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Meadow festival

Beneath the pageantry, the paeans to German art and the self-referential allusions to the creative process, Die Meistersinger is a story about a community and human qualities like love, friendship, envy and hatred. One can get absorbed in Wagner’s multilayered portrait of medieval Protestant life or just connect with the straightforward narrative about two young lovers and the older man trying to help them.

Director David McVicar emphasized the more intimate approach when he conceived a 2011 production for Glyndebourne that marked only the second full staging of a Wagner work on the Sussex Downs. Though the snug confines of a 1,200-seat theater may have limited some of the creative team’s options, the concept placed extra importance on nuanced characterizations and chamber music-like effects that summon the spirit of a midsummer’s eve.  

A four-CD set on the festival label culled from several performances in the run has a pleasing nervous energy, with an emphasis on folk-like qualities and bright textures that Wagner wove into the townspeople’s banter and personal tension in the artistic quarrels between Hans Sachs and Beckmesser. It’s a less sumptuous, more believable take that could benefit from a little more dramatic depth and stronger casting in some of the leads.

Glyndebourne’s then-Music Director Vladimir Jurowski said at the time that performing this opera for a predominantly English audience allowed the festival to downplay the libretto’s nationalistic sentiments and to emphasize its portrayal of human foibles and sense of collective experience. Abstaining from the grand operatic style also makes one appreciate the carefully thought-out musical architecture, and Wagner’s savvy manipulation of the audience, accomplished through devices such as the multiple repetitions of motifs in the Preislied.

The undisputed star here is baritone Gerald Finley, whose Sachs comes off as younger and more tightly wound that one is accustomed to hearing. There’s an impatient, angry aspect to the great Act 3 monologue “Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!” and convincing brusqueness when the cobbler tells Eva she would be better with a younger man, then bitterly laments his empty life. Finley is most convincing, however, in understated moments that reveal a poetic core to the character that make you believe he could actually win the girl. “Mein Freund, in holder Jugendzeit” has the glowing qualities of the prize song, and the brief pauses he injects in the dialogues with Walther convey an added degree of realism.

Finley’s rich characterization is matched by Johannes Martin Kränzle’s old-fashioned, comedic Beckmesser, who’s more competitive and self-important than malicious. Another youngish baritone one might not immediately associate with Wagner, Kränzle uses his nicely focused voice to good effect in the Act 2 serenade and manages to convey ironic humor without turning the town clerk into a cartoon. His interactions with the mastersingers in the vigorous first act serve as a reminder that this character was never intended to be a talentless pedant.

The other principals don’t quite scale such heights. Tenor Marco Jentzsch is cautious and lacks the requisite bloom to make Walther’s music really soar. Soprano Anna Gabler has a pleasant lyric voice but makes little impression vocally or dramatically in the scenes with Sachs or in the Act 3 quintet. Far stronger is mezzo Michaela Selinger, a particularly assertive Magdalena, who has some fun exchanges with the energetic David of tenor Topi Lehtipuu. The Pogner, bass Alastair Miles, boasts perhaps the most imposing voice in the cast and delivers a fine account of “Das schöne fest, Johannestag.”

Jurowski and the London Philharmonic take a little time to heat up but by Act 2 deliver a sparkling accompaniment that exudes a sense of romantic innocence and sends lovely instrumental solos floating out of the pit. Jurowski attentively supports the younger, lighter voices without sacrificing too much pomp and drama. Unfortunately, the Act 3 chorus sounds a few guilds short of what Wagner had in mind (no doubt a function of the stage dimensions) and doesn’t generate the requisite flood of sound across the meadow and Pegnitz River.

The set’s sonics are generally clean and well-balanced, but there’s a distracting amount of stage noise during the crowd scenes. The attractive program book includes a nice essay about Wagner, Glyndebourne and festival founder John Christie’s vision of an English Bayreuth, along with photos of the cast and production.

Though a Meistersinger so keyed around personal interactions is probably better seen in person or on video than simply heard, this volume could provide an attractive alternative to much-loved, more imposing renditions by Solti, Jochum or Karajan without straying from the essence of the work.

6 comments

  • Liz.S says:

    Thank you so much for the wonderful review!
    Perhaps this kind of intimate and vivid take of meistersinger can be only achieved at a house like Glyndebourne, but I’m secretly wishing that the rumoured Herheim meister at the Met would be under the baton of Jurowski. I think it would be a better fit than by the hands of Levine or Gatti (in Salzburg last summer) musically.

    • This is a fun production of Meistersinger--theatrical and almost Shakespearean in its approach to the comedy and use of unit sets. played last season at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and was most enjoyable despite the worn and frayed state of James Morris’ voice. I went out to Chi-town to see it last year and there’s a review on my blog.

