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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

CD Review: Wagner at the Met--Before Levine

The Sony Met Broadcasts of Die Walküre and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde.
From the singer's archives.

These bargain-priced recordings are live broadcasts from 1968 (Die Walküre) and 1972 (Die Meistersinger.) They date from the fertile period right before James Levine rose to power at the opera house, and feature first-class casts of Wagner singers, generally in peak form. These are CD issues of live broadcasts, and are an invaluable purchase for any Wagnerian who wants to hear how great these operas sound in front of an audience.

The first of these is Die Walküre, with a dream cast of Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rysanek and Jon Vickers as Siegmund. Nilsson is in exceptional form here, ringing off clarion tones with seemingly impossible ease. She is matched by the late, great Thomas Stewart, an underrated bass-baritone who sang the role of Wotan on the Karajan recording of this opera.

The Wälsung twins Siegmund and Sieglinde feature the near-ideal pairing of Jon Vickers and Leonie Rysanek. The two singers share great onstage chemistry from the first lines, and the first act crackles with repressed Wagnerian sexual energy. The onion in their ointment is the Hunding of Karl Ridderbusch, another underrated singer. He brings black, resonant tone to the most unsympathetic role in the opera. Croatian conductor Berislav Klobučar leads a brisk, invigorating performance in the model of his teacher, Clemens Krauss.

Theo Adam as Hans Sachs.
Photo © Hamburg State Opera
Die Meistersinger was recorded four years later, with a strong cast anchored by Theo Adam's performance as Hans Sachs and James King's turn as Walther von Stolzing. Mr. Adam sounds completely at home in the live setting, indulging his sadomasochistic side at the expense of his apprentice David (Loren Driscoll) and singing with firm, dark tone. James King's clarion tenor is an ideal fit for Walther, and the Prize Song is sung with power and grace.

It also features the appearance of soprano Pilar Lorengar in a rare Wagnerian turn as Eva, Walther's love interest. Benno Kusche is a brusque, funny Beckmesser who involves the audience in his comic acts of artistic self-destruction, drawing them to laugh out loud in the second act.

This set was made two decades before the Met installed its titles system, so the presence of audience laughter testifies to the comic brilliance of Mr. Adam and Mr. Kusche. James Morris, who would take on the role of Sachs at the Met in the 1990s, appears here as Hans Schwarz, the stocking-weaver.

A recording like this one features the choristers tramping around Ye Olde Nuremberg in the third act, and there are problems balancing the onstage brass and percussion in the final scene. But the stage noises actually add to the feel of listening to a live performance, with the benefit of audience laughter in the second act. Thomas Schippers conducts a sprightly reading of the score and the Met orchestra and chorus are generally excellent.

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