Die Meistersinger


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DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NURNBERG

Composer: Richard Wagner

Libretto: Richard Wagner

First Produced: Munich, 1868

Present Company: Glyndebourne, 2011

Stage Direction: David McVicar

Sets & Costumes: Vicki Mortimer

Lighting: Paule Constable

Choreographer: Andrew George

Sound Supervisor: Andy Rose

Film Director: François Roussillon

Producer: Toni Hajal

London Philharmonic Orchestra

Conductor: Vladimir Jurowski

 

Cast:

Hans Sachs: Gerald Finley

Walther von Stolzing: Marco Jentzsch

Sixtus Beckmesser: Johannes Martin Kränzle

Veit Pogner: Alastair Miles

Eva: Anna Gabler

David: Topi Lehtipuu

Magdalene: Michaela Selinger

Kunz Vogelsang: Colin Judson

Konrad Nachtigall: Andrew Slater

Fritz Kothner: Henry Waddington

Hermann Ortel: Robert Poulton

Balthazar Zorn: Alasdair Elliott

Nightwatchman: Mats Almgren

 

Specs:

Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50 x 2

Opera: 42.29 GB + 36.59 GB = 78.88 GB

Bit Rate: High (33~37 Mbps)

German DTS-HD MA 5.1

German PCM 2.0 stereo

Opera Subtitles: English, German & French

Region: All

Opera runtime: 280 minutes

Opus Arte 2012

 

Grade

Conception & Staging: A-

Costumes: A

Casting: A-

Singing: A/B

Orchestra: A

Music Direction: A-

Video Direction: B+

Image: B

Audio: A-

Extras Features: B

Recommendation: B+


 

Introduction

A co-production of Gran Teatre del Liceu, Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Opera di Roma and the English National Opera, this production of Wagner’s most popular opera is Glyndebourne’s first.  And “popular” it is. Unlike the stories of gods, demi-gods and Teutonic legendary figures that populate most of Wagner’s operas to date (and would do so once again in Parsifal) Die Meistersinger is an opera for the people.  It is about the triumph of Art over Parochialism. It is a comedy – an original story, pretty much Wagner’s only journey into that domain.  And it is a romance – where the protagonists are all recognizable as people we know. No mythological heroes, gods or Vulcans.


       

 

The Story

The Glyndebourne production moves the setting forward from the mid-sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century, the dawn of the modern German nation and the time of Wagner’s youth.  The guilds, which were at the height of their popularity and power a few centuries ago are now at the sunset of their influence, a fact that makes the pompousness of their pronouncements somewhat at odds with the rise of the power of the people.

 

The title refers to a guild of craftsman and burghers dedicated to parochial principles of art song with rules of construction so stifling it’s a wonder that anything worth the name ever survives.  Curiously, we never find out, for not one of them ever displays his talent in a complete, uninterrupted song for the entire opera.  Instead, our focus is on a young knight, Walther von Stoltzing, newly arrived the day before the opera begins.  His intent is to settle in Nürnberg and join the guild, both given passionate impetus by his having fallen madly in love with Eva, the daughter of the goldsmith, Veit Pogner, the moment he set foot in the town. Pogner wants to marry off his daughter to the winner of the singing contest to be held tomorrow on Midsummer’s Day.  Eva, too, is smitten with the young man, but Walther first has to qualify for the guild before he can enter the contest.  Ignoring the rules, or simply unable to find his way through them to a song, the town clerk Sixtus Beckmesser and rival for Eva’s hand, marks off Walther’s violations, filling all the available space on his chalkboard.


       

 

Everyone confides in the town cobbler, the widower Hans Sachs, especially Eva and Walther.  Sachs, whose impression of Walther’s trial song, was very different from that of his colleagues – he confides to Eva that Walther is already a Meistersinger in ways that only served to intimidate the self-righteous Nurnbergers - takes up the challenge to teach the young man a sense of the rules so that he can still enter the contest.  Still, Walther’s hopes are not high and he and Eva plan to elope that very night.  Since Sachs is considered the best of the Meistersingers, Beckmesser, naturally suspicious of Sachs as a potential suitor for Eva, asks Sachs to critique his entry, in fact a serenade to Eva whom he believes is listening, while his shoes are being prepared.  Sach’s constant hammering distresses Beckmesser and, along with the commotion generated by a subplot of mistaken identities, wakes the neighborhood.


