The Metropolitan Opera assembled a top-flight international cast for a rare revival of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg under the baton of one of the world’s leading conductors. On paper, it should have been the event of the house’s still-young fall season. So why did the finished product end up seeming so routine?

Lise Davidsen (Eva) and Michael Volle (Hans Sachs)
© Richard Termine | Met Opera

First, consider the production itself. The company dusted off a 1993 staging by Otto Schenk that looks both hyper-realistic and outlandishly cartoonish. The hulking set designed by the late Günther Schneider-Siemssen depict some elements of 16th-century Nuremberg with painstakingly literalism, while at other times, they resemble a Teutonic storybook come to life. The opening moments of the second act, when the townspeople furiously sweep the sidewalks in preparation for the song contest, particularly resembles a Disneyland diorama. The costumes, designed originally by the late Rolf Langenfass, manage to seem both generic and ornate. 

Perhaps due to its six-hour length, Meistersinger returns to The Met’s repertoire only about as often as the Dutchman reaches dry land. At one point in the recent past, a new production by Stefan Herheim was announced but never materialized. Especially coming out of a pandemic that kept stages dark for nearly two years, it is understandable that management might think it unwise to lavish resources on an opera that is unlikely to pay dividends in the form of regular revivals. But a cast comprised of the world’s leading Wagnerians surely deserves better than Schenk’s increasingly fusty mise en scéne. Particularly in light of the company’s superb new takes on Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde in recent years, this is an entire corner of the repertoire that deserves an aesthetic refresh.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Act 3
© Richard Termine | Met Opera

The musical virtues did not entirely compensate for pedestrian theatrical elements. Leading the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for the first time since 1997, Sir Antonio Pappano favored moderate tempos throughout that lacked much lift and forward momentum. There were moments when this approach felt exactly right – the prelude to Act 3 had a lovely suspended quality, and Pappano underlined the deep humanity of Hans Sachs’ Flieder Monologue – but at other times, you longed for a bit more excitement to come from the pit, along with a greater sense of levity in the comedic music of Act 2 and a wish that the Vorspiel would be played with a touch more joyous abandon. Perhaps owing to under-rehearsal, there were tuning issues evident throughout the evening, particularly in the lower strings and brass, and some coordination deficits with the singers. Entrances and balances in the famous quintet were especially dicey.

Lise Davidsen (Eva) and Klaus Florian Vogt (Walther von Stolzing)
© Richard Termine | Met Opera

In terms of characterization, Michael Volle proved an ideal Hans Sachs, convincingly bridging the gap between tradition and modernity as he advocates that new ideas are not the enemy of the masters’ ancient art. His mellow tone added to the fatherly quality between Sachs and Eva, sung here in a role debut by Wagnerian Wunderkind Lise Davidsen, who seemed to still be finding her way into the role on opening night. She presented Eva as a headstrong and determined young woman, a far cry from the sweet and virginal maiden you might expect. It’s an exciting choice, but you sensed little variation in her journey from the beginning of the opera to the end. She sang thrillingly, though without a range of color or volume. 

Klaus Florian Vogt brought his unusual timbre and ringing high notes to the gallant knight, Walther von Stolzing, but his acting tended toward the presentational. You wished for a more ardent suitor to match Davidsen’s strong-willed heroine. Much of the role’s tessitura suits him well, although his Prize Song lacked a consistent legato line, and uneven breaks marred the passaggio.

Michael Volle (Hans Sachs) and Johannes Martin Kränzle (Sixtus Beckmesser)
© Richard Termine | Met Opera

Smaller roles were generally cast from strength, with Frankfurt Kammersängerin Claudia Mahnke, true luxury as Magdalena. Johannes Martin Kränzle avoided hoary stereotypes as Beckmesser while still achieving the role’s comic purposes. Paul Appleby was a sweet-voiced, goofy David, and Georg Zeppenfeld made for a sympathetic Pogner. Alexander Tsumbalyuk intoned The Nightwatchman’s brief lines with authority, although the direction here miffed the comedic purpose of the character by having him re-enter the scene in Act 2 after the riotous kerfuffle had ended. The Met Chorus sang enthusiastically but with less polish than I’ve come to expect. 

This cast and conductor deserve the time and resources to craft a Meistersinger that truly sings. Unfortunately, The Met’s standard-issue outing cannot claim that prize. 

***11