Review: McVicar’s Magical, Masterful “Meistersinger” – San Francisco Opera, November 18, 2015

For David Gockley’s final season as General Director of the San Francisco Opera, Sir David McVicar’s 2011 Glyndebourne Festival production of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” was mounted. Even for an opera company with a strong tradition of great Wagner performances, the McVicar “Meistersinger” was an extraordinary success.

[Below: the unit set for David McVicar’s production of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger”, here staged for the second act; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


During Gockley’s tenure, British or American directors created productions shown at San Francisco Opera of nine of Wagner’s ten major operas (all but “Parsifal”).

As a celebration of the ten season Gockley era, the McVicar “Meistersinger” – the last of the Gockley “Wagners” – had special meaning.

Gockley regarded the 2007 Graham Vick new production of  Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” with its singing contest of minnesingers and the 2015 McVicar “Meistersinger” with its singing contest of mastersingers, as monuments to San Francisco Opera’s and Gockley’s commitments to the celebration of vocal performance.

Brandon Jovanovich’s Walther von Stolzing

“Meistersinger” continued the identification of Gockley-era San Francisco Opera with the career of tenor Brandon Jovanovich, whose exploration of the “youthful” Wagnerian tenor roles has taken place at the War Memorial Opera House.

I have reported on the back-to-back evenings in which Jovanovich’s role debuts as Froh [“Rheingold” Evolves in First Full Zambello “Ring” – San Francisco Opera, June 14, 2011] and Siegmund [Power Singing, Powerful Imagery in Zambello’s “Walküre” – San Francisco Opera, June 15, 2011] occurred, as well as his later role debut as Lohengrin [Jovanovich is a Joy in Luisotti’s Luminous “Lohengrin” – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 2012], before this evening’s role debut as Stolzing.

[Below: Brandon Jovanovich as Walther von Stolzing; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Jovanovich’s performance suggested that Walther will be a felicitous role for him, although an early hint of uncharacteristic vocal tentativeness was confirmed when an announcement was made prior to the third act that Jovanovich was battling a mild cold. Even so, Jovanovich appeared fully at ease and performed strongly in the very long and demanding third act.

James Rutherford’s Hans Sachs

During both the 2011 Glyndebourne and 2015 San Francisco runs of the McVicar “Meistersinger”, British baritone James Rutherford was cast as Hans Sachs. Rutherford’s previous appearance in San Francisco had been as Wolfram of the Wartburg Minnesingers in a Graham Vick production [see Charismatic S. F. “Tannhäuser” – October 12, 2007.]

Rutherford proved to be an engaging, very human Sachs, easily establishing rapport with the San Francisco audience.

[Below: James Rutherford as Hans Sachs; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera. ]


Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s Eva

I had previously admired an appearance by Willis-Sørensen in a Mozart Opera [Review: Classy Cast in Classic “Cosi fan Tutte” – Houston Grand Opera, October 31, 2014.] One of the many alumni of the Houston Grand Opera Studio now assuming principal roles in the world’s opera houses, her gleaming soprano voice resonated in the War Memorial Opera House.

Her stage presence in her San Francisco Opera debut and her attractive soprano sound suggested a sucessful career in Wagner as well as Mozart.

[Below: Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Eva; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Alek Shrader’s David

It is possible to underestimate just how large and important the role of the apprentice David is in “Meistersinger”. In this production, David is sung by tenor Alek Shrader, who is a master of the light lyric roles of Italian opera. Shrader brings to all of his performances, as in this “Meistersinger”, audience-pleasing comic flair and athleticism.

[Below: Alek Shrader as David; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Sasha Cooke’s Magdalena

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke appears as David’s sweetheart, Magdalena. Another brilliant casting choice, she is an effective actress.

(Having created the title role in Mark Adamo’s opera [See Warm Reception for Adamo’s “Mary Magdalene” – San Francisco Opera, June 19, 2013] it cries out for Cooke to be cast as yet a third Magdalene – Verdi’s Maddalena – the next time “Rigoletto” appears in the San Francisco Opera repertory.)

[Below: Sasha Cooke as Magdalena; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The Third Act Quintet

There is an important reason for assigning the role of Magdalena to a first rate artist like Sasha Cooke, because Magdalena joins Eva, David, Hans Sachs and Stolzing for Selig, wie die Sonne in one of the greatest ensembles in all of German opera.

McVicar staged it magically, with the five artists seated side by side. Beautifully accompanied by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra led by Sir Mark Elder, it was one of the San Francisco Opera season’s high points.

[Below: singing the third act quintet are, from left to right Sasha Cooke as Magdalena, Alek Shrader as David, James Rutherford as Hans Sachs, Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Eva and Brandon Jovanovich as Sir Walther von Stolzing; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Martin Gantner’s Sixtus Beckmesser

In McVicar’s conceptualization of the opera, the character of Sixtus Beckmesser should not be played as a buffoon, as he often is, but, as a respected member of the mastersingers who rightfully thinks of himself as an obvious person to woo and win Eva.

