"The rules are only good if they admit exceptions." - Hans Sachs, Die Meistersinger, Act III
Over the course of the 6+ hours of Otto Schenk's monumental production of Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - which I saw Wednesday night at the Met for the fourth time, and the first time in seven years - there are many, many extraordinary moments. (Perhaps too many.) But, the one moment which will forever be burned in my memory comes at the beginning of the opera's final scene: the St. John's Day festival and its climactic song contest. After processioning in with the other Mastersingers to great fanfare, Hans Sachs, the real-life cobbler-composer at the center of this archetypal human comedy, stands before the townspeople of Nuremberg and listens with a mix of gravity and humility as they sing his praises.
"If I must submit to honor," Sachs responds, "let it be that of seeing myself loved by you."
Singing the role of Sachs was the veteran bass-baritone James Morris who, with his gray hair and regal gait, has virtually owned this role over more than two dozen performances at the Met since 2001. (Morris was also the Met's preeminent Wotan in Wagner's Ring of the Niebelung until Bryn Terfel took over in 2012.) Never have I witnessed such a powerful convergence of art and reality: at that moment, Morris was Hans Sachs. (The Met has posted a video of the scene on its website.)
What made this incredible moment all the more extraordinary is that it never should have happened in the first place. Sachs, one of the most demanding baritone roles in the repertoire, was originally to have been sung by Johan Reuter, who bowed out before rehearsals began. The Met first approached Michael Volle as a possible replacement, as he'll be taking over the role of Wotan during the next Ring cycle in 2018. But, Volle had a prior commitment and could only fill two performances - including last Saturday's matinee, which was broadcast live in HD and on the radio.
Cue Morris, who turns 68 next month and no doubt thought he'd hung up the cobbler's hammer for good. (Morris appears this season at the Met in a pair of much smaller roles: the Commendatore in Mozart's Don Giovanni, and the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi's Don Carlo.) I can imagine a conversation between Morris and Met Music Director James Levine - who now conducts from a wheelchair - that went something along the lines of: "C'mon Jim, if I can do it, you can."
“I look upon this as a gift," Morris told the Times this week, "to be able to do this one more time, and with Jimmy, and to close out the production. Sachs is my favorite role, and this production is just so incredible. It holds a very special place in my heart.”
Was Morris' performance as vocally strong as Volle's, which I heard on the Saturday broadcast? No: Morris has clearly lost some his lower register, and by the end of the sixth hour, his voice was starting to crack. But, was Morris ultimately convincing as an aging widower who stoically rejects the advances of a young maiden and unassumingly goes about his business as the leading musician of his generation? You bet.
Of course, Morris is hardly the only reason to go see this production, which features hundreds of performers and incredibly detailed sets by Günther Schneider-Siemssen that bring 16th century Nuremberg to life. The young knight Walther, who struggles to reconcile his innovative, self-taught musical talent with the strict traditions of the Mastersingers, was once again sung by South African tenor Johann Botha, whose superhuman voice and stamina quickly makes you forget his hammy plodding on the Met stage.
Far better in the acting department was rising tenor Paul Appleby as David, who made a splash last year as Brian in Nico's Two Boys. The young German soprano Annette Dasch was charming and innocent as Eva, while Hans-Peter König was both warm and overpowering as her father, Pogner. Martin Gantner, originally cast in the minor role of Kothner, heroically took over the pivotal role of the sniveling town clerk Beckmesser from Johannes Kränzle, who was ill. Rounding out the principals was Karen Cargill as Lena, Eva's maid and David's love interest.
Most of all, there is Maestro Levine and the Met Orchestra, who seem to have taken an entirely new and bold approach to Wagner's soaring, complex score. It felt brighter, cleaner, more vital than the last time I heard it - though that may have had something to do with the fact that I wasn't hearing it from standing room this time. I immediately thought of my conversation in Bayreuth last year with Dr. Sven Friedrich: "Levine conducts from the heart, which is exactly what Wagner always wanted from his conductors. You are so lucky to have him in New York!"
Yes, Die Meistersinger is a serious time commitment. But, that's sort of the point: Wagner hasn't created some theatrical diversion to entertain us. He's invented an entire world for us to live in, to breathe in, to feel the push and pull of the characters in what is essentially real time. (The entire opera takes place over 24 hours.) We actually feel Walther's elation, Beckmesser's humiliation, Sachs' stoic self-abnegation - and his ultimate triumph.
I am nothing if not sentimental, and having the chance to see this production of Die Meistersinger one last time with the same conductor and singer responsible for introducing me to this masterpiece was the greatest Christmas gift this mostly-nice boy could ever ask for. Thank you, Jim and Jimmy. Thank you, Met.
There are two more performances of Die Miestersinger this season: tomorrow (Saturday) and Tuesday 12/23. Tickets for both performances are still available at the Met box office and online. More pics on the photo page.