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Review: Wagnerian Comedy Is No Joke in the Met’s ‘Meistersinger’

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There were swaths of empty seats at the Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday evening, when Wagner’s sprawling comedy “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” returned to the house after seven years.

Was it the limits on foreign tourists, lifting soon? Persistent fears about the Delta variant, despite a vaccinated and masked audience? More permanent changes to viewership habits, egged on by the pandemic? Wariness about a performance of very Wagnerian, six-hour length?

It’s likely all of the above, and more; arts institutions around the country are grumbling about soft ticket sales as they reopen. But whatever the reasons at the Met, it’s a shame: This “Meistersinger” is excellent, a paean to a community joyfully bickering and making music together that touched me deeply in this period of reckoning with all we lacked for a year and a half.

A love story intertwined with a song contest, set in a storybook vision of medieval Germany, it brings back to the company after 24 years the eminent conductor Antonio Pappano. He takes on one of the scores most closely associated at the Met with James Levine; the last time someone other than Levine led a run of this opera there was 1985.

With Levine in “Meistersinger,” there was grandeur, richness, not heaviness but glowing weight. Pappano, the longtime music director of the Royal Opera House in London, offers a lighter, lither reading, not rushed but evenly flowing, airy even when agitated. From the prelude to the first act — more lyrical than majestic — this was tender, mellow Wagner, most notable in quieter moments: the warm curlicues of the orchestral reactions to the song rules in the first act, the glistening music of nightfall in the second, the hushed prelude to the third.

As the cobbler Hans Sachs, the leader of Nuremberg’s guild of tradesmen who moonlight as singing poet “masters,” the baritone Michael Volle is fiercely articulate. He is not the kindly Santa Claus figure often associated with this role, but rather a changeable, ambivalent, even peevish, very human Sachs.

Klaus Florian Vogt — the tenor playing Walther, the knight who bursts onto the Nuremberg scene with an innovative approach to songwriting and a crush on the young Eva Pogner — remains one of the oddest major artists in opera. His appeal has been his uncannily pure voice, which, emerging from classically handsome blond looks, gives him an otherworldly quality in otherworldly roles like Wagner’s Lohengrin.

But that voice has in recent years been turning more nasal and glassy. While some high notes, particularly toward the opera’s end, sail out like sunshine, and while he’s an effortlessly noble presence, Vogt’s sound is ever more an acquired taste.

There are no equivalent quibbles about this revival’s playful, assertive Eva: the soprano Lise Davidsen, whose voice is luminous when soft and startlingly big at full cry. Her soaring embrace of Sachs and sublime start to the quintet that follows in the third act aroused only excitement about the remarkable Met season she is embarking on, with the title role of Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” and Chrysothemis in his “Elektra” to come.

The baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle was comically bumbling but sang with straightforward earnestness as Beckmesser, the officious town clerk competing (at least in his own mind) for Eva’s hand in marriage. The resonant bass Georg Zeppenfeld, one of Europe’s finest Wagnerians but an unaccountable absence from the Met over the past decade, was splendidly genial as Veit Pogner, Eva’s father. The tenor Paul Appleby was lively as Sachs’s apprentice, David; the mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke made a characterful Met debut as Magdalene, Eva’s attendant; and the bass-baritone Alexander Tsymbalyuk sang with calm consolation as the Night Watchman.

It is to Volle’s credit that he doesn’t stint the darkness that suddenly engulfs the piece in its final minutes, when Sachs, trying to persuade the victorious Walther to join the masters, grimly warns of foreign encroachments on the country and its “holy German art.” It’s a call taken up with rally-style fervor by the crowd, and it’s hard not to hear in it premonitions of what was to come in Nuremberg four decades after Wagner’s death.

The Met’s utterly literal, quaint staging by Otto Schenk and Günther Schneider-Siemssen, now nearly 30 years old, offers no comment on this notoriously explicit swerve toward chauvinism — nor on the sense many have had that Beckmesser represents Wagner’s antisemitic obsessions, nor on much of anything else beyond the letter of the libretto.

But Volle, at least, forces us to reckon with a scene as discomfiting as any in opera — a vivid depiction of the ease with which communal celebration can tip into nationalism, a reminder that even good guys can harbor awful leanings. Sachs’s monologue isn’t a reason not to perform “Die Meistersinger.” It felt on Tuesday, more than ever, a reason it should be seen.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Through Nov. 14 at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan; metopera.org.

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