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Attractively Slim

July 16, 2005

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We Appreciate

By Lisa Hirsch

On the heels of last year's highly successful four-hour Legend of the Ring, Berkeley Opera is now presenting a shortened version of Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Master Singers of Nuremberg). The performance seen on Saturday was often rewarding, but extremely variable in quality and sometimes highly frustrating.

For all its musical beauties, I've always found Meistersinger ponderous and heavy-handed, with far too much philosophizing and far too little wit. Surely there will be numerous complaints about exactly what got cut; but I, for one, am ready to cheer this edition, which was created by stage director Yuval Sharon, artistic director and conductor Jonathan Khuner, and horn player Bryan Higgins. It trims the opera's 255 minutes or so of music by about 90 minutes, to 165 minutes. As with The Legend of the Ring, the cuts were clearly made to advance the story and keep the characters' internal ruminations to the necessary minimum. For example, David's Act I discussion of the progress of an apprentice and the rules of composition still feels like a set-piece, but at least two-thirds of the music is gone. Only a few episodes seemed largely intact, all in Act III, including the quintet (“Selig, wie die Sonne”), Walther's composition lesson with Sachs, and the two Prize Songs. It's hard to understand why the Night Watchman's few lines in Act II were badly cut, however.

The reduction is less successful musically than dramatically not in terms of the musical structure, but in terms of the forces Berkeley Opera was able to muster. The tiny orchestra couldn't put out enough sound, even for the 350-seat Julia Morgan, and sounded severely under-rehearsed. The effect was too often like having a continuo, instead of an orchestra, supporting the singers. It's not possible to do this opera anything like justice with a string quintet, eight winds, a keyboard player, and a percussionist. It would be worth experimenting with a more radical reduction, using twelve to twenty wind players or even two pianos. Jonathan Khuner has a terrific feel for the ebb and flow and forward motion of Wagner's music; but he's hamstrung, and the audience and singers let down, by the quality of the orchestra he usually has to work with.

Jillian Khuner (Eva)
Clayton Brainerd (Hans Sachs)
Benjamin Bongers (Walther)

The sets were uncomplicated and largely successful, with a pair of panels covered with design drawings flanking a central panel on which still and moving images were projected. Most of the projections were strikingly beautiful and appropriate to the text, but accompanying Sachs's “Wahn! Wahn!” (Madness!) monolog with World War II images was both distracting and unnecessary. If Berkeley Opera feels a need to educate its patrons on the Nazis' misuse of Wagner's music, the program notes are the best place to do it. The projections also didn't pick up consistently on cues given by the stage directions and text: it would not have been difficult to supply the linden and elder trees that guard the houses of the Pogners and Sachs, for example.

The costumes appeared to be middle-of-the-road 20th-century clothing not tied to any particular decade until the very last scene, when we were suddenly and without any visible or textual motivation catapulted into the 1960s. Jeremy Knight designed the projections and Leah Slyder Vass the costumes; no set designer was credited in the program.

Sharon's staging was excellent, making the most of the small stage and giving each part a distinctive physical presence. The singers worked well together dramatically and, from the overall excellence of the diction, evidently got very good vocal coaching. All did well at putting across the story naturally and musically.

A master singer

Clayton Brainerd, singing Hans Sachs, stood head and shoulders above the rest of the generally good cast. He has an international career: it's easy to see why but hard to understand why it's not even bigger. (He sounded much better than San Francisco Opera's last Sachs, James Morris, who was unpleasantly dry-voiced when he sang the role in 2001.) His baritone is beautiful, firm, resonant, well-controlled at all dynamic levels, smoothly-produced and expressive, as is his stage manner. He brought out all of Sachs's nobility, wisdom and experience in his scenes with the guild and Walther. He was touching and vulnerable with Eva and sly as he trapped Beckmesser.

William Amory's accurately-sung and funny Beckmesser stopped short of caricature while still emphasizing the Marker's pedantry and scheming desire to win Eva. Stephen Rumph, in yellow overalls decorated with a harlequin's black diamonds, brought splendid comic timing, smooth legato singing, and crisp diction to the role of the apprentice David. Donna Olson partnered him well as Magdalena in what was left of her role; it would have been good to hear more of her. John Minágro was a dignified Pogner.

Jillian Khuner mostly disappointed as Eva; she acted ardently and looked suitably youthful, but what has happened to her voice? She was shallow-toned and awkward, unable to muster much sweetness or vocal float, except in the quintet. This is a sad change from, for example, her fine Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro a few seasons ago. Benjamin Bongers made a frustrating Walther von Stolzing. His vocal heft and timbre are just right for the part, but at volumes lower than forte his intonation was, at best, hit or miss. His legato was inconsistent, especially in Walther's more delicate passages and in the Prize Song.

Die Meistersinger can be heard on July 20 and 22 at 7:30 p.m. and 24 (matinee) at the Julia Morgan Theater in Berkeley.

(Lisa Hirsch, a technical writer, studied music at Brandeis and SUNY/Stony Brook.)

©2005 Lisa Hirsch, all rights reserved