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Friday, March 7, 2008

DVD Review: Two Meistersingers from Bayreuth

Superconductor reviews two classic Wagner reissues. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pensive: Bernd Weikl as Sachs. © 1982 Bayreuth Festival
Wolfgang Wagner, grandson of Richard Wagner, has run the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (the opera theater in Germany designed and built by his grandfather exclusively for staging Wagner operas) for 57 years. In that time, he has had his greatest successes with stagings of Die Meistersinger, Wagner's six hour comic opera that is also a meditation on life, music, and the role of the artist. Two of these productions have been recently released on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon.

The first of these was filmed at Bayreuth in 1984, and features an eager young cast (including the future Siegfried tandem of Siegfried Jerusalem and Graham Clark) under the capable baton of Bayreuth veteran Horst Stein. Wolfgang Wagner takes the spare, traditional approach--a stone Lutheran church, a quiet Nuremberg street which bursts into activity at the end of Act II--the whole cast is onstage brawling in their nightshirts! Instead of a "festival meadow," Wagner erects a gigantic "festival tree", a life-affirming design in keeping with the spirit of this production.

Hermann Prey's Beckmesser steals the show, leaving aside 100 years of ugly Wagnerian baggage and playing the town clerk as dignified and competent, if somewhat fussy. Prey's Beckmesser is a man of tremendous dignity who repeatedly slips on Wagner's musical banana peels, with predictable results. Bernd Weikl is a youngish, but warm and heroic Sachs. Soprano Mari-Anne Haggander makes an adorable Eva, but looks better than she sings. Finally look for bass Matthias Hölle making his first Bayreuth appearance as the Night Watchman.

Note: In the final scene, look for the white-haired gentleman who gets Sachs and Beckmesser to shake hands. That's Wolfgang Wagner himself!
Peter Seiffert as Hans Sachs in the 1999 Bayreuth production of Die Meistersinger.
The 1999 Meistersinger also has a good cast. Tenor Peter Seiffert is a fine Walther, with ringing, noble top notes, a sweet voice, and good acting ability--he makes comic bemusement into an art form in the first act. Overall, his young Franconian knight is more restrained than some von Stolzings who start yelling when they should be hiding in the bushes. Andreas Schmidt, another singer with extensive lieder experience is a Beckmesser in the Prey mode, extremely dignified and then extremely funny. Bayreuth veteran Matthias Hölle has graduated to Pogner, and gives a stately performance. The Bayreuth orchestra is first-rate, led in a robust performance by conductor Daniel Barenboim and the chorus is top-flight.

Which brings us to the one hitch: the Sachs of baritone Robert Holl. His approach to the role is low-key and bland--curiously uninvolved in the early acts of the opera. Then, in the "Wahn! Wahn!" scene at the start of Act III, he fails to take over the action as the opera's protagonist. His voice is a light-weight baritone, lacking the resonance and the authority of a true Sachs. The situation is compounded in the final scene, when he simply runs out of notes. The final monologue is undermined by an unpleasant vibrato.

This time, in his third Bayreuth staging of the opera, Wolfgang has set the action against a cyclorama criss-crossed with back lines. This becomes a giant back-projection screen, suggesting church windows, the rooftops of Nuremberg, and the green festival meadow. All the action takes place on spare sets--some seating surfaces and small chairs for the church, the suggestion of a city street with two houses in Act II. Sachs' house is bare--almost a monk's cell. This production is a kindred spirit to the famous "Meistersinger Without Nuremberg" staged by Wolfgang's brother, Wieland in 1956.

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