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Selected Review


Opera

Helsinki: Finnish National Opera
Wagner: Die Meistersinger

Die Meistersinger

On February 23rd 1936 at the Alexander Theatre, named after Zar Alexander II, Wagner’s pot boiler was presented for a run of performances, the tenor singing Walther was a local singer called Alfons Almi.

t took only 79 years for this piece to return to the repertoire, and Alfons Almi, although no longer alive, would have been very pleased, because singlehandedly he was responsible more than anybody else for the new theatre and for the resurgence of Finnish National Opera.

Today, a chamber music hall inside the modern and extremely comfortable house bears his name and the public entering the house is also made to feel welcome by a bronze tondo with his profile.

It has been a while since I was in this musical country, where standards are so high, and this visit reinforced my opinion that Finland has one of the best music education systems anywhere in the world producing instrumentalists, singers and conductors of world renown.

It was very appropriate that the new and much awaited production should be trusted to Harry Kupfer, who had already done a splendid production of Parsifal here with buddhistic overtones in 2005. A co-production with Zurich, it is diametrically opposed to the recent and much lauded production at ENO by Richard Jones and therefore not comparable. Whilst Jones’s narrative dealt mainly with situations, making only Sachs a real character, Kupfer dealt not only with the two loving couples but also with the dual madness of two main characters, Pogner and Beckmesser. One is consumed with the thought that he may not have done the right thing by offering his daughter to a Mastersinger, and the other is consumed with the illusion that he may win this charming young woman for himself. No amount of reason will bring him to change his mind, not even Pogner’s wise words during the initial conversation in the first act, ‘If you think she does not like you why compete for her hand? There you have it, reason against madness. But of course, she could have changed her mind had he been a real poetical figure, but Wagner has made sure that he is not, he is a pompous, self righteous man, obsessed with a sense of self importance which blinds him to anything else. Wagner did a good job with him.

But Kupfer adds yet another subtle layer to this plot, and it is of course, political. The action takes place after WW2, in a ruined church with the background of a destroyed Nuremberg. As the acts develop, so does the reconstruction of the town, but even at the end the only part of Nuremberg which has not been rebuilt is the church. Materialism über alles! So much for spiritual values then, another typical side Kupfer kick. In this grey-suited society, there are some individuals such as Vogelgesang dressed in light brown corduroy, but grey is the colour which abounds, especially suited to the severe, businesslike, impatient Kothner. These Masters refuse the friendly hand of Walther who rather than being angry reacts with incredulity, David acts as chorus-master to his apprentice colleagues during the first scene at the church, later one of the female apprentices falls for Walther as do all the female characters at the end of the work. There are no nasty changes of meaning with Kupfer, everything is as it should be, it has other layers suggesting other possibilities, but the main line is kept intact. Yet a good production is not enough, and on March 17th the new Music Director, the young Michael Güttler, gave the music vertiginous speed and clarity, making the contrapuntal lines very evident, and they are not just there in the score as filling, it is nice to hear them if done with lightness. The excellent orchestra shone under his baton, and kept pace with his set speed. There was also a superb sounding chorus, but the reader wants to know about the singers, and as at ENO, they shone with team spirit. Jyrki Korhonen sang a troubled, intimate, searching Pogner; Michael Kraus was as mad as a hat as Beckmesser. Possessing an elegant mature posture he could have married somebody else without trouble, but it was not to be, Kraus sang with full tone and with the right inflections. As Kothner, Jussi Merikanto gave the impression of a busy civil servant more interested in business than in art; Tuomas Katajala showed a pleasant voice with solid technique as well as acting fluidly as David: a promising career lies ahead of him no doubt, and Niina Keitel’s Magdalene looked and sounded right too.

The main loving couple was well matched, both commencing rather tentatively, but as the evening progressed their voices bloomed. Mika Pohjonen presented a lyrical voice with some weight and no problems whatsoever with the hard tessitura arriving fresh as a daisy to the third act whilst Tiina-Maija Koskela was a nice looking blonde and well built Eva who no doubt would give Walther many robust and pink cheeked children. She sang with bright and well focused tone. Inside the beautiful building during the intervals, overlooking a small lake and the low lying city, one felt at peace and contented, it had been well worth the long wait!

Eduardo Benarroch

 

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