       

 

On the morning of the festival, Beckmesser, thinking that Sachs himself is preparing to enter the contest, spies some verses lying about and confronts Sachs with his suspicions, which Sachs not only denies but offers the verses to the clerk as a gift.  During the contest Beckmesser makes a complete fool of himself since he cannot make the verses, which in fact are Walther’s, into a song, let alone one that comports with the rules.  The audience breaks out into peals of laughter.  Beckmesser insists that the lyric wasn’t his at all and that Sachs tricked him into using it. Sachs tells the people that if the words were properly sung they would approve.  He calls on Walther as a witness to this effect (rather than an entrant.) Buoyed by his lessons with Sachs, Walther hits the prize song out of the park while the people go gaga and the Meistersingers admit Walther into their guild, and thereby wins the hand of Eva as well.  Sachs ends the opera with a long testimonial to the enduring power of German art.


       

 

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg comes with some baggage – some of it by Wagner’s own hand; the rest by the Nazis.  That Hitler and his followers were fond of Wagner is something of a cliché; Die Meistersinger represents a special case, for the opera, particularly in its final scene, not only exudes collective nationalism, but it does so at the expense of a character mocked by the volk and nobility alike: the once-respected Sixtus Beckmesser, a character derived from one of Wagner’s critics, Eduard Hanslick.  Wagner took some pains to “out” Hanslick as a Jew (on his mother’s side), asserting in his essay Jewishness in Music that Hanslick’s “Jewish” style of criticism was “anti-German.”  Traditionally, and by Wagner’s own stage directions, Beckmesser is often portrayed in the broadest Semitic caricature.

 

Curiously, I didn’t pick up on the anti-Semitism even when I saw it thirty-odd years ago in San Francisco with Theo Adam as Sachs and Geraint Evans as Beckmesser.  I am the first to admit that my perception about art is not especially mainstream, yet it is surprising, considering my own background that, until very recently, I missed out on Meistersinger’s anti-Semitism altogether.


        

 

I believe I can even make a case for Wagner having created two Beckmessers, insofar as the Jewish question is concerned: The one that Wagner describes in his directions for the moment of Beckmesser’s disgrace and the one that is embraced by Veit Pogner, the a wealthy and higher respected member of Nurnberg’s Meistersinger Guild.  Pogner delivers a very long speech to his fellow guildsmen – the first such monologue in the opera, by the way – in which he declares his only daughter as the prize.  It is absolutely clear at this point that he expects Sixtus to win, and supports him publicly in his efforts.  Hardly the sentiment of an anti-Semite.  Given the state of affairs laid out in the first act there is no reason whatsoever to portray Beckmesser as a Semitic caricature. Quite the contrary.  I suspect the only reason why he has been so portrayed over the decades is that anti-Semitism runs deeper than art.


        

 

So much for my take on the matter.  Let’s return to the general view. What to do with Wagner’s stage direction?

 

Wagner certainly can’t be held accountable for the Nazis, but Sachs’ final speech about foreign (might we read: Jewish?) influences can set one’s teeth on edge.  Come to think of it: what is that speech doing there?  Sachs’ monologue is long and a little tedious – unless, of course, you are stirred by such nationalism – remember that Germany was not yet united in Wagner’s time.  I’ve never been able to understand its pride of place given all that has come before, yet ts length and relative profundity is necessary to balance Pogner’s first act speech and his own gloomy, discursive monologue at the start of the last act.  You can’t really cut it, but perhaps you can reframe it, at least in regards how everyone treats Beckmesser in his moment of defeat and disgrace.


        

 

Beckmesser is a little like Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain.  When the curtain is pulled to reveal Kathy Selden, the audience falls over themselves in peals of derisive laughter.  The scene is funny, but tragic, too.  For however preposterous Lina is, that moment spells the end of her career, even though she has brought it on herself – just as does Beckmesser.  The camera cuts away from Lina’s fall, but Wagner would have Sixtus be hounded out of town.  McVicar’s solution is not to treat him as vermin but to keep him around for the people figure out how to deal with him and their feelings about him.  Frankly, I’m surprised it took this long to arrive at such a conclusion.

 

McVicar goes a couple of centuries further to help us make the connection with the human element by setting the action in the early part of the nineteenth century when there was a certain vitality of intellectual, political and artistic effort, but popular appeal as well.


