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Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg : Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus Gran Teatre del Liceu.  Conductor: Sebastian Weigle. Gran Teatre del Liceu de Barcelona. 17.3.2009 (JMI)

Production from Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden.
Director: Claus Guth.
Sets and Costumes: Christian Schmidt.
Lighting: Jan Seeger


Hans Sachs: Albert Dohmen.
Walther von Stolzing: Robert Dean Smith.
Eva: Veronique Gens.
Beckmesser: Bo Skovhus.
Pogner: Reinhard Hagen.
David: Norbert Ernst.
Magdalene: Stella Grigorian.
Fritz Kothner: Robert Bork.
Night Watchman: Magnus Baldvinsson.
Kunz Vogelgesang: Yves Saelens.
Konrad Nachtigall: Kurt Gyssen.
Balthasar Zorn: Roger Padullés.
Ulrich Eisslinger: Ángel Rodríguez.
Agustin Moser: José Ferrero.
Hermann Ortel: Joseph Ribot.
Hans Schwarz: Tobias Schabel.
Hans Foltz: Dario Russo.

Die Meistersinger  is probably Wagner’s least performed opera, apart of his early works (from which the opera houses  seem  to flee as if they were operas to hide from). As far as Barcelona’s Liceu is concerned, since Meistersinger’s premiere in this theatre in 1905 there has never been more than 10 years between revivals, the exception being the 20 years that have passed since its last performance in 1988. There is no question that there are many difficulties to sort out for a  performance of this work, among them the  huge orchestral and choral resources needed. Despite this, 20 years is too long a period for a theatre which is an acknowledged centre for Wagnerian performances to go without a production.

This time, the difficulties have been overcome admirably, with the correct balance being found between orchestra, vocalists and an exceptional chorus. Joy, it seems can hardly ever be complete however, and to compensate for all this we had to suffer a far from acceptable production.

The production by Claus Guth came from Dresden, where it was premiered in October of 2007. It is not easy to understand what determined the Liceu to offer it. The Barcelona audience cannot be considered as traditionalists - on the contrary it is probably Spain’s most open-minded as far as modern productions are concerned -  but the audience reaction  gave little room for doubt that it was unpopular. If the management thought that this production was ideal for a faithful Barcelona audience, then  a huge rift has opened between the theatre's taste and that of its customers. The final verdict could not have been more eloquent, with almost unanimous sonorous booing. For the first time ever I saw no smiles at all from he members of the creative team when taking their bows.

Hans Sachs: Albert Dohmen and Eva: Veronique Gens

What does  Claus Guth want to say with this production?  What is the meaning of its dramaturgy? Like many others, I suspect, I have long given up on trying to tease out 'messages' from stage directors and prefer instead to concentrate on the music and singing, which is really what I go to the opera for in the first place.  Unfortunately,  there was no explanation of the production from Mr Guth in the programme so I decided to simply enjoy the music without one.

The opera works quite well in Act I, with white walls and a profusion of tables for the Meistersinger and good contrast between black and white, as if we were seeing the confrontation between the two different concepts of art  on which the plot depends.  But after Act I, there was no Nürnberg, nor meadow, nor houses. For Act II Claus Guth put the sets from  the first act upside down, with tables hanging from the ceiling, presumably symbolising St. Johann’s night as a time when norms are transgressed. The fight that ends this act shows David undressing and then castrating (blood included)  Beckmesser, while the protagonists are shown wearing beasts' heads. These things feel like details without any real sense, aimed simply to provoke, contributing nothing to the work, and indeed detracting from it. To replace the houses in  Nürnberg by small  models, from one of which Magdalene tries to show part of her face through a tiny window, had no sense either, at least for me and – more importantly - for most of the audience, judging by its reactions.

Sebastián Weigle has lately become one of the more familiar Meistersinger conductors, having been musical director for the last two years of Katharina Wagner's controversial production at Bayreuth. It is clear that his reading of the work has matured, and today he offers an excellent interpretation of the opera. I found it slightly short of solemnity during the overture and not too fluid at the end of Act II, but this last is quite understandable considering what was happening on stage. Musically, this was a performance full of strength and tension, much better than I heard from him two years ago in Bayreuth. The Liceu orchestra was much improved too  over past occasions, particularly in the last act. There was an outstanding performance by the Chorus, which is probably the only one in Spain able to face up to this opera's inherent difficulties.

Albert Dohmen is also probably the best Hans Sachs around today. I will not say that he can be compared to the great ones in history, because for that  he would need a bigger presence, and more brightness in his high notes, but his performance was still magnificent. Hans Sachs and the young Siegfried are the two Wagner characters who have to sing the most and it is almost an act of heroism in itself to get to the last scene of Meistersinger with the voice still fresh and in full power. But  Dohmen can. He was also a  great interpreter, using beautifully soft singing and becoming the centre of the stage every time he was on it. He was an outstanding interpreter of the shoemaker Master.

Robert Dean Smith was a good Walther von Stolzing, offering yet again a beautiful lyric tenor voice, which although not too powerful,  is certainly very musical. I do not believe that he was at his  best at this performance, since some  high notes were rather forced at times, most noticeably in the famous quintet.

The French soprano Veronique Gens was a very pleasant surprise as Eva. I had always heard her in Mozart operas until now, but her Wagner  debut was very promising. She is not quite a Wagner soprano, but she doesn't need to be to sing Eva.

The Swedish baritone Bo Skovhus was Beckmesser and seemed rather too young for the character, since there are several references to his age during the opera. It felt  strange to have a Beckmesser who is younger than Walther but he was a remarkable interpreter from a vocal point of view, although I was inclined to  believe that he overacted unnecessarily sometimes, as if we were in an opera buffa. Mr Guth's hand was behind this
, I suspect.

Norbert Ernst gave an excellent performance as David, a character that fits him like a glove and would be difficult to improve. Stella Grigorian was a good Magdalene in vocal terms, but not so good as an interpreter. Reinhard Hagen was a decent Pogner, and Robert Bork acceptable as Fritz Kothner.

This was the first performance of the run and there were a few empty seats. At the final bows there was a well-deserved success for Albert Dohmen and there were also cheers for Sebastian Weigle and the Orchestra. As I said already, the creative team received a sonorous and mostly unanimous booing.

José M Irurzun

Pictures © Antoni Bofill

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