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A magnificent ‘Meistersinger’ emerges after chaos at Lyric

(from left) James Morris as Hans Sachs AmandMajeski as EvJohan Bothas Walther vStolzing Lyric Opera's productiWagner's 'Die Meistersinger vNurnberg.' |

(from left) James Morris as Hans Sachs, Amanda Majeski as Eva and Johan Botha as Walther von Stolzing in Lyric Opera's production of Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg." | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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When: Through March 3

Where: Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker

Tickets: $34-$239

Info: (312) 332-2244;

Updated: February 10, 2013 9:20PM

With the drama of the fire-breathing mishap subsided, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg” opened triumphantly Friday at the Civic Opera House.

At heart a gentle tale about a young knight who competes for the hand of his beloved in a local singing contest, “The Mastersingers of Nuremberg” is also a massive undertaking. Running more than five hours including intermissions, it contains some of Wagner’s most beloved music: a sumptuous overture, compelling choruses and ensemble pieces, a soaring Prize Song and long stretches of vividly colored, often folk-flavored, orchestral passages. In the pit, Sir Andrew Davis, Lyric’s music director, kept the action bubbling along with a firm but flexible hand.

But as directed by Sir David McVicar, this new production is an intimate, often comic, glimpse of real life. (Co-owned by Lyric, San Francisco Opera and the Glyndebourne Festival, it had its world premiere in 2011.) There are no gods or goddesses, just lively men and women whose passionate pursuit of romance and of art captures our hearts. Updated to the early 1800s from the Middle Ages, this Nuremberg is a cozy, gemutlichkeit town.

With airy yet intricately wrought sets and costumes by Vicki Mortimer, Lyric’s “Meistersinger” looks like a pastoral 19th century painting. (This revival was overseen by director Marie Lambert.) The women float by in simple ecru gowns and the men wear frock coats or rough-hewn knee breeches. At the gala contest, the 12 master singers sport velvet cloaks and come onstage accompanied by some of Wagner’s most noble music. But they hardly enter as somber high priests of a celestial art. Spilling from a two-tiered gazebo, the smiling, waving master singers arrive like spectators at a Fourth of July parade.

Lyric’s cast was first rate from top to bottom Friday night, deploying both vocal power and dramatic insight to shape their characters. As the young knight Walther von Stolzing, South African tenor Johan Botha sang with a big, ringing tone and lyrical ardor. A stranger in town, Stolzing knows little and cares less about the hidebound rules of Nuremberg’s song competition. He enters only to win the hand of his beloved Eva Pogner in marriage. Botha is not much of an actor, but he nicely conveyed the blend of romantic ardor and arrogance of a young man who literally has his eye only on the prize.

Ryan Center alum Amanda Majeski brought a bright, strong soprano to the role of Eva. Tall and slim, she was an elegant young lover, but also a warm-hearted daughter and friend. As portrayed by renowned Danish baritone Bo Skovhus, Beckmesser was the evening’s revelation. A rules-obsessed master singer, Beckmesser also hopes to win Eva. A figure of fun, he is usually played as old and ugly. But Skovhus is tall, handsome and lithe, and his Beckmesser sported a head of dark, curly hair that simply begged to be riffled by female fingers. Even as Beckmesser whined and badgered, Skovhus’ agile voice and dashing figure added an appropriate hint of pathos to his plight.

As Hans Sachs, the wise cobbler-poet who steers much of the drama, American bass-baritone James Morris was superb. His singing has lost some of the satiny power that made him such a memorable Wotan in Lyric’s past productions of Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung.” But he sounded in full, colorful voice Friday. Morris brings an undercurrent of worldly wisdom to his roles, and his Sachs was a man in full, well aware of human foibles but nonetheless stirred by young love and the joys of art.

Not everything worked in this production. (The Act 3 fire-breathing stunt in which actor Wesley Daniel was injured has been dropped.) The town-wide brawl at the end of Act 2 had its awkward, stagy moments. But as this “Meister­singer” reminded us, that’s life, too: messy as well as magnificent.

Free-lance contributor Wynne Delacoma was the Sun-Times classical music critic from 1991 to 2006.

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