Tanglewood, Saturday, July 11, 8:30 p.m. Music Shed
Richard Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Act III
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
James Levine, conductor
James Morris, bass-baritone – Hans Sachs
Johan Botha, tenor – Walter von Stolzing
Hei-Kyung Hong, soprano – Eva
Maria Zifchak, mezzo-soprano – Magdalene
Matthew Polenzani, tenor – David
Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, baritone – Sixtus Beckmesser
Julien Robbins, bass-baritone – Veit Pogner
Vocal Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center – Mastersingers
Tanglewood Festival Chorus,
John Oliver, conductor
This performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, Act III, was truly a shameful travesty of Tanglewood and all it stands for, not to mention Richard Wagner and all the musicians and singers who participated in it with the best of intentions. It was painful to sit through it, and in some ways I regret that I did not walk out as soon as I realized that this was not a real performance but an exercise in accommodating James Levine’s convenience through electronic enhancement, which does not belong in any first rate, or even third-rate concert hall, and certainly not in the Music Shed, which has excellent acoustics by any standard, and truly admirable acoustics for a semi-open structure of its enormous size. Instead of leaving I let out an unseemly string of expletives, which would have been perfectly at home in Wagner’s model, Aristophanes, but not during a performance in the Music Shed, and for this I apologise.
Less than half of what I heard, sitting in my usual, very good place in the shed, actually came from the singer’s mouths, the rest was spread over three sources, the loudspeakers hung over the stage. The sound of the individual voices shifted constantly—and most annoyingly—from a point vaguely associable with their positions on the stage to this three-point spread, with ambient sound and reverberation mixed in. Phantom pockets of out-0f-phase and aberrantly reverberant sound floated in and out like mischievous will-o’-the wisps. As a result none of these justly renowned and familiar voices sounded quite like themselves, and certainly not like themselves at their best—quite a feat with such sturdy voices as Matthew Polenzani and Johan Botha, although Hei-Kyung Hong and James Morris fared the worst. The great quintet was flattened out and muddy, with no sense of space around the individual singers or a clear sense of their location. We heard all too little of the precious interaction of humanly produced sound and a real acoustic, and the sung lines lacked integrity, since the amplification exaggerated their top notes. The deliberate introduction of churchy reverb to reenforce Beckmesser’s version of the Preislied was cheap and vulgar—and totally unnecessary. This performance was above all a shameful disservice to these singers, who have regularly performed under Levine at the Met for years, as well as at Tanglewood. They should all talk to their agents and reconsider agreeing to sing under these circumstances again.
What were these circumstances? Why should world-class singers, who can project at the Metropolitan Opera House of all places, be heard through loudspeakers? For some years, perhaps from his beginning at the BSO, Levine has insisted—along with many other amenities—on placing vocal soloists at the back of the orchestra, just in front of the chorus. If I remember correctly, this is to provide better sight-lines between himself and the singers, who would, in the traditional arrangement, be at his sides. (Also, it makes it easier for the conductor to hear the soloists in relation to the orchestra and chorus.) Of course the traditional arrangement has worked effectively for many years. The position behind the orchestra puts an unreasonable burden on the singers. I have heard quite a few people in professional circles questioning or complaining about this practice, but it has not persuaded me entirely, until I heard this disgraceful mess. Two years ago I heard Stephanie Blythe’s magnificent—and Brobdingnagian—voice mauled by the Music Shed speakers. I thought she was having a bad night and needed help, which I have since learned is highly unlikely. I defended the practice in Les Troyens, which has a much lighter orchestration than anything of Wagner’s, but this horror has persuaded me that it must stop immediately.
This evening’s macello was fraught with ironies, above all, the fact that I attended a performance at the Met on March 10, 2007 under Levine with exactly the same lead singers in one of the most marvelous, funny, and moving performances I have ever heard. Everything came together as close to perfection as can be. I’ve heard most of Levine’s other Met performances of Die Meistersinger over the past 15-20 years and have been delighted with them. In fact there was nothing particularly wrong with his conducting of the Tanglewood performance. I especially look forward to these Shed performances with the TMC Orchestra, because their playing is so committed and fresh. It was fascinating to hear the orchestral parts of Verdi’s Don Carlo played with this youthful intensity, and Sir Andrew Davis achieved equally exciting results in Eugene Onegin last summer—with the singers standing sensibly between the podium and the orchestra, so that Sir Andrew could make the most of traditional sight-lines. The energetic, bright, clean playing of the TMC Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus were the best things about the performance, as well as Levine’s fluent and expressive interpretation of the score. Many wonderful details in the inner voices came through, thanks to the TMC Orchestra’s thinner textures.
Another irony emerges from Levine’s particular relation to soloists, singers, above all. He derives particular inspiration from brilliant soloists he favors, especially female singers. Without this stimulus he can sometimes be musically rather boring (although not often: remember the great Sacre last week!). It amounts almost to a dependence, and it’s curious to note the difference in his attitude towards the soloists in, say, a Mahler Symphony or the Brahms German Requiem and a complete cast in Don Carlo or Die Meistersinger, which he contains in a line in front of a chorus. In this quintessentially dramatic work, in which the singers interact and make often sarcastic witticisms, they were reduced to a bland ensemble.
Levine’s basic reading of the score itself was limited mostly by the circumstances of a concert performance. He has made a point of performing many, many operas in concert both at Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood with mixed approval. The idea, I imagine, is to enrich the BSO’s repertory and to enjoy the luxury of conducting a work through, without pausing for scene changes or adjusting tempo for stage action. Verdi in particular becomes fragmented in this way, not that Tanglewood performances aren’t broken up by constant applause—which did not happen, thankfully, yesterday evening. It is important and interesting to note that Die Meistersinger fares ill in this approach. I have heard powerful concert performances of works from the Ring in concert, but Wagner’s instincts as a man of the theatre are no more apparent than in Die Meistersinger, in which Wagner did not attempt to transcend the nineteenth century stage. The music of Die Meistersinger may be as great as any ever written, but, without action, something important is missing. We need to see Beckmesser sneaking into Sachs’ workshop and poking around. We need to see him exit, and we need to see all the entrances and exits of Eva, Walter, and the others, not to mention the great spectacle in the second scene. No, this is not the best opera to perform in concert, and it’s not a good idea to separate the third act from the first two. Actually, I thought of this beforehand, and I saw going to this performance as something of a duty, but this confirmed me in the belief that Die Meistersinger should never be performed in concert, and never as individual acts. Wagner created it as theatre, and it can be nothing else.
It was severely painful for me not to be able to listen through the desecrated vocal lines to the luminous playing of the orchestral parts with more enjoyment. Amplification would not have been needed, if the singers were up in front where they belong. The audience paid to hear these famous singers, but they may as well have listened on their car radio, if that was what they wanted to hear. As it was, it was an insult to everyone, above all, the audience, who loved it, and shouted and clapped at length. I repeat: this must never happen again at Tanglewood, but of course it will. I know of at least one person who hoped to open a friend’s mind to Wagner, but I doubt it worked on this occasion. One woman described it as “just a bunch of men singing the praises of their Big Guy.” Indeed the sight of a host of uniformly clad men and women, looking skywards in inspiration, singing the praises of a great leader, brought up all the unpleasant associations which Wagner’s comic masterpiece does not deserve today.