For a period of years, I referred to him as “the one that got away.” I am speaking of Antonio Pappano, the longtime music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. (He has been in that position for twenty years.) I wanted him to succeed James Levine as the music director of the Metropolitan Opera. When I mentioned this to a British friend of mine sometime in the 2000s, he responded, indignantly, “No! You can’t have him.”
Pappano was knighted in 2012. It was shortly after that, as I remember, that I did a public interview of him at the Salzburg Festival. I said, “So, you’re ‘Sir Tony’ now?” He answered, with semi-mock sternness, “No: Sir Antonio.”
Before last night, he had conducted only once at the Met: a run of Eugene Onegins in 1997. (Eugene Onegin, as you know, is a Tchaikovsky opera, based on Pushkin.) He has returned for Die Meistersinger, Wagner’s “epic comedy,” in the apt phrase of Met publicity.
“Epic comedy” seems a contradiction in terms, almost. Yet it is the phrase juste for Meistersinger.
I did not especially care for the overture last night. It was a little light for me. I like it fatter, grander—more maestoso. More of a swagger. Did I have complaints thereafter? A few, yes. How could you not, in an opera so long, intricate, and multifaceted as Die Meistersinger? But mainly I appreciated Pappano: his competence, his musicality, his smarts.
Take the matter of pacing. This is a somewhat mysterious matter in Wagner. In any case, Pappano paced the opera expertly, so that you would not have noticed it, unless you were looking for it.
There was real musical leadership in the pit last night. (Unshowy leadership, at that.) Members of the orchestra applauded Pappano, as he took the stage at the end. I have not seen this often.
Several members of the cast had appeared in previous Met Meistersingers. Lise Davidsen, the magnificent young Norwegian soprano, was new. She has a combination of power and beauty—vocal power and vocal beauty—that is rare in the world. She seemed perfectly at ease last night. Her intonation never faltered. Davidsen proved herself an actress, too. It was almost as satisfying to watch this Eva as to hear her.
In short, Eva was a real prize last night, the kind a knight would flip for. I was wishing that Wagner had given Eva more to sing. Davidsen’s lines seemed all too brief.
And I’ll tell you something funny—or not funny? Wagner’s sublime quintet (Act III, Scene 4) seemed like a soprano aria—like Lise Davidsen and four backup singers. Yet I would not have had the soprano a speck softer.
Returning as Hans Sachs was Michael Volle, the German baritone. He is utterly comfortable as Sachs. He inhabits the role. What do you want your Hans Sachs to be? I would say: kindly, wise, authoritative; complicated, brash, tormented. Sachs is a man at a crossroads in life, with various feelings swirling within. Michael Volle puts across all of this.
He sings very well, too—let’s not forget that part.
Georg Zeppenfeld, the German bass, was our Pogner. He is a model of consistency: gleaming voice; clear diction; musical taste. I have been reviewing him for almost twenty years—in Mozart roles, in African-American spirituals (yes). He is a tidy singer, a pure professional. His low notes last night were remarkably effortless.
How about our hero, our Walther, our heldentenor? That was Klaus Florian Vogt, another veteran German. Now in his fifties, he often sounded fresh and youthful. He was not at his best at the end: a little tight and a little low (flat) for his big moment. But he was commendable nonetheless, and I doubt you could do better for a Walther these days.
Let me record two facts: KFV has great hair, which is a plus in opera. And he began his musical career as a French-horn player. You know the similarities between tenordom and French-horndom. We’re talking about high-wire acts, in which you can crack, as well as fall.
Johannes Martin Kränzle—who, like Michael Volle, is a veteran German baritone—is an unusually good Beckmesser. He is a very, very good Beckmesser. But what is unusual about his portrayal? He makes the character almost endearing. Last night, I almost felt sorry for the bumbling, censorious, self-absorbed old clerk. Mr. Kränzle understands something important: Beckmesser is not ridiculous to himself.
I must say, too, what I said about Volle: Kränzle sings very well—which is not to be overlooked, not in an opera.
Returning as David was Paul Appleby, the American lyric tenor. He was nimble, ebullient, capable. He strained or pushed on some high notes—but he was a winning David, all around. Alexander Tsymbalyuk, a Ukrainian bass, was the Nightwatchman. You can make an impression in this little role. Tsymbalyuk did, with his big, booming, glowing voice.
Above, I quoted Met publicity (“epic comedy”). Here’s some more: “a sublime achievement, at once lyric, grand, and amazingly detailed.” True. And some more: “a monumental yet intimate love story that is also a journey through the artistic process.” True. Die Meistersinger is a very, very unusual masterwork, even for Wagner, isn’t it? It is one of the most unusual—most original—works of art ever made.
One of the best moments last night came toward the beginning of the final scene. It was about 11 p.m.; St. John’s Day was dawning. Wagner and the Met chorus and the Met orchestra poured over the audience. Electricity ran through the baton of Pappano. You can understand why people get hooked on opera, and on Wagner. A minority are hooked on opera; a minority within that minority are hooked on Wagner. You can understand them, all of them.