A richly textured take on Wagner

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / July 13, 2009
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LENOX - Violent thunderstorms at concert time delayed things by nearly half an hour, but conductor James Levine and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra eventually got down to Saturday night’s business: a concert performance of Act III of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,’’ Richard Wagner’s 1868 stab at light comedy that ended up one of the longest, most monumental operas in the repertoire. Delusions of grandeur are not uncommon among composers, but Wagner is special: Even when achieving true grandeur, he remained no less delusional.

“Meistersinger’’ follows Walther von Stolzing, vying (with radically innovative style) to become a Mastersinger and win their Contest of Song, and, thus, the hand of his beloved Eva. (Any resemblance to Wagner himself is purely intentional.) Wagner musically crossbreeds Lutheran chorales with Saxon rusticity, then blows it up to Japanese monster-movie size. The orchestra reveled in it, with superb richness and depth, layers of sound paradoxically both sturdy and transparent. Levine started slow and soulful then shifted into energetic, steady gear.

He also recruited a fine, Met-centric cast to run Wagner’s marathon. Where Johan Botha, as Walther, employed trumpeting heldentenor power, bass James Morris (as the avuncular Hans Sachs) and soprano Hei-Kyung Hong (as Eva) drew on veteran reserves of savvy and style. Matthew Polenzani, Maria Zifchak, and Julien Robbins provided an accomplished cushion of luxury casting in smaller roles, as did nine TMC students filling the contingent of Mastersingers. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus unleashed bracing, full-throated gusto, populating Nuremberg with precision rowdiness.

But it was baritone Hans-Joachim Ketelsen as the antagonist Sixtus Beckmesser who both stole the show and exposed Wagner’s fundamental flaw. Ketelsen made Beckmesser an irresistible grab-bag of vanity, petulance, neurotic optimism, and awkward ingratiation - in other words, an actual human being. By comparison, Wagner’s main characters come off as unrealistically, almost insufferably noble; what elevates mythology distorts comedy. The music rises to thrilling heights, but the dramatic deck is too obviously stacked; “Meistersinger’’ is eminently impressive but ultimately unlovable. Still, it has its fans. It must feel like rooting for the Yankees.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a review in yesterday’s “g’’ section of Saturday’s “Die Meistersinger’’ concert by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra mischaracterized singer Hans-Joachim Ketelsen. He is a baritone.


At: Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood, Saturday

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