The stage for this production is unaccountably filled with cartoonish parallel “houses” made of foam-board, shaped like the green houses in Monopoly, but slim and ten feet tall. They are all painted baby blue and they might at any moment glide around and form into lines or a wall or a forest. They have doors that the characters can go into and come out of. One of them is taller and has a steeple – and this we see behind the others at as the curtain rises and we can guess it represents the church from which the chorus is coming. A girl runs by and a boy soon after her – then another man going in and out among them looking for somebody – then another girl who is either looking for or trying to escape this second man – The hymn is over and we gather this is Eva and Walther.
This inexpensive but unappealing set will preoccupy us through the entire opera. One of the “houses” will serve as the Merker’s booth in Act I, one of them (perhaps the same one, likewise equipped with a door) will serve as Sachs’s shop in the second, but only when he needs to open the door from his shop so as to cast its light across the path by which Walther and Eva would try to escape. The action, regardless of these bulky props, takes place in the space between, in front of, and behind them. Let’s not forget to mention there is also a desk-chair that serves as the singer’s chair in the first and last acts: but this is generally unused. Sachs delivers his two great monologues sitting on the ground leaning up against a house; and it is in between the houses that Sachs’s series of encounters with each of the main characters take place in the Act III, though they, as opposed to the rest of the action of the opera, is intimately staged indoors. The best use of them comes in the second act, always a problem to stage since so many characters are singing one after the other to one and then another, one overheard by another. In the present case the ins and outs among the houses allow for the various characters to encounter hide from one and encounter the other around the corner just at the right moment. For this part of the action the forest of houses is a success, though ugly; but for the rest of the opera the idea is an ugly failure. Some relief was given us in Act III, when the houses had all glided into the wings and the five stood together with their faces close like a family picture for the quintet.
These distracting large light-blue objects whittled the characters down: they are notionally outdoors on a black ground flailing around, driven about by their interests and impulses. So much convenes with comedy, and the portrayal of Hans Sachs corroborates that this sort of comédie humaine might be the register Andreas Homoki was seeking – though it should be remembered that he adopted a similar register in his Lohengrin, which he set in a beer hall with Elisabeth clearing the tables during what was supposed to be the bridal tête-à-tête. As for Sachs, he finds himself sitting on the ground for his monologues; when Walter sings his Trial Song in Act One, Sachs eagerly stands in front of him conducting him, unable to help himself; in the final Act during his Prize Song Sachs sits akimbo at the front of the stage facing the audience, as if to indicate to us that Walther’s performance is his own creation. We have seen Sachs cast as a meta-character bursting beyond his role in Stefan Herrheim’s Salzburg production, which places the whole opera within his desk, and we will see it again. But what makes Sachs larger than life is exactly his refusal to be so. The telling moment comes in the last scene when all Nuremberg salutes him: he is shocked and humbled, according to Wagner. In the present case he tries to escape the scene and is blocked by the Nurembergers, from the left then from the right and finally from the rear, and then falls prostrate to the floor. In fact, Sachs is something of a clown throughout, with a quizzical and wry look on his face. He is regrettably obtuse when Eva confronts him in Act Two, and when Walther shows up in the shop while he is fixing Eva’s shoe they have a tug of war over her that verges on slapstick. Overall he has no center of gravity though he is the kingpin of the plot, and the result is that the whole opera comes off as a lower kind of comedy than it should be. As such, however, mention should be made of the comical over-acting with which the dramaturge Werner Hintze has filled this rather boring scenario. In particular, in his very fine long aria in Act I, David was made to enact all modes and moods of the ideal Master Song, not only with voice but face and body as well.
Beckmesser is here refined in a comic but not ridiculous way, devoid of the nervous tells and ticks he is often given. He wears tails (muted purple in general but festive rust for Johannistag): the depiction is reminiscent of Hermann Prey’s. Eva is sprightly, happy and young, but quite conflicted over Sachs – she runs from his arms to those of Walther in Act III. Magdalena is allowed to be an eager woman instead of a dull handmaiden verging on mothering David. None of the voices were bad; there was a noticeably strong timber in Tómasson’s middle range; David’s aria was a high point of the performance.
We have a new twist at the end. When Walther wins the song the deeply divided Eva gives Sachs a kiss full on the mouth: though she had acquitted herself convincingly in the quintet, it turns out she has not quite learned her lesson. Walther recoils in anger and humiliation, and his rejection of the master’s crown is made to be a sequela of this anger. Sachs, who had entirely disappeared, now returns to scold him, but his character has been so sporadic and reactive that his lecture comes across as tiresome and unconvincing dogmatism, made only worse by the entire failure of his voice for several of the words in the last phrases.
Almost all I have said in this report has been negative, except for this last: I loved the performance. Nothing was ruined and almost all the golden threads of this rich and tightly woven masterpiece shone through despite, and partly because of, the distractions of the execution.
— Ken Quandt