WAGNER: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (complete opera) – Albert Dohmen, bass-baritone (Hans Sachs) / Georg Zeppenfeld, bass (Veit Pogner) / Michael Smallwood, tenor (Kunz Vogelsang) / Sebastian Noack, bass (Konrad Nachtigall) / Dietrick Henschel, bass (Sixtus Beckmesser) / Tuomas Puriso, bass (Fritz Kothner) / Jörg Schörner, tenor (Balthasar Zorn) / Thomas Ebenstein, tenor (Ulrich Eißlinger) / Thornsten Scharnke, tenor (Augustin Moser) / Tobias Berndt, tenor (Hermann Ortel) / Hans-Peter Scheidegger, bass (Hans Schwarz) / Hyung-Wook Lee, bass (Hans Foltz) / Robert Dean Smith, tenor (Walther von Stolzing) / Peter Sonn (David) / Edith Haller, soprano (Eva) / Rundfunkchor Berlin / Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin / Marek Janowski – PentaTone Classics multichannel SACD PTC 5186 402 (four discs), 79:54; 67:25; 58:34; 47:22 [Distr. by Naxos] ****1/2:
The third of the PentaTone series of Wagner operas from conductor Marek Janowski is a real changeup, the leadoff in the series being Wagner’s first international success (Der fliegende Holländer) and the second, the very last of his thirteen completed stage works (Parsifal). In marked contrast to these most dramatic of music dramas, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is the only comic opera written in Wagner’s maturity. Composed while Wagner was working on the Ring, between Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung, it represents quite a departure for Wagner.
While reading Simon Morrison’s fine Prokofiev biography, The Peoples’ Artist, I was struck by a comment from the composer to the effect that in his Soviet-era operas, he wanted specifically to avoid the “stasis” of Wagnerian music drama. Certainly, Prokofiev was thinking of operas from Die Walküre onward, with the conspicuous exception of Die Meistersinger. The Ring operas, with their spare casts of characters and even sparer action sequences, couldn’t have prepared the world for Die Meistersinger, with its grand opera cast and grand opera trappings, including stirring arias and choruses—even a charming ballet for the apprentices. Add to that some of the most complex polyphony written in the nineteenth century (the overture ends by interweaving no less than four themes from the opera)—presumably to capture the essence of Renaissance music-making. What’s more, it’s the only one of Wagner’s mature operas to take place in a real-world setting with real historical figures, including the chief of the German Meistersinger of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, the shoemaker Hans Sachs (1494-1576).
I’ve come to expect that notes written by Continental music critics are going to be a bit wayward and chatty, but despite this, Steffan Georgi’s long essay contains valuable insights on the autobiographical nature of Wagner’s opera. Clearly Wagner identifies with musician and poet Sachs, just as he uses the inept town clerk Beckmesser—whose name came to define the hidebound musical reactionary—to lambast his critics, especially the Brahms-worshipping Eduard Hanslick. But there’s more to it than that: Georgi recounts the tale of Wagner’s 1861 trip to Venice with Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck (Mathilde, of course, the poet behind Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder). The trip was planned as a gesture of reconciliation after the uncomfortable affair between Wagner and Mathilde, especially uncomfortable given that Otto was one of Wagner’s most loyal benefactors.
The composer’s feelings for Mathilde were discovered by his wife, Minna, and “there was only one way for Wagner to protect himself against the self-destructive frustration caused by the break-up: renunciation. He was inspired by the Virgin Mary [portrayed in Titian’s painting The Assumption of the Virgin]—who symbolizes ‘all that is pure and unselfish, all that is divine love’ (Peter Wapnewski)—to transform Die Meistersinger from a silly comedy into a truly purifying satyr play.”
Thus, as commentators have noted, the opera is a comedy with a rather sad central figure, one that would have gotten the girl except for the appearance of the charming knight Walther von Stolzing, who steals Eva’s heart and whom Sachs helps to claim her hand as prize in the singing contest. To underscore the fact of Sachs’s hurtful renunciation, his scene with Eva in Act 3 (Hat man mit dem Schuhwerk) includes clear references to the music of Tristan und Isolde, the story of a love triangle that turns out tragically. The connection with Mathilde and Otto is obvious, and in fact Wagner stated that some of the Wesendonck Lieder were studies for his tragic opera to come. So both Tristan and Die Meistersinger must have represented catharsis and/or sublimation for Wagner, who reportedly thought of Mathilde as the one true love of his life.
In any event, Wagner’s gargantuan comic opera (well over four hours in length) has, besides some nigh-slapstick humor at Beckmesser’s expense, grandeur, pathos, and great spectacle as well. It must present quite a challenge for opera producers, especially in this age of straightened finances. But as with the rest of the operas in this PentaTone series, the present recording is based not a staged performance but on a live concert performance from the Berlin Philharmonie, which, come to think of it, must have presented its own challenges, given the huge forces—both vocal and orchestral—involved. I haven’t heard the Parsifal from this source, which seems to be garnering mixed reviews, but as in Der fliegende Holländer, Janowski’s pacing of the music and command of his musicians are impressively sure. The orchestra plays with great force and color, while the chorus is drilled to a T, emotive to a fault.
As to the solo singing, this is an opera with a rich recorded tradition behind it. There are celebrated recordings by Karajan, Jochum, Kubelík, and Solti, featuring the greatest singers of the day: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau vs. José van Dam (Sachs), Hermann Prey vs. Ben Heppner (Beckmesser), Gundula Janowitz vs. Karita Mattila (Eva). I’m not sure that any of Janowski’s cast is quite of legendary quality, but Albert Dohmen, who was a very fine Holländer in the first opera in the series, makes a commanding Sachs: large voiced, touched with the right degree of noble pathos. Edith Haller can’t compete with Janowitz (who could?) but is a sympathetic Eva, balancing innocence with awakening passion as the role demands. Her voice is light and clean, poised throughout. Apparently, Walther is a hard role to bring off, and while the American tenor Robert Dean Smith is mostly good, he seems to have tired by the third act; his song Morgen ich leuchte, the vocal set piece of the opera, shows strain compared, say, to the magnificent Ben Heppner, who admittedly enjoys the benefit of the studio recording experience. Actually, I find Dietrich Henschel’s Beckmesser more effective, a fine performance throughout, including his comically muffed delivery of Walther’s song to the accompaniment of a very twangy lute. The lesser roles are all handled more than competently by a veteran cast.
If anything, PentaTone’s live recording is an improvement on their mostly excellent Holländer; the rear channels aren’t employed for any off-stage business, as they were in Holländer, but they’re used to provide credible ambience and help define a very deep soundstage. Solo voices are beautifully, realistically placed in relation to the orchestra, chorus and orchestra being crystal clear, large of presence. In short, except for the a bit of splashiness in those big cymbal crashes, this is SACD sound at its best, live recording or no. From here, Janowski and company move on to Lohengrin. If they provide as fine a listening experience as in this Meistersinger, it will be worth hearing for sure.
Verve/Universal Music Group a newly discovered live album by Nina Simone.