Cast in this role is German baritone Martin Gantner, whose last appearances in California were as Wolfram for the Los Angeles Opera [see Powerful, Edgy “Tannhauser” at Los Angeles Opera – February 28, 2007.]

Gantner’s performance proved that one can make Beckmesser an endearing character.

Yes, his unfortunate exploits were funny – he first attempts to serenade (accompanied in the orchestra by a Celtic harp) the woman he thought to be Eva and he later attempts to fit the imperfectly memorized lyrics of Stolzing’s song he filchered from Sachs to his own melody. Even so, we feel sorry for him when the crestfallen Beckmesser could not be persuaded to stay for the festivities and wandered offstage disconsolate.

[Below: Martin Gantner as Sixtus Beckmesser; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Ain Anger’s Veit Pogner

The role of the goldsmith Pogner provided the opportunity for the San Francisco Opera debut of Esthonian basso Ain Anger. Pogner’s decision to link the idea of marrying his daughter Eva to a mastersinger who wins a song contest motivates the plot.

[Below: Ain Anger as Veit Pogner; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Anger is one of the outstanding basso voices of our time, now familiar to several companies [Radvanovsky, Zajick, Lopardo, Anger Star in Conlon-led Verdi “Requiem” – San Francisco Symphony, October 22, 2011 and Review: Fair Weather and a Well-Sung “Flying Dutchman” at Washington National Opera – March 7, 2015 and Review: Houston “Walküre” Showcases Christine Goerke’s Astonishing Brünnhilde, Karita Mattila’s Stunning Sieglinde – Houston Grand Opera, April 25, 2015.]. Anger’s debut in San Francisco proved to be impressive.

Others in the Cast

Of the mastersingers, A. J. Glueckert stole the show as a foppish Kunz Vogelgesang. The other masters were Philip Horst as an authoritative Fritz Kothner, with Matthew Stump as Hans Foltz, Anthony Reed as Hans Schwarz, Corey Bix as Augustin Moser, Joel Sorensen as Balthasar Zorn, Joseph Hu as Ulrich Eisslinger, Edward Nelson as Hermann Ortel and Sam Handley as Konrad Nachtigall. Laurel Porter was an Apprentice.

Italian born American basso Andrea Silvestrelli made a strong impression in the brief role of the Night Watchman.

David McVicar’s Production

“Meistersinger” is the fourth McVicar production of the Gockley era that also has included “Don Giovanni” [Kwiecien Excels in McVicar’s Dark Side “Don Giovanni” – S. F. June 2, 2007], “Il Trovatore” [Lyrical Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera September 11, 2009] and “Les Troyens” [Review: Susan Graham, Hymel, Antonacci in a Magnificent “The Trojans” from Sir David McVicar – San Francisco Opera, June 7, 2015].

“Meistersinger” celebrates German culture, a theme that was appropriated by Hitler’s propaganda apparatus. The opera’s glorification by Nazi officialdom seemed to infuse the opera with messages that McVicar clearly disbelieves that Wagner ever intended.

[Below: the Franconian knight Walther von Stolzing (Brandon Jovanovich, front right, on riser) wins the singing competition; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


McVicar has time-shifted the story from late medieval times to the beginning of the 19th century, associating it with Wagner’s birth in 1813 at a time when, instead of a German nation, a patchwork of weak principalities existed. Many of these tiny states had been occupied and/or terrorized by Napoleon’s France.

For McVicar, “Meistersinger’s” message is the determination of a community to establish standards for recognizing artistic excellence, that are rigorous, while not being so hidebound that they prevent the flowering of artistic genius. (Wagner takes the opportunity to swipe at pedantic critics.)

The production centers on these artistic “standards” rather than the opera’s “comic” moments – particularly the usual portrayal of Beckmesser as a loathesome and pathetic caricature. The emphasis on art illuminates the opera’s more important message.

McVicar stages the opera to emphasize the inherent theme of how such standards are implemented. Ultimately, no one, regardless of one’s credentials, can be excluded. Even a member of Nuremberg’s ruling Franconian nobility can compete and win in an artistic system established by Nuremberg’s trade guilds.

Each element of “Meistersinger’s” plot is a commentary on a community’s responsibility for its art and culture.  The central plot – Eva Pogner being promised by her rich, goldsmith father to the winner of a mastersinger contest –  is a metaphor. Whomever inherits the Pogner fortune should be a man who is committed to enriching the community’s cultural heritage with that fortune.

Here the opera’s final moments – Stolzing’s seemingly anticlimactic rejection of the title of master – has special meaning. Yes, you can prevail in a system by trying something new and unexpected, but don’t dishonor a community’s cumulative efforts to achieve high standards for an art. Stolzing understands Sach’s admonition (in McVicar’s staging Sachs forcibly sits the knight down for a stern lecture) and graciously accepts the medal.


I enthusiastically recommend this production and cast for all those who love and appreciate Wagnerian opera, fine Wagnerian singing, and the genius of Sir David McVicar.