performances of Wagner’s masterpiece Die
Meistersinger von Nürnberg do not
come along every day, still less ones that
feature the great José van Dam as Sachs.
It was an enticing prospect but almost immediately
doubts surface - just how old is José
van Dam? Has Franz Welser-Möst improved
at all? A mixed but generally impressive LSO
concert at the Barbican in February implied
all might not be lost as far as the young
conductor is concerned.
for the most part, it was. This was a Meistersinger
that was superbly played (the Zürich
Opera Orchestra is an excellent band, especially
the strings) and which included some memorable
vocal contributions, although not all were
memorable for the right reasons.
happens when you put a musically inferior
conductor (inferior to whom? - most) in front
of a skilled orchestra? A strange feeling
of disinterest is the answer. The Overture
immediately revealed the Zürich Orchestra’s
warm sound and its lovely velvety pianissimo.
It also revealed timpani with little or no
definition and a conductor who was unwilling
to ‘give’ in recognition of the music’s flow.
Something was already suspicious, in that
the clear first-division status of the orchestra
was at odds with some scrappy ensemble, especially
in the light of Welser-Möst’s textbook
(not in the positive sense) technique, almost
as if some ragged entries were on purpose.
Surely not. The introduction to Act II fuelled
the debate, with some superb discipline, yet
distinctly under-powered woodwind trills.
did manage to get the orchestra to play down
when necessary for the singers, to his credit.
And ‘when necessary’, in reference to José
van Dam’s Sachs, is just about all the time.
Van Dam is no longer young, and though Wagner’s
cobbler is mature, he’s not ready for his
pension-book just yet. Van Dam was born in
1940, making the present assumption bravery
almost beyond belief. Right from the start,
van Dam’s tone was woolly (with lots of air
around the notes), uncentred, and the lower
notes were no longer really there. Worst of
all was the loss of the authority born of
wisdom that is so central to the character
of Sachs - here replaced by a rather doddery
old man whose ideas might just as well have
been born of senility.
was at his best in the ruminative ‘Fliedermonolog’
of Act II (‘Was duftet doch der Flieder ..’,
ironically spoilt at the beginning by ragged
orchestral horn playing). Here van Dam projected
the requisite feeling of resignation. The
problems began when the orchestra played at
mezzo-forte, at which level one could not
hear van Dam at all. It was left to Act III
before we could hear any of his art (the passage
when he states he does not want to share King
Marke’s fate, and the orchestra quotes from
Tristan). The ‘Wahn’ monologue brought
surprising strength on the first cry of that
word, and he floated the voice nicely on the
word ‘Johannisnacht’. Yet it was sad to hear
the strain on his voice increase towards the
Sachs and conductor seems an equation
for disaster, yet there was much else of interest
and, at times, delight. Matti Salminen was
a superb Veit Pogner, blessed with a large
voice and superb diction, and silky legato.
And the ladies held much delight. Their initial
exchanges in the church revealed complementary
voices, with Brigitte Pinter’s rich, contralto-ey
mezzo (as Magdalene) contrasted with Petra-Maria
Schnitzer’s light and bright-toned soprano
Eva. Indeed, this Eva was so right because
she was able to convince the audience of her
impetuous youth, particularly in the second
act. Pinter, an Abbado prodigy (his personal
recommendation enabled her to attend New York’s
Juilliard School) had such a lovely voice
one wished Wagner had written more for this
Christoph Strehl presented an interpretation
in the making. His first ‘Fanget an!’ was
the weakest I have ever heard, and as he sang
on there was the distinct impression that
just more power and he would be on his way
- there is an interpretation here bursting
to get out. He was, of course, not helped
by being juxtaposed with Peter Seiffert’s
Walther von Stolzing. Seiffert is an experienced
Wagnerian, having taken his Lohengrin to Bayreuth
as recently as 2003. His singing was, if not
the most powerful, certainly agile (he can
do decorations very impressively) and his
lyricism in his big moments was most affecting.
can make or break a Meistersinger.
The experienced Michael Volle seemed determined
not to caricature the role and as such to
begin with seemed rather banal. Yet as time
went on, his Beckmesser, more human than some,
won me over.
among the rest of the Meistersingers was Rolf
Haunstein’s Kothner: plenty of character but
a little wobbly. A special mention should
go to the small role of Nightwatchman, here
taken by the young up-and-coming bass Günther
Groissböck, who only this season joined
Zürich opera (he is also booked to sing
Titurel in Strasbourg). He has a lovely, yet
large voice that is completely focussed. Someone
to watch out for.
chorus was generally excellent, and impressive
though the Zürich Opera Chorus was in
the final pages, without a master-Wagnerian
at the helm it was well-nigh impossible for
this passage to carry the triumphal weight
it really should bear.
this was the most humourless Meistersinger
imaginable. True, Wagner’s humour is not the
sort to send one’s legs into the air, but
Meistersinger does sparkle magnificently.
Usually. It was impossible not to wonder whether
anyone in the audience had either read the
plot or was watching the surtitles, but the
fault in the end lay squarely at Welser-Möst’s
feet. That give and take, that elasticity,
that was lacking in the Overture to Act I
was missing elsewhere, also, and the music
was liable to sag (towards the end of Act
II, for example). Certainly there are times
that Wagner makes it impossible to erase his
genius (the great Quintet, for example), but
Welser-Möst made us wait for the famous
bits - and then, more often than not, disappointed.
On the present evidence his success in today’s
musical world, be it in Zürich or in
Cleveland, is incomprehensible.