  • Batty Masetto says:

    Bill Naddle reviewed the DVD in November 2012 and I talked about it again on May 25 of last year. On the whole, given that neither the Eva nor the Walther is quite top-notch (though he’s better than she is), I’d recommend the DVD over a purely audio experience. The visuals are charming.

    Because I discovered it’s a pain to track down (not that anybody would be terribly inclined, but just in case), here’s what I wrote then:

    To celebrate Wagner’s birthday we finally got around to watching the Glyndebourne Meistersinger, which Bill Naddle reviewed here last November, and which I guess has been seen in Chicago since then with a different cast. So, old news, but I thought it might be worth adding a few more comments.

    Nowadays it’s the dire Nazi take on Meistersinger’s Germanness that tends to absorb our attention. It’s not irrelevant, of course. But if we fixate on that alone, something we can miss is that all the “Germanness” is ultimately a byproduct of what seem to me to be two of the work’s deeper themes: community and intimacy.

    Rich, cultured and relatively autonomous it may have been, but by today’s standards historical Nuremberg was still a small town. From Hans Sachs’s time to early in Wagner’s, the population generally hovered on the underside of 40,000, making Nuremberg about the size of modern Burlington, VT or Canterbury, England. You could walk clear across town in less than an hour. The Dresden of Wagner’s youth, which we know contributed a fair amount to the imaginative framing of the opera, was not much larger. This is a world where, if everyone doesn’t know everyone else, at least they know someone who knows someone who knows someone. McVicar’s is the first production I’ve ever seen that really brings that social dimension out.

    The importance of community here is what gives rise to the importance of art. By balancing erudite skill and a knowledge of history with popular appeal, art reinforces group identity and acts as a kind of glue that can help a community (or a nation) hold together even when political systems have failed. And failure is a real prospect. After all, Sachs situates his “holy German art” not in a future of German triumphalism but in the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire and even foreign occupation.

    McVicar’s approach means there can be no generalized strokes with a broad brush: the characters mustn’t go blurry if you look closely. There’s no room for the directorial equivalent of “rhubarb, rhubarb.” He’s helped enormously by Vicki Mortimer’s designs, which forgo pseudo-16th-century kitsch for something much less run-of-the-mill, but still very recognizably German. She must have been looking hard at the delightful genre paintings of Carl Spitzweg, though the dresses are from maybe 25 years earlier than his era:

    http://tinyurl.com/pvzqj72

    One happy result of the whole approach is that moments that often tend toward the rhetorical are brought down to earth as purposeful and frequently charming interactions between individuals. If the Meisters are going to assemble for a boring old meeting, they make sure they have plenty of snacks on hand and a nice tablecloth or two to eat off. (But at the same time, they’re not about to waste money on the Marker’s booth, which seems put together from second-hand curtains.) Walther’s Act I song isn’t grandstanding but a real attempt, under pressure, to invent something that will win him the girl he’s set his heart on. “Wach’ auf!” is not empty ceremony, but a surprise that everybody has rehearsed for their beloved Sachs. Even “Verachtet mir die Meister nicht” starts out as Sachs’s man-to-man effort to convince a sulky Walther. And when Sachs speaks of his “liebes Nüremberg,” the moment is an emotional high point, because for once Nuremberg has become a real character itself.

    I was sorry there was no semblance of the procession of the guilds. No doubt the limited stage space was one factor, and maybe a certain fastidiousness about the past. On the other hand, I thought the choreography for the dance was a big enhancement.

    The cast adds up to more than the sum of its parts. It helps that some of those parts are excellent. Plenty has already been said about Finley’s Sachs, so I won’t say much. Lyrically sung, refreshingly free from bluster, and detailed down to the shoe polish around his fingernails. It’s one of the best.

    He’s matched by Johannes Martin Kranzle as a very ably-sung Beckmesser. Thank goodness we’ve generally moved away from Beckmesser as snarly, pedantic buffoon. Kranzle’s Beckmesser is vain and deluded, yes – the solicitously tended, carefully waved comb-over is especially droll – but also vulnerable and like all the Meisters, genuinely devoted to his art (even if he’s not very good at it). One gets the sense that he’s lonely in his egotism. Of course he’d be a terrible husband for Eva, but it seems an open question whether he’d lord it over her or disintegrate into an uxorious hacky-sack at home. He’s very funny in physical comedy, and provokes a twinge of real sympathy in Act III as his train wreck of a song advances, because it’s so obvious he realizes how gruesomely he’s falling apart. And when he weeps as Walther sings the song right, it seems clear that he’s grieving not just because he lost the girl, but because he’s realized he’s not the artist he thought he was, that he’ll never be able to produce something that good. It’s understandable that he snubs Sachs’s attempt at reconciliation: Sachs has forced him to look at himself in a mirror, and he’s not at all happy with what he’s found there.

