The new Netherlands Opera performance of Richard Wagner’s only comic opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was an absolute success. Spanning a daunting four-and-a-half hours, the evening kept us wanting more rather than searching for the clock. A flurry of activity and a constantly morphing set design, not to mention stunning musical integrity and hilarious acting, contributed to one of the finest nights of the company’s 2012/13 season.

Adrian Eröd (Sixtus Beckmesser) © Monika Rittershaus
Adrian Eröd (Sixtus Beckmesser)
© Monika Rittershaus

The well-known tale surrounding the real-life guild of “Master Singers” in Nuremberg during the 16th century took on a vivid interpretation through the realization of American director David Alden. Every facet of this production served a commitment to plot and character development. It’s a story about art told in a comic fashion, yet its darker underlying subtext is what makes this work from Wagner such an extraordinary endeavor. The current vision of Mr Alden sets the scene using an almost utopian realization of the original setting, in which the stage direction, lighting, costumes and choreography blend seamlessly into an image of the past from today’s modern vantage point.

Based on a real-life person from Nuremberg, the protagonist Hans Sachs – played by the venerable American bass-baritone James Johnson – stands as the voice of reason in the quirky, intellectual, yet fickle group of true artisans of which he is a member. The persuasive natures of Sachs and his arch-nemesis Sixtus Beckmesser were ever more convincing thanks to fine performances from the rest of the ensemble.

This leads us to one of the greatest achievements of this particular production: its strong commitment to comedic execution. When the entire company was on stage, it was mind-boggling to witness the unique caricatures ranging from the lead roles all the way to the townsfolk. Particularly side-splitting was the bumbling old Veit Pogner, who creates a singing contest to find a suitable husband for his daughter Eva. This sumptuous role was played by Alastair Miles, in real-life a young British bass nearly half the size of his character! The spirit of jest and lightness was complete.

A theme played with often was the idea of treating the descent into madness as a comedic device. Adrian Eröd’s portrayal of the raging and confused Beckmesser was hilarious and unabashed. The combination of individual acting, set design and costuming combined in one fell swoop as we witnessed the true disintegration of Beckmesser’s mind. In Hans Sachs’ workshop, the poor Beckmesser starts to see apparitions, but not just any apparitions. They walk slowly into view with gigantic heads, terrifyingly painted, bearing scary, daft expressions. They stand in a row just behind the shop window, a clear pane of glass showing everything on the street outside, before entering into the mind of Beckmesser. This is perhaps the most awesome, creative moments of the entire opera, a tour de force of staging, lighting, costuming and coordination with the characters onstage.

The stamina of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra must also be commended. Conductor Marc Albrecht’s vivacity was evident from the moment he led the ensemble through the opening bars. A sensitivity of direction as well as an intense attention span were required not only to produce the luscious, full sound of the 19th-century Romantic orchestra but also to execute the more subtle, minute and crucial moments of comedic timing, working together with the actors on stage.

Costume designer Jon Morrell brought the atmosphere of 16th-century Nuremberg to life. In one scene there was a dance for a crew of witches with gigantic heads, clad in black shawls, the only recognizably interesting part of the getup being their radioactively colorful boots, which were so in fashion at the time. This was a clear wink at the arc of the story, as we realize that Sachs, a cobbler, is indeed at its heart. By taking remnants of fashion from the past, Morrell created a new aesthetic, very modern, fresh, and attention-grabbing.

The set design of Gideon Davey in this production was equally ingenious. Sleek and industrial in its components, a slanted rooftop backdrop suggested just the right amount of confusion and disruption existing in the relations between the characters on stage. And let’s not forget the Master Singers’ lair, hidden from view until raised from the “pit” behind the orchestra, suggesting something quite underground or at least hidden away about this group of quirky intellectuals. Within the design was meaning, which made the production stronger: there was thought put behind the construction of the scenes.

It is always a challenge to perform a Wagner opera, with its multi-layered messages and demanding content, but The Netherlands Opera has prevailed in a way which shines light on issues of the past, acutely looking at them from our modern viewpoint. It is interesting to hear this opera’s infamous final words spoken from a 21st-century perspective, harking back to certain tendencies in the past and reminding us all of the awareness new productions of Wagner can bring to culture today.