       

 

Critical Press:

The Telegraph

First among the many great strengths of Glyndebourne’s new production of Wagner’s comedy is Gerald Finley, performing Hans Sachs for the first time. His supremely elegant singing had all the verbal clarity and musical incisiveness - nothing forced, nothing mushy - for which he is celebrated, and he radiated the wise humane scepticism which makes Sachs the most attractive character in Wagner’s oeuvre. Finley may not have the bellows to sing this role in a big house, but at Glyndebourne he was just about perfect. He was up against an equally distinguished Beckmesser, sensitively uncaricatured by Johannes-Martin Kränzle as pathetically anxious rather than pompously risible. His final Malvolio-like humiliation was oddly moving. I didn’t sense any Semitic element to the characterisation, but I have read that this was intended. Marco Jentzsch made a winningly tall young chocolate soldier of a Walther, even if his bumpily phrased Prize Song suggested a vocal technique in need of further refinement. David McVicar’s staging, updated to the early nineteenth-century era of Wagner’s childhood, was in many respects admirable: real people emerged, and the action was rich in detail and humour. The designs by Vicki Mortimer, inspired by the paintings of the Nazarene Brotherhood, accommodated the interior scenes more successfully than the cramped exterior ones. - Rupert Christiansen


       

 

Huffington Post

Any Meistersinger production stands and falls with its Hans Sachs, one of opera's most demanding roles. The shoemaker-cum-philosopher-composer-poet must sing for two hours and 45 minutes. "Sachs is dedicated to the excellence of art, which makes good drama," Gerald Finley told me. "I try to highlight the fact that he's both a cobbler and a poet, which is a challenge in itself." Finley delivers a humane, philosophical portrayal of Sachs. And the voice! Despite almost three hours of non-stop singing, Finley's chocolaty voice carries on without blemish. Not surprisingly, he earned a triumphant ovation -- complete with stomping -- at the performance I attended. . . While you, Hollywood, have been cranking out bad comedies, opera has been cranking out new productions that will wow even the unmusical.  [Johannes-Martin] Kränzle does exactly that.  Yes, Wagner can be hilarious -- if you have the right singers. Kränzle, the owner of a warm baritone voice, inhabits the role of Beckmesser to such effect that the audience laughed out loud. – Elisabeth Braw


       

 

The Guardian

In facing up to the darknesses of Meistersinger, what McVicar really wants to do is give the piece new life as a human drama. "I wanted to get away from all that turgid German high solemnity. It has to be so much more alive and so much more accessible. I want to take people on a journey, I want them to identify with these people and this community." Recognising the inherent problems in the piece shouldn't disguise the joy, life and humanity in Meistersinger. "It's the most melodious, beautiful, heartwarming opera Wagner wrote," McVicar says, "and the one you can get most involved in, without being bamboozled by mythology." In facing up to Meistersinger's dark past, it's just possible McVicar and Glyndebourne might finally have escaped it. – Tom Service


       

 

Performance

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg requires no fewer than seven first class singers, and can scarcely tolerate less than stellar singing in any of them – certainly not on record.  Staged opera is a little more forgiving as there are other aspects of production to savor and hold our interest.  Without a mature Sachs, an incisive Beckmesser and a ringing Walther, you might as well not open, though a small company like Glyndebourne can scarcely be faulted for not having the financial resources to purchase the best talents to serve all three, especially Walther.  Of the three male leads, only Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Beckmesser is without blemish of any kind: singing, acting and casting; and much the same could be said of Gerald Finlay’s Sachs if you just close your eyes.  The difficulty here is, of course, the Canadian baritone’s age and boyish looks.  He resists the temptation to woe Eva, he says, because of his age, but up close and personal through the eye of the high definition camera he looks hardly older than Anna Gabler's Eva, were she so inclined, and ten or fifteen years younger than Kränzle. Clearly he is one of the youngest Meistersingers in the Guild, which can’t be as intended.


       

 

Marco Jentzsch, who towers over everyone in the cast physically, is another matter.  For reasons passing understanding his character wears a week-old beard that would fit right in with half the cast of Lost or any number of today’s television and movie heroes and villains, but here it just look like he needs a shave. Badly.  Through no fault of his own, Jentzsch bears a curious resemblance to Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, or perhaps the beard is an attempt to disguise the fact.  Whenever I was inclined to think of it I found it that much harder to take Walther seriously.  I found his singing, at least on this occasion, inconsistent.  His best moments were during his first act test song for the guild and throughout the second act (which was stellar); but from his entrance in the last act onwards, not least the third act prize song (his rehearsal in Sachs’ workshop was better), he struck me as a little tired, the tone not as well supported.


       

 

The remaining important supporting players are all good, Anna Gabler’s Eva being the least compelling. I found her tone lacking in warmth and color, though her acting had considerable range, very affecting as she offers the wreath to Sachs at the opera’s end. Michaela Selinger’s Magdalene and Alastair Miles’ Pogner are just about perfect, and Topi Lehtipuu’s youthful, characterful tenor is tuneful (I gather he was less so on other nights).  The Glyndebourne chorus is uniformly robust, the London Philharmonic good but somewhat pressed in the first act under the festival’s generally flawless resident conductor, Vladimir Jurowski.