    Topi Lehtipuu’s David is great fun throughout, but nowhere more than in the long catalogue aria that is usually something of a trial. Here it’s packed with amusing variety: one-upmanship, hazing the newbie, rue at his own shortcomings as a scholar, and much more. (I especially laughed at him banging his head on the desk in frustration at “O Magdalena!”)

    Anna Gabler is a vivacious, sensitive, pretty, funny Eva, but disappoints vocally. The sound is by no means offensive, but she hasn’t the spin or float to ravish the ear at key moments.

    Something similar holds true for Marco Jentzsch as Walther. The voice is not wobbly or wiry or otherwise unpleasant; it’s just not especially lovely. But it’s truly youthful-sounding (for a change!), he’s not straining, he doesn’t seem to tire, he’s a game actor, and he has a nice chemistry with Gabler. There’s also a very engaging naiveté about him. When he sits listening to Sachs’s lesson on how to structure his Prize Song, you can really see the up-and-coming whiz kid hanging on every word of an elder whose knowledge he respects and desires.

    With the exception of Mats Almgren’s hollow-toned Watchman, the supporting roles are well filled, though Michaela Selinger is so young and attractive that there’s no May/December aspect to her romance with David. Like lots of Magdalenas, she skirts the high C in the second act riot. No blame.

    I found Jurowski’s readings of the preludes to Act I and III polished but short on revelations. His shaping of the action and musical climaxes, though, is practically perfect, and both orchestra and chorus sound superb.

    A special word for Ian Julier’s excellent English titles, which track the original remarkably closely while still seeming very natural.

    • Porgy Amor says:

      Agreed, Batty M, on going for the DVD. The existing catalog is so distinguished that I would not recommend an audio-only set from this production unless someone has a keen interest in Jurowski or Finley and dislikes watching video recordings of opera. McVicar’s production is a big part of the draw, and so much stands out in my mind even though I have not seen it in a while — David amusingly thunking his head on the desk when he realizes from how far back Walther will be starting; Sachs tenderly uncovering the portrait of his family during the Act III prelude for a glimpse we sense is a precious morning ritual; Beckmesser’s tears during the Prize Song, the poignancy of the learned craftsman who can recognize greatness without himself having the means to create it. It is good work, and I don’t even mind the cramped playing area in the second half of Act III.

      I thought Jentzsch was a weaker link vocally than Gabler, pushing at his upper limit more than she did, but he is not a complete writeoff. At least he brings physical plausibility to it, and is a more nimble stage figure than some other Walthers enshrined in this format (Heppner, Seiffert).

  • Liz.S says:

    Hmmm… we’re talking about the musical side of this production upon its CD release, but everybody still wants to talk about McVicar’s staging. I liked it, too, and I appreciate everybody shared his/her opinions… but isn’t that chat so yesterday? — didn’t we all talk enough about it when it was a new production? That was even long before its DVD release… I think it was three years ago, many people all over the world enjoyed it when it was webcasted free.

    DVD/BR is more fun than CD… yes, even my buddy Captain Obvious says so! And Porgy, even Jurowski or Finley fans prefer watching it on DVD, I think.
    I actualy have this in blue ray, but I sometimes listen to music on my iPod during my commute, etc. also. I could be one of those rare people who still buy CDs in hard/soft format when apparently CD sales are declining. Also, aside from the singers it seems to me that people are more interested in who’s directing than who’s conducting nowadays. For me who’s conducting a new production is equally important. I’m sorry for being old-fashioned!

    Even the reviewer said, and I agree, that this opera is a piece that’s better being seen, but the point of discussion today here is -- “is this production worth listening to in audio only mode?”
    I hope the answer in this forum is not “No, it’s not musically good enough to enjoy it without visual” -- is it?
    I thought McVicar’s staging was even more attractive because of the music making from the pit. It was clear, vibrant, vivid (even down to the inner voices that could be easily washed away) and full of almost chamber-music-like intimacy. Imagine that staging was accompanied by traditional heavy Germanistic sound -- that wouldn’t be a good fit!

    The reviewer’s conclusion is (this CD) “could provide an attractive alternative to much-loved, more imposing renditions by Solti, Jochum or Karajan without straying from the essence of the work.” I also thought Jurowski’s approach is uniquey interesting enough even when Walther and Eva are not really commendable. I’d say this CD is worth buying (I got it for only $10.99 on iTunes :-)

    • Batty Masetto says:

      If we’re talking CDs, don’t forget the Kubelik.

      For myself, this isn’t one that I’d encourage people to buy for sound alone, even as good as Finley is.