Composer and librettist Richard Wagner started work on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in 1845 thinking it would be good to follow the tragedy of Tannhäuser with a comedy. At that time he was the Royal Saxon Court conductor but, unfortunately, his politics resulted in his having to leave Dresden and try to find a new home, first in Paris, later in Zurich. Thus, he did not finish his second comedy until 1867. His first comedy, Das Liebesverbot, had been a resounding flop and the theater cancelled its second performance after quelling an all-out brawl between the prima donna's husband and the leading tenor, but that was in 1836. He hoped to find a much better reception for Die Meistersinger. On 21 June 1868, he found an appreciative audience at Munich’s Königliches Hof-und National-Theater. The review in the Neue Freie Press found Die Meistersinger to be Wagner’s best work to date and it described the opera as containing "dazzling scenes of color and splendor and ensembles full of life and character that unfold before the spectator's eyes."

The Act II riot © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
The Act II riot
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
The production seen at San Francisco Opera has already been seen at Lyric Opera of Chicago and The Glyndebourne Festival. Sir David McVicar’s updated staging of Die Meistersinger moved the action from the middle of the 16th century to the early 18th century, so the costumes were in Empire style. The story of Walther, the visiting knight who won the song contest and eventually the hand of the beautiful Eva, remained unchanged. Vicki Mortimer’s scenery was realistic and placed the action in areas that would commonly have been frequented by the ordinary townspeople of Nuremberg.

James Rutherford (Hans Sachs) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
James Rutherford (Hans Sachs)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
This performance marked conductor Sir Mark Elder’s debut with the company and, beginning with the overture, he offered his individual interpretation of the score. He had an enormous range of dynamics and his tempi varied widely with the emotional values of each scene. Members of Ian Robertson’s chorus were ebullient, boyish apprentices and sophisticated, decorous burghers who sang with luminous harmonies. Together with Andrew George’s dancers, they expressed their enjoyment of the delights of the summer holiday. 

Well-known baritone Greer Grimsley was originally scheduled to sing the leading character, Hans Sachs, but he cancelled some weeks earlier citing health issues. His replacement, James Rutherford, whose experience includes Bayreuth, was a most worthy alternative with an expressive voice. His Sachs was a man the audience could recognize by his integrity and innate humanity. With his passionate rendition of the monologue he reminded the audience that the world has always had to deal with “Wahn, Wahn, überall Wahn” (Madness, madness, everywhere madness).

Heldentenor Brandon Jovanovich was singing over a cold, but his tones sounded effortless and he was able to color them to fit each of his character’s situations. Rachel Willis-Sørensen simply sparkled in her San Francisco Opera debut as Eva. Her charisma made her an assured ingénue and her radiant soprano soared throughout the auditorium. Her voice was the embodiment of “Selig wie die Sonne” (Blessed as the sun), the opening line of the Act III Quintet. As her father, Pogner the rich goldsmith, Ain Anger was properly dignified and protective.

Brandon Jovanovich (Walther) and Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Eva) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Brandon Jovanovich (Walther) and Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Eva)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Martin Gantner’s Beckmesser was a well dressed town clerk who sang with unusually elegant tones and kept his amusing character within the bounds of credibility. As Magdalene, the smooth voice of Sasha Cooke contrasted well with that of Willis-Sørensen’s Eva. Alek Shrader as her future husband, the apprentice David, added his warm lyric voice to this colorful musical tapestry as did numerous fine artists who portrayed the other mastersingers. Casting Andrea Silvestrelli as the Night Watchman was a luxury that ended Act II on a memorable note. Die Meistersinger is a long opera, but few patrons left before its end. Thunderous applause greeted the final curtain as the audience expressed its gratitude for this fine performance. 

*****