene. I was less taken with Peter Sonn's blustery and over-parted David.
I sat, incidentally, in the cheapest section - top deck, sides - where the seats are a relative bargain (if you can grab one that is - they tend to sell out quickly to subscribers). Views of the top of the stage and the closest corner are clipped, but as Zurich is a smallish house, nothing feels too distant. And the sound is excellent.
production photos: Suzanne Schwiertz for Opernhaus Zürich, 2003
curtain call photos: intermezzo.typepad.com