This was much more exciting than a six-hour opera by Wagner has any right to be. First of all, this marks the first time that I have heard James Levine, the Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera, at the baton. He lives up to his considerable reputation – this is conducting with the passion and agility of a Bernstein or a Bruno Walter, more than up to the formidable musical tasks Wagner sets.
Then there is the remarkable Michael Volle, the first operatic singer in some time who has instantaneously made me a fan. It’s not so much his voice, though his baritone is certainly a supple and rich instrument and he makes expert and expressive use of it. Rather, I am drawn to Volle because he is a consumate actor.
Volle plays the titular “master singer” Hans Sachs, a real-life 16th Century Nürnberg cobbler who became a truly major figure in German literary and musical history. In the wrong hands, Richard Wagner’s version of Sachs could come across as a jingoistic blow-hard – in other words, like Wagner himself. But when Volle plays the role, he gives us something more like my understanding of the historical Sachs: a deeply humane person, who filters the humanism then flowering all over Europe into something distinctly German.
Many great operatic perfomers would communicate something like that through the way they sing a role. With Volle, though, you can read all this in his face before he has sung a note. To me, this is what opera should be: great singing coupled with great acting, expressing more than either acting or singing alone could hope to do.
Director Otto Schenk’s production is profoundly traditional, and allows us to see both the benefits and drawbacks of such an approach. On the plus side, it gives us at least a whiff of what life in 16th Century Germany was actually like, and gives us room to imagine Sachs as a real person in a real place. On the down side, the staging can be awfully static, and as beautiful as the third act quintet “Selig, wie die Sonne” is, having it sung by five unmoving people against a brown backgroud nearly put me to sleep.
It may be daunting to sit through one of the longest pieces in the operatic repetoire. This lovely rendition, though, is more than worth it.
For tickets, click here.
To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.