     


I might add that I don't know of any entirely successful recording, though I find the Herbert von Karajan on EMI one of the least problematic.  Kollo is quite young and not always as fulsome as I want, but everyone else is superb, as is HVK's way with the piece and the Dresden band, which sounds more like the real thing than the LPO. Theo Adam, whom I heard in SF in the Sachs role, has more authority than Finley but the Canadian is more agreeable to listen to, especially in those relentless monologues.  Geraint Evans can fill a hall with a pp and has that extra Welsh crackle which works nicely for Beckmesser, but Kranzle is every bit as good in his way, and a better actor, if memory serves.  Alastair Miles is unsurpassed as Pogner. Finnish tenor Lehtipuu may not have quite the credentials of Peter Schreier, but in this performance he seems to have Schreier as his model.  (All of this is from memory. If I were to return to the HvK now I might have a different think about it.)


       


Video

Paule Constable’s strong cross stage lighting from the wings in the first and last acts presents an insurmountable challenge for HD video. It is noticeable in the church scene as the opera opens and for much of the finale at the Midsummer’s Day Festival.  When Sachs opens the door to his study at the start of Act 3, even he is blinded by the light that pours in. But while his eyes can get used to it, the camera cannot, and the scene, which continues for a spell is awash in overexposure so severe it loses image (as we see in the screen capture below.) If anyone stands in the light within 10-15 feet of the door, as must happen, their right side will wash out.  The stage direction makes every effort to avoid that, but only so much can be done.  The festival is equally problematic in a number of framings.


       


I might also note that Constable opts for art over science as this scene assumes two suns – for while the door Sachs opens at stage right locates the position of the sun low in the sky as befits early morning, his window at stage left indicates a less bright sun at about the same height in the sky, as evidenced by shadows of the windowpanes against the near wall.  The audience, of course, wouldn’t notice this discrepancy from their vantage point; moreover, they are unaffected by the difference in EV (exposure value) across the stage since the eye/brain will compensate.


The matter of the impossible lighting ratio aside – which affects perhaps 20% of the run time – the video quality is superb, totally up to the standards usually set by Opus Arte. Opus Arte generously spreads the opera (totaling just under 80 GB!) over two discs: Acts 1 & 2 on the first, Act 3 and the two HD bonus features on the second. Color is natural, slightly undersaturated in antique tones. Density, helped by a very high bit rate, is superb.  Transfer artifacts are more or less non-existent and the “print” is clean and sharp as a cobbler’s tack. Sharper.


       

 

Audio

There is the usual 5.1 and 2.0 stereo uncompressed offerings. The surround mix works quite well until the start of the Midsummer Day festival in the third act when the chorus sounds congested and a little raucous – and for this reason, I urge setting your volume level here before settling into the opera. In fact, setting the level correctly in this way is a good way to arrive at the proper level for the third act quintet, which can easily turn opaque and lacking in finesse if set too high.  For the most part, elsewhere, the 5.1 mix ,which is to be preferred here, has plenty of breathing room, especially for the soloists.


       

 

Bonus

Die Meistersinger - “an opera with baggage” (10:35): Director David McVicar, Conductor Vladimir Jurowski and Baritone Gerald Finley talk about Wagner, the artist, and his place in the musical world of his time, as well as how they approach both the nationalistic overtones of the opera and the anti-semitic caricature of Beckmesser.


Die Meistersinger von Glyndebourne (8:20): Glyndebourne’s General Director David Pickard and Executive Chairman Gus Christie and President George Christie share the history and voyage of bringing an opera of such size and scope to their rural opera house.  Also included is a Cast Photo Gallery and Opus Arte’s usual multi-language 32-page booklet, which, in addition to the expected credits, really amounts to a 3-page article by John Allison about bringing Wagner to Glyndebourne (a nice read) and a 4-page detailed synopsis of the opera.


       

 

Recommendation

This is a tough call. Without a doubt Opus Arte’s recording of last year’s Glyndebourne production is easily the finest Meistersinger on high-definition video at this time.  Still, there are nagging, if not persistent technical problems with both image and audio.  The supporting cast is excellent.  Anna Gabler’s Eva lacks warmth and Marco Jentzsch’s Walther fades in the last act.  Gerald Finlay’s youth bothers me – perhaps more than it will you; in all other respects – tone, empathy, wisdom reflection - he IS Hans Sachs. The score is one of Wagner’s best and, by some way, his most accessible and entertaining. Despite Jurowski’s tempi at times in the first act, this still makes for a rewarding listen.  McVicar’s production is very sensible and Vicki Mortimer’s sets and costumes are wonderful.  The second act is a joy.



Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

January 20, 2013



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