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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Hans Sachs - Bernd Weikl
Viet Pogner - Manfred Schenk
Sixtus Beckmesser - Hermann Prey
David - Graham Clark
Walther von Stolzing - Siegfried Jerusalem
Eva - Mari Anne Häggander
Magdalene - Marga Schmil
Bayreuther Festspiele/Horst Stein
Director - Wolfgang Wagner
Recorded 18-29th June, 1984, Bayreuther Festspielhaus
DVD-all regions - 2 DVD set
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON  0734160 [267:00]


For many years, the only DVD of Meistersinger was the 1993 Götz Freidrich production, conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, with truly exemplary performances from Gösta Winbergh, Erik Wilm Schülte and Uwe Peper. My copy is an antique.  The back cover is taken up with instructions on how to operate a DVD !  In those days, people really did need to know what a “Menu Button” did, what “Title” meant, and how to adjust their TV sets to take DVD formats.  Fortunately that production has been reissued and is widely available.
 
If ever there was a composer whose work cried out for intelligent filming, it was Wagner.  With his fundamental belief in Gesammtkunstwerk, the unity of the arts, the new medium would have opened fascinating new interpretative possibilities.  On the other hand, this production, from Bayreuth in 1984 comes from an even earlier pre film period than the Frühbeck de Burgos masterpiece.  It really can’t be judged in the same terms as, say, the Levine/Met production from 2001 with Mattila, Morris and Heppner. 
 
Unlike the Ring, or Parsifal, the Meistersinger depends on its German bearings for context.  It may be a universal human drama, but at the same time there are so many questions implicit about artistic tradition and theory, particularly about expressing a German sensibility.  Wagner was a dialectitian after all, driven by ideas.  As the German experiences changes, there’s plenty of room for thinking anew about “Holy German Art”.  In the Metzmacher/Konwitschny production in Hamburg in 2005, when the grand  chorus was interrupted by a Meistersinger saying (more or less) “How can we sing such things after what happened in the Third Reich?”.  But there’s little irony or imagination in this straightforward production by Wolfgang, rather than Wieland, Wagner.  
 
Indeed, this DVD demonstrates why performance in the theatre doesn’t necessarily translate on film.  On stage, the distance between performers and audience adds to the suspension of belief.  Modern film techniques have turned this into a strength, intensifying the experience, so outright veracity isn’t essential.  We know we’re watching opera not cinema verité.  But film adds a dimension to performance that isn’t necessarily obvious on a purely sound recording.  Seeing this on film, I realised why, much as the individual vocal performances are wonderful, the whole is vaguely unsatisfying
 
Basically, Hermann Prey steals the show. He’s mesmerisingly good.   His Beckmessers were legendary.  He rethinking of the role purged it of accretions  attracted in the Third Reich, restoring it to something perhaps closer to the logic of the opera itself.  The warmth of his tone, and its richness of colour make it obvious why Beckmesser was elected a Meistersinger in the first place, and as Town Clerk had high status.  Essentially, he’s an insider in the establishment, even if he has some odd ideas about music.  This is central to a truly Wagnerian understanding of the role of artist in society.  Sachs, despite being universally loved and admired, doesn’t go in for the trappings of power and status.  He’s a shoemaker.  Walther, despite his background, is an outsider too.  We never really discover why he left the aristocracy and wandered into town.  Wagner, despite his love for fancy velvets and luxury, never really cased being something of an anarchist.  Indeed, he exploited Ludwig II shamelessly.  The implication, then, is that a true artist is an outsider.  Beckmesser is a bad musician who needs to steal ideas because he represents
the uncreative.  
 
Prey’s glorious singing on its own convinces, for even his off key “bad” singing has charm and wit.  But why does Eva love Walther?  Prey’s voice alone trounces Jerusalem’s.  Without visuals, Jerusalem just about convinces.  On film, though attractive enough, he just doesn’t project the same charisma.  In the theatre, Prey’s Beckmessser would have been more integrated with the ensemble.  On film, we get the close-ups, like Prey’s animated face and deliciously wicked panache.  He shakes his foot, dismissing Walther’s mistakes.  No wonder the Meistersingers are won over.  Walther may be a callow youth but film doesn’t help build his case as the more talented alternative.  Prey and Gösta Winbergh’s Walther : that would have been interesting.  
 
Bernd Weikl’s Sachs, too, is superlative.  Sachs is an extremely complicated personality, but Weikl brings out a powerfully potent character.  No decrepit world weary Sachs, this.  Instead, Weikl’s firm, animated singing portrays Sachs a vitally active man who stands up for what he believes in – Wagner’s idea on a true artist and hero.  The acting is as good as the singing.  The only quibble is that young looking Sachs and Beckmessers need an even younger looking Walther as contrast.  Jerusalem’s tenor is high enough to convince aurally, but again, video does him no favours. 
 
Orchestrally, this is not one of the sharpest performances.  It’s no match for Frühbeck de Burgos and the Deutsches Oper.  Of interest too is an early Graham Clark David.  Yet the Berlin production had exceptional performers, too, in Winbergh’s Walther, and  Schülte’s brilliant Beckmesser.  Peper’s David is also far more developed than Clark’s.  And Götz Friedrich is a far more incisive director.    But to miss Prey’s Beckmesser and Weikl’s Sachs would be miss out on two critically important interpretations, both of whom add immeasurably to a greater understanding of this opera.
 
Anne Ozorio
 

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