OPERA / Keeping things simple: David Patrick Stearns on Die Meistersinger in New York

Click to follow
FOR ONCE, the big news at a new production of a Wagner opera is the singing. That's not to suggest that the new Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg that opened on Thursday at the Metropolitan Opera isn't notable in other ways. The producer / designer team of Otto Schenk and Gunther Schneider- Siemssen that created the Met's 'Ring' cycle has here come up with typically picturesque and tasteful, even exquisite sets. It's a fine marriage of grace and function, and there's an appropriate sense of pageantry in the finale, with the contest taking place outside Nurnberg's walls and the city shimmering in the distance. As an old-fashioned representational production, this is about as good as it gets.

Still, the musical values on display on Thursday were most gratifying. The arrival of Francisco Araiza in the role of Walther, the knight who becomes a master- singer, is cause for some excitement. He is essentially a lyric tenor, but his voice was well projected even in the cavernous Met - partly thanks to the co-operation of the conductor, James Levine, whose tendency toward slow tempos and grand effects was offset by attentiveness to the singers. Araiza sings with a bel canto grace and warmth, and if his high notes aren't thrilling, they're there. He combines, too, a dashing physical presence and interestingly aloof, aristocratic interpretation.

Karita Mattila's Eva was memorable for spring-water fresh vocalism and an unusually spirited, impulsive characterisation. This Eva is a bit of a brat - she is, after all, the only apparent daughter of a goldsmith, and has probably had everything she has always wanted. Why shouldn't she also marry the aristocratic knight she loves, even though her father has decreed that she marry the winner of the mastersinging contest?

The cancellation of Bernd Weikl, due to play Hans Sachs, caused no hardship. The veteran Donald McIntyre stepped in, sounding as fresh as he did years ago in the Pierre Boulez 'Ring' cycle, and handling his role with the detail and literacy of a fine lieder singer. Hermann Prey's Beckmesser had flashes of pathos that made him much more than a comic figure; two such articulate rivals have rarely stalked the opera stage.

All the singers consistently looked past the 'merry peasant' stereotype that can infect the best Meistersinger, for which Schenk can presumably be credited. He didn't bring any radical new ideas to the opera, but he revealed the characters in greater detail and with far greater conviction than one normally sees. Isn't that what stage directors were originally meant to do? After so many high- concept Wagner productions, this seems like a rather quaint - but highly refreshing - notion.

'Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg' plays in repertory at the Metropolitan Opera until 10 February.