State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
November 13, 2018

Kasper Holten’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, his final production as Covent Garden’s Director of Opera, opened in 2017 to decidedly mixed reviews. A co-pro between the Royal Opera House, The National Centre for Performing Arts in Beijing, and Opera Australia, it opened in Melbourne yesterday evening to much interest, compounded by the fact that OA was now onto its third Hans Sachs.

Meistersinger, Meistersinger review, Opera Australia, OA, WagnerThe cast of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Photo © Jeff Busby

While the production is undoubtedly flawed, there’s no denying that it’s full of intelligent ideas and moments of engaging theatre. Holten sets the action in a gentleman’s club, with costuming and set design suggesting the 1920s. The master singers have more than a whiff of the masonic about them, and their wives and girlfriends are swiftly shown to another room as their menfolk get down to business. Although doddering and benign on the surface, Holten makes it clear that this is an exclusionary male society all too comfortable giving out women as prizes – Veit Pogner offers his daughter Eva’s hand in marriage to the winner of a song contest.

Fittingly, Holten’s conception of Eva deviates far from the usual saint or shrinking violet. Appalled by her father’s proposition, she’s got her sights set on new arrival Walther, but is willing to settle for kindly Hans Sachs, not above massaging his shoulders and flattery to encourage him to enter the contest. What’s more, Beckmesser, seems a greater threat here than in other productions, creepingly insidious in his jealous desire for Eva. Holten therefore raises the emotional stakes in a way that feels organic, one of his most effective interventions.

Meistersinger, Meistersinger review, Opera Australia, Michael Kupfer-Radecky, Natalie Aroyan, Dominica Matthews, Nicholas JonesMichael Kupfer-Radecky, Natalie Aroyan, Dominica Matthews and Nicholas Jones. Photo © Jeff Busby

Less effective is the use of the same set for both Acts I and II. While Mia Stensgaard’s mammoth marble structures are appropriate for the rituals of the former, they do little to evoke Sachs’ workshop or the streets at night-time for the latter. This last point is particularly frustrating, undercutting the sense of danger that ought to lurk and then erupt in the riot of the second act. The Act III reveal – the set rotates to uncover the backstage of an opera house, underlining in red that the master singers are actually 21st century people engaged in elaborate pageantry – is of a piece with Holten’s overall vision, but registers as simply underwhelming in the theatre. The riot gives way to an irresistible, carnivalesque tableau in the Kosky vein, but it ultimately feels unearnt.

No quibbles with how Holten handles Sachs’ concluding, dubious rhetoric however, allowing his calls for the preservation of pure German art to take on sinister contemporary resonance. It’s a credit to Holten that he doesn’t play this thorny scene by halves, committing to the idea that even Sachs, the most forward looking of the master singers, can adhere to and promote questionable notions of authenticity that makes of the foreign a menace. Previously resistant to becoming a master singer, it’s eerie how Walther gladly joins their ranks upon hearing such sentiment, enchanted by Sachs’ vision of a holy German art. It’s no wonder that Eva flees her beloved, horrified that he’s now bought into the system that has so freely gambled with her autonomy.

Meistersinger, Meistersinger review, Opera Australia, Stefan VinkeStefan Vinke. Photo © Jeff Busby

The performances are strong across the board, anchored by Michael Kupfer-Radecky’s excellent Hans Sachs. Although a late replacement, you’d never know it – the German baritone sang with unaffected simplicity and eloquence, never pushing his fine-grained instrument to unnecessarily beef up his sound. Treating the text with a lieder singer’s care, his Wahn monologue was performed without self-pity and was all the more moving for it, a moment of personal crisis resolving in hard-earnt grace. Kupfer-Radecky is a fine actor to boot, perfectly conveying his complex feelings towards Eva – when she gives him a kiss of gratitude full on the lips, he cradles his head in his hands for three very long seconds, a sight to make the heart twinge.

Stefan Vinke is a known quantity after his acclaimed Siegfrieds for the company’s recent Ring Cycles, and his freakish stamina and decibels to spare are on ample display here as Walther. Though unfortunately garbed – when will costume designers learn that a long wig and skinny jeans don’t make opera singers look even a bit rebellious? – he meets all the technical challenges of the role and then some, the top of the voice his particular glory. His particular sound doesn’t ravish the ear, and although he tired a little towards the end, he rallied to give a persuasive account of the Prize Song.

Meistersinger, Meistersinger review, Opera Australia, Natalie Aroyan, Dominica MatthewsNatalie Aroyan and Dominica Matthews. Photo © Jeff Busby

Making her debut as Eva, Natalie Aroyan sang with great feeling, completely in step with Holten’s understanding of Eva. It’s a voice with a not inconsiderable amount of steel in it – one wonders if there’s an Elsa or Elisabeth in her future – which the soprano wielded like a rapier when defying the men in her life. As her hopeless suitor Beckmesser, Warwick Fyfe was in rock solid voice and on top comic form, never overplaying his hand in his portrayal of this scheming, unimaginative pedant. If it’s not already obvious, the baritone is a boon to the company, scoring a huge round of applause at curtain.

Meistersinger, Meistersinger review, Opera Australia, Warwick FyfeWarwick Fyfe. Photo © Jeff Busby

Other cast members to impress included Nicholas Jones as David, singing with unfailingly sweet tone and astonishing stamina. His diction is a dream and he’s a natural actor as well, making a fine foil for Sachs and Dominica Matthews’ wonderfully sharp Magdalene. As Veit Pogner, Daniel Sumegi was terrific, in stentorian voice and bringing an assured stage presence to proceedings – he was particularly affecting in his Act I address. Adrian Tamburini, made up like a cloven-hoofed Pan, made something very special of the Nightwatchman’s warning calls. The chorus is to be commended also, singing with precision and relish thanks to chorus master Anthony Hunt.

Meistersinger, Meistersinger review, Opera Australia, Daniel Sumegi, Warwick FyfeDaniel Sumegi and Warwick Fyfe. Photo © Jeff Busby

Under Pietari Inkinen, conductor of OA’s past two Rings, Orchestra Victoria played with security and warmth, making gloriously transparent sounds to savour. Careful to never overpower his singers, this was conversational Wagner at its best, always underpinned by a sense of drama. String playing was highly accomplished, particularly silken in Act II, while wind and brass solos were dispatched with real tenderness.

Though this is certainly an imperfect realisation of Meistersinger, Holten’s production is jam-packed with compelling ideas that merit a viewing. After all, the music making more than compensates.

Opera Australia’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is at Arts Centre Melbourne until November 22


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