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S.F. Opera captures majesty of ‘Meistersinger’

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Baritone James Rutherford, fourth from left, is excellent as Hans Sachs in San Francisco Opera’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.” (Courtesy Cory Weaver/S.F. Opera)
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Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” is perhaps the most quintessentially nationalistic of German operas, and at about five and a half hours, is one of the longest in the repertoire — as demanding of the audience as it is challenging to the performers. The San Francisco Opera meets the challenge with aplomb in its charming revival of the work.

Sir David McVicar’s production, which SFO shares with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Glyndebourne Festival Opera, moves the setting from 16th-century Germany to the nation-state-building Germany of the early 1800s and employs an appealing Gothic-arched stage.

The production also avoids some of the more politicized and caricatured thematic stagings other companies have adopted, instead emphasizing the opera’s true-to-Wagner human story and comedy.

The strong cast in Wednesday’s opening performance made the human element particularly engaging, a crucial factor in sustaining the audience through all three acts.

Notwithstanding the name of the opera, “Meistersinger’s” central role is Hans Sachs, a cobbler-poet who artfully and selflessly brings together the main romantic characters and is its moral compass.

Ethically grounded, Sachs is one of the most likable characters in all of opera, and one of its most demanding roles. Baritone James Rutherford shepherded the part masterfully with his muscular, rich voice that carried through the house, and sturdy build and blend of dramatic and comic prowess.

Tenor Brandon Jovanovich made for a dashing Walther von Stolzing, the knight who arrives in Nürnberg and sets out to win the Mastersinging contest whose prize is the hand in marriage of his love interest Eva. Jovanovich sang with romantic allure, clarity and freshness throughout the performance (in spite of a pre-Act 3 announcement that he was not feeling well).

Soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen was radiant in her SFO debut as Eva, the burgher’s daughter who falls in love with Walther, but also has a soft spot for the kindhearted Sachs. Willis-Sorensen’s precise, ample voice suited the role quite well, including in her key aria “O Sachs mein Freund.”

Other standouts were splendid baritone Martin Gantner as the scheming Sixtus Beckmesser, tenor Alek Shrader, whose bright, lyrical voice and dramatic charm brought vigor to the role of Sachs’ apprentice David, and the robustly voiced bass Ain Anger as Eva’s father.

Ian Robertson’s opera chorus was up to the heavy-lifting task of the long performance, while Sir Mark Elder made a favorable impression in his SFO debut, nicely drawing out full, magisterial sound from an efficiently paced orchestra.


REVIEW

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 6 p.m. Nov. 21, Nov. 24, Nov. 27 and Dec 2; 1 p.m. Dec. 6
Tickets: $30 to $381
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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