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Recordings

Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
25 Aug 2006

WAGNER: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Some argue that Bayreuth ushered in the modern era of regietheatre in opera productions with its now-legendary centennial Der Ring des Nibelungen, directed by Patrice Chereau.

Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Bernd Weikl, Hermann Prey, Siegfried Jerusalem, Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele, Horst Stein (cond.)

DG 073 416-0 [2DVDs]

€37,99  Click to buy

Although that may be a gross simplification with a glimmer of truth at its core, it still feels strange to think of that epochal staging after a viewing of this 1981 Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, created by the composer's grandson, Wolfgang Wagner. Staged with an orthodoxy of pristine purity, this Meistersinger serves to highlight all that is admirable and regrettable about the so-called "traditional" approach. The clarity of the storytelling comes along with a practiced execution lacking insight or imagination.

The overture plays over a series of zoom ins and outs of a old map of Nuremberg. As with other Bayreuth productions, the actual performance appears to have been filmed without a live audience; the orchestra remains invisible throughout. Yet the action remains stagebound, especially in the long first act. The set here, the least attractive of the four scenes, lacks color to liven its stagnant picture, and props and costumes have an artificial aura. A fine cast works patiently to create character, highlighted at first by Graham Clark's eager, excitable David. Both Siegfried Jerusalem and Mari Anne Häggander (Walther and Eva) appear utterly conventional as the young lovers, and the lesser "mastersingers" make no strong individual impressions. Hermann Prey's well-dressed, smartly coiffed Beckmesser promises more comic energy than he can quite deliver in the first scene, and Bernd Weikl seems merely stolid, rather than patient and wise.

With the second act, things improve considerably. Here the set's realism is heightened by lovely lighting and touches of color. All the performers seem more relaxed, and the act flies by, excitingly culminating with a lively - though no means uncontrolled - mini-riot, captured with cinematic editing by Brian Large.

The first scene of act three, in Sachs' home, really takes the whole performance to another level. Beautifully lit, as in a painting by some Dutch master, the set's starkness is handsome in itself and makes an excellent foil for the opening up to the greenery of the final scene. Weikl really comes into his own here, finding all the shades of the proud, intelligent, and somewhat sad cobbler. Jerusalem has some slight hoarseness at the top, but otherwise makes an appealing Walther, who can come close to being insufferably self-centered as a character at times. Some may join your reviewer, however, in finding an unfortunate reminiscence of Barry Manilow provoked by Jerusalem's fastidiously manicured hair helmet. The quintet at the end does not have the ideal blend of voices, however, and the singers are asked to stand stiffly. Physical direction throughout veers uncomfortably from fairly natural movement at times of action to formal posing during arias and ensembles.

The stage change to the last scene is not seen. Suddenly we are in a green field with a bannered two-level pavilion at the center, built around a huge tree. The festival cavorting may be forced but the chorus sings impeccably. Prey's Beckmesser never quite hits the right comic notes, maybe because he can't help but sing attractively. He does get to smile at the end, acknowledging the universal respect for Sachs that concludes the opera.

With no bonus features and scanty notes in the booklet, this Deutsche Grammophon set captures an enjoyable performance, not exactly fresh but stylish and tasteful. This Meistersinger feels almost like a comic book version with remarkably life-like animation. If anyone has been searching out a version of Wagner's comic opera of that nature, it has appeared.

Chris Mullins

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