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Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Wagner Project: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Wagner's longest opera happens to be one of the great comedies.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A medieval woodcut depicting the city of Nuremberg.
In 1848, Wagner had two ideas for operas. One, the saga of the swan knight, became Lohengrin, the other was Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg ("The Mastersingers of Nuremberg." Meistersinger (as it is usually called) was sketched as a rustic comedy, kind of like Tannhäuser with less sex and a happy ending. 19 years later, when Die Meistersinger finally appeared, it became Wagner's longest opera, a profound reflection on the composer's own career and the search for the meaning of German art. It remains one of his most popular operas. And yes, it's a comedy.

Meistersinger is the story of Hans Sachs, an historic figure who was both a poet and a cobbler in medieval Nuremberg. The opera deals with the love triangle between the knight Walther von Stolzing, the maiden Eva Pogner (who has been put up as "first prize" in a local song contest and Sachs himself. Eventually, Sachs helps Walther write a new, original song, win the contest, achieve the rank of "Mastersinger" overnight, and marry Eva. Another plot thread details the rivalry between Sachs and the pedantic town clerk Sixtus Beckmesser, who is also attempting to woo Eva's hand. Beckmesser is a controversial figure: Wagner's sardonic portrayal of music critics and everything that the composer judged to be "wrong" in the arts.

The citizens of Nuremberg come to vivid life over its nearly five-hour span.From the famous Overture to the opening scene of a song-contest in a local church, to the complex farce of the second act, Wagner paints living, loving portraits of everyone (except, possibly Beckmesser) incorporating his own style at its most diatonic and friendly to the ear. Despite its great length, this is a good first Wagner opera to listen to, if you have the time and patience to experience its riches. However, unlike other, later Wagner operas, the foursquare rhythms and blocky architecture of the score do not really let a conductor have much room to speed or slow the progress of the opera.

The third act is longer than the first two put together, mirroring the structure of medieval "mastersongs," which had two identical stanzas followed by a lengthy "aftersong." This abgesang allows Sachs to muse on the madness of the world, finally reject any possibility of marrying Eva himself (to the opening chords of Tristan!) and officiate at a big happy celebration of all things German in the extended finale. Act Three also contains the score's most sublime moment: a quintet which shows Wagner throw out all of his abtruse ideas about opera and drama for the sake of making musical magic.

While a live performance of Die Meistersinger can be exciting, most recordings made of live performances suffer from excessive crowd noise as the mics pick up the heavy feet of medieval burghers clomping about wooden replicas of Ye Olde Nuremberg. For this reason, studio recordings are preferable and are recommended below:

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Hans Knappertsbusch (Decca, 1951)
This was Decca's first attempt at recording a complete Wagner opera under studio conditions in Vienna. The broad mono sound holds up relatively well despite some hiss on the tracks. Of greatest import here: Hans Knappertsbusch's broad approach to the score, and the glories of the brass section. In the Act III prelude, their burnished horn tone sounds like a pipe organ is playing. Paul Schöffler is a profound, sympathetic Sachs and Günther Treptow and Hilde Gueden an engaging pair of love-birds. Of historical interest and for "Kna" fans (like me!)

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Rafael Kubelik (Recorded 1967, released on Myto, Calig and Arts and Artists labels.)
Recorded by Deutsche Grammophon in a Munich studio in 1967 (to commemorate the opera's centennial) this set was shelved until the 1990s. This is the great "lost" recording of Meistersinger. The cast includes Thomas Stewart as Sachs and Sandor Konya as Walther, opposite Gundula Janowitz. Rafael Kubelik is the right conductor for this opera and the score glows under his care. This is easily the best recording of this marathon opera available. The Arts and Artists pressing is the one currently in the catalogue. It's very hard to find a used copy so bite the bullet and buy it.

Dresden Staatskapelle cond. Herbert von Karajan (EMI, 1970)
This is the second of two Karajan recordings of the opera, the first being a live version made in Bayreuth in 1951. He takes a broad approach to the score, indulging in slow tempos when he can, often in unexpected places. The blooming, sometimes boomy acoustic belies the achievements of the the Dresden musicians, an orchestra that is among Germany's finest but rarely recorded with this prolific conductor. The cast (Theo Adam, Helen Donath, Rene Kollo et. al.) is slightly below top-notch, but acceptable. Recommended if you're a Karajan fanatic, though it's by no means the best recording of the opera.

Deutsche Oper Berlin cond. Eugen Jochum (Deutsche Grammophon, 1976)
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Plácido Domingo, Roland Hermann, Horst R Laubenthal, Catarina Ligendza, Christa Ludwig, Peter Lagger
One of the reasons that the above-mentioned Kubelik recording of Meistersinger was locked in the DG vaults was to make room for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's lifelong ambition to sing and record the role of Hans Sachs. The results are mixed. This set also marks Plácido Domingo dipping his toes into German opera and is one of his lesser-known recordings. And yet he is in beautiful (if accented) voice. The attraction here is veteran conductor Eugen Jochum, who brings intensity and echt-Deutsch style, leading a clear and concise account of this weighty score with Bach-like transparency.

>Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Wolfgang Sawallisch (EMI, 1993)
Bernd Weikl and Ben Heppner did this opera together a number of times, including a 1996 run at the Metropolitan Opera that was my first exposure to a live Meistersinger. This excellent studio recording with the Bavarians playing like gods under the baton of Wolfgang Sawallisch captures the state of Wagner singing in the 1990s. Heppner is terrific here, opposite Cheryl Studer in her best form. The BRSO plays here to make up for their earlier recording being shelved, although this sterling set would become second choice when the tiny Myto label released the 1967 Meistersinger mentioned above.

The "Wach auf!" chorus from Act III of Die Meistersinger
featuring the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, as filmed at the Metropolitan Opera.

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