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Thursday, January 14, 2010

DVD Review: Die Meistersinger von Deutsches Oper Berlin

Mention Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg to the casual opera-goer and you will either get a smile of appreciation or a shudder of dread. DMvN is Wagner's longest opera, and its score is written in such a way that the conductor cannott speed it up or slow it down. It always clocks in at four and a half hours, and that's without intermissions. (Then again, TV viewers spend even more time watching American Idol or The X Factor!) The plot of Meistersinger is similar to those shows: a singing contest where the prize is the hand of the lovely Eva. And in the Simon Cowell role: Hans Sachs, a real-life cobbler and composer who is one of the most beloved characters in German opera.

Filmed in 1995 at the Deutsches Oper Berlin, this two-DVD set is a reliable introduction to this opera. Meistersinger is a simple comedy with a lot of complex comic business, and here it is well-suited to the particular directing skills of Götz Friederich. Friedrich adds a lot of original ideas that work (Beckmesser trashes Sachs' cobbler's bench) and a few that don't (the inexplicable jugglers and tumblers cluttering up the Festival Meadow scene at the end of the opera.) Peter Sykora's spare set centers around a circular window with a curving, miniature depiction of Old Nuremberg set within its frame. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducts a solid, workmanlike performance, punching up the four-square diatonic rhythms of the score.

Wolfgang Brendel gives the legendary cobbler a fresh dose of energy and comic vigor. His relationship with Beckmesser (the wonderfully insufferable Eike-Wilm Schulte) is one of the evening's comic highlight. (The best moment: a last-minute reconciliation between the two rivals that ends the opera on a triumphant, comic note.) Decked out in a shabby hat, Brylcreemed hair and pencil mustache, Schulte is the picture of pomposity. This vaudevillian approach to the town clerk is thankfully devoid of the unfortunate clichés that have dogged this character in the past.

As the young lovers Walther and Eva, tenor Gösta Winbergh and soprano Eva Johannsson look better than they sound. Johannson's voice is a bit too large for her namesake, and she over-powers the more lyrical moments. Winbergh has a fine, bright tenor voice which lacks the honey that could seduce an entire town with his lyric poetry. He delivers a high, bright "Fanget An!" and a solid Prize Song, and has good onstage chemistry with Johansson. However, the finest tenor performance on this DVD is Uwe Peper as David, who transforms the long Act I list of "tones" into a comic tour de force.

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