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ZURICH — One has learned to approach productions of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by German directors with a bit of trepidation. To an appreciable degree, this Wagner opera is about art, and specifically German art, which leads directors to comment on the tradition of which they are a part, often critically. In a notorious 2002 staging for the Hamburg Staatsoper, Peter Konwitschny actually stopped the music during the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs’s controversial final speech, in which he calls for the people to respect “holy German art,” and held a short discussion about what it means to be German.
Another notorious production by Katharina Wagner, the great-granddaughter of the composer, for the Bayreuth Festival in 2007 mocked great figures of German culture — Goethe, Schiller, Bach and, of course, Wagner himself — by introducing them into the opera wearing huge rubber head masks. Deconstructive approaches like these can obscure Wagner’s simple message that, while art needs to be governed by rules, the rules need to be constantly tested and re-evaluated.
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Moreover, such approaches can overlook the fact that the opera’s appeal lies less in what it says about stollens and abgesangs — those structural components of ancient German song — than in its human dimension.
The new production at the Zurich Opera House by Harry Kupfer strikes an ideal balance between art and humanity, reminding us in the process that “Meistersinger,” despite some unsettling details, is indeed the kind of heartwarming work that makes one glad to be alive. Mr. Kupfer, 76, is the dean of German opera producers, a protégé of the legendary Walter Felsenstein at Berlin’s Komische Oper, and a man of vast experience whose credits include one of the finest productions (1988-92) of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle at Bayreuth since the Wieland Wagner era.
For those who really like extreme productions, Mr. Kupfer may seem old-fashioned, but he digs deep into the fabric of an opera for interpretive ideas rather than dreaming up a concept and then foisting it on the work. Especially treasurable in the new “Meistersinger” is Mr. Kupfer’s direction of the principals — what the Germans call “Personenregie.” His meticulous work gives new insights into familiar characters and makes for gripping theater.
The production’s fidelity to Wagner’s drama by no means precludes novel touches, for they are present in abundance. In the opening church scene, we discover some prominent Meistersingers in the congregation. Young Eva, daughter of the town goldsmith Pogner, tries every tactic, including feigning a sprained ankle, to delay leaving the church so she can meet the knight Walther, whom she adores. But her father will allow her to marry only a Meistersinger who proves himself in a song contest, and Walther hasn’t a clue how to do that.