San Francisco’s ardent Wagnerites, well-served by their opera company’s previous managements, now have reasons for some concern. Only one work by the object of their affection – and that the early and relatively brief Der fliegende Holländer – figures on the announced five-year programming of incoming general director Pamela Rosenberg. They had reasons, therefore, to cling to this season’s Die Meistersinger, given seven times during October, as a pre-famine feast. Most of those reasons, as it happened, were good.
Barring a questionable detail here and there, John Coyne’s sets could easily have passed for snapshots of medieval Nürnberg – best of all the spacious, beautifully colored church interior for Act One and the broad and uncluttered riverbank for the final songfest. Neither Coyne nor director Hans-Peter Lehmann, however, could quite untangle the glorious tangle of activity throughout Act Two, with performers disappearing and re-emerging from behind free-standing scrims and a towering upstage vertical that bore uncomfortable resemblance to a destroyed structure of recent tragic memory. The great contrapuntal brouhaha that ended that act became more mess than mélée; Sachs’ rescue of Walther at the end had to be taken pretty much on faith. The opera’s final moment, the apotheosis of artist over critic, was cluttered beyond Wagnerian intent by having the disgraced Beckmesser return to the fold and deliver a penitent hug to the triumphant Sachs. (Sorry, folks, but music critics don’t work that way.)
James Morris sang his first Sachs — out-of-town preparation, he freely admitted, for assuming the role at the Met a month later. For reasons good and otherwise, his performance (heard on October 13, the second night) was pure, unsurprising, all-purpose Morris: the voice nicely colored, the intonation pure, the stage presence noble, the words immaculately shaped – and the drama, the rich throb of humanness that elevates this role above any you can easily name, sadly understated. That human throb came through more tellingly in René Pape’s eloquent, loving Pogner (also Met-bound). Thomas Allen’s Beckmesser came across as an even greater surprise, with a thread of pain under the comedic shenanigans that provided a further dimension to a personage too often relegated to slapstick status.
Robert Dean Smith — Kansas-born but in his U.S. operatic debut — was the Walther; Janice Watson, the Eva: an appealing, bright-voiced pair who, for once, looked and sounded as young as they were supposed to. (Jay Hunter Morris and Elisabeth-Maria Wachutka were slated to replace them in the last two performances, with Robert Orth as Beckmesser.) As David and his Magdalene, Michael Schade and Catherine Keen were no less splendid, and contributed especially elegant support in the great Act Three Quintet.
But that wondrous ensemble – and, indeed, everything about the texture of Wagner’s irresistible comedy that makes transcendant and all-too-brief its five hours in the opera house – owed the most to the musical leadership of the company’s music director Donald Runnicles. Half-a-minute into the much-loved and thrice-familiar Prelude, with every orchestral detail fixed into place and the music’s spirit surging forward, and you could suspect something remarkable was taking shape. Give or take small details here and there, you’d be right. ALAN RICH