SAN FRANCISCO — Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg" may be the ultimate human comedy. This sprawling romantic epic celebrates universal warmth and Medieval wit, the valor of the Germanic spirit, the triumph of tender love and, ultimately, the noble renunciation thereof.
It takes a lot of effort to make "Die Meistersinger" work. It is, after all, an exceptionally cumbersome yet abidingly delicate work.
It takes even more effort to make "Die Meistersinger" tedious. Much of the time--between 7 p.m. and midnight Thursday--Terence McEwen and his San Francisco Opera Company succeeded.
The cast was solid. In two cases--the Eva of Cheryl Studer and the Beckmesser of Michel Trempont--it was considerably more than solid. But this challenge, more than most, requires knowing, genial hands to shape the musical and theatrical impulses. San Francisco settled for routine where inspiration was needed.
Kurt Herbert Adler conducted. Although the current regime has not treated him with affection, much less reverence, the former director of the company is, at 81, a force of historical importance in American music history.
On past Wagnerian occasions he has proven himself a persuasive champion of old-school majesty and momentum. On this occasion, unfortunately, he seemed content to stir a big, gooey "Meistersinger" soup. He let the orchestra play generally loud, generally fast, generally sloppy. He didn't often concern himself--or us--with such niceties as nuance, color, poetry and dramatic climax.
The spirit, one assumes, was willing as ever. Something must have gotten lost in performance translation.
Equally frustrating was the stage direction of Peter Brenner. Given the confining conventions of Roberto Oswald's cheap and ugly, anti-atmospheric sets of 1971, he apparently decided to do little but play traffic cop.
He proved an efficient traffic cop most of the evening. He did reduce the famous riot scene, however, to just another static concert by the Nuremburg Choral Society with a few extras and ballet boys tumbling in the foreground.
Brenner's only departure from yawning convention, and a nice if not altogether original one, involved a public reconciliation at the end between Beckmesser and his peers. Instead of dashing off in disgrace, the sadly misunderstood town clerk is now allowed to hang around, hang his head in depression, accept consolation from the all-knowing, all-forgiving Hans Sachs, and even shake the hand of his victorious tenorial rival.
Under what seemed like laissez-faire circumstances, the singers asserted themselves with varying degrees of conviction.
Studer, an American who had attracted extraordinary attention in a Munich "Rienzi" and a Bayreuth "Tannhaeuser," seemed a bit cool and petulant as Eva. But she sang the heroine's limpid phrases with endless reserves of gleaming, subtly modulated tone. She conveyed compelling rapture in the impetuous outburst of "Oh, Sachs, mein Freund," led the quintet radiantly, even mustered a gentle trill to project the blissful surrender of "Keiner wie Du" after Stolzing's Prize Song.
Trempont, a new Beckmesser from Belgium, resisted--thank goodness--the temptation to play for laughs, though the funny, distracting supertitles often compromised his best intentions.
He simply portrayed the too-easy public nemesis as a crotchety little man, fussy, lonely and middle-aged, whose greatest crimes are adhering to the old rules and lacking imagination. Trempont found pathos beneath the silliness, and although he may not possess the most sensuous baritone in the business, sang the role--really sang it--with urgency and point.
Most "Meistersinger" performances rise or fall with the singing-actor entrusted with the marathon duties of Hans Sachs. There haven't been many great ones, alas, since Friedrich Schorr, Hans Hotter and Paul Schoeffler.
Hans Tschammer, the Silesian basso, makes it to the end of the "Festwiese" without undue strain, sustains the high tessitura manfully, exerts generalized sympathy through understatement. His relatively youthful Sachs is small-scaled and somewhat bluff-sounding but eminently amiable and abidingly intelligent.
Fifteen years ago, when this production was new, it had a virtually ideal Walther von Stolzing in James King. Few if any tenors could rival his lyrical power, his heroic ring, his stamina, his ardor. Called in this year as a replacement for the indisposed Robert Schunk, King offered object lessons in style and survival. At 61, he could not duplicate the freshness and ease of yore, but he still gave an honorable performance.
The mediocre supporting cast included Kurt Rydl as a raw and wobbly Pogner, David Gordon as a tasteful, tiny-voiced David, Sandra Walker as a standard-brand Lene, John Del Carlo as a blustery Kothner.
The ubiquitous supertitles once again encouraged the audience to read before it looked and listened. In the final scene, the titles also falsified Sachs' sentiments. His apostrophes to nationalistic glory--"Deutschland ueber Alles," if you will--were sanitized beyond recognition.
Revisionism lives, even in the opera house.