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Richard WAGNER (1813–1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868)
Giorgio Tozzi (bass) – Hans Sachs; Ernst Wiemann (bass) – Veit Pogner; Willy Hartmann (tenor) – Kunz Vogelgesang; William Workman (baritone) – Konrad Nachtigall; Toni Blankenheim (bass-baritone) – Sixtus Beckmesser; Hans-Otto Kloose (baritone) – Fritz Kothner; Kurt Marschner (tenor) – Balthasar Zorn; Wilfried Plate (tenor) – Ulrich Eisslinger; Jürgen Förster (tenor) – Augustin Moser; Franz Grundheber (bass) – Hermann Ortel; Carl Schultz (bass) – Hans Schwarz; Karl Otto (bass) – Hans Foltz; Richard Cassilly (tenor) – Walther von Stolzing; Gerhard Unger (tenor) – David; Arlene Saunders (soprano) – Eva; Ursula Boese (mezzo-soprano) – Magdalene; Vladimir Ruzdak (baritone) – A Night Watchman
Chorus of the Hamburg State Opera; Ballet of the Hamburg State Opera
Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra/Leopold Ludwig
Set Design: Herbert Kirchhoff; Costumes: Rudolf Heinrich; Directed by Leopold Lindtberg; Directed for TV by Joachim Hess
rec. Hamburg State Opera, 1970
Sound format: mono; Picture format: 4:3 Colour
ARTHAUS MUSIC 101 273 (2 DVDs) [240:00]


 

During Rolf Liebermann’s time as general manager of the Hamburg State Opera he commissioned thirteen opera films for TV, directed for the medium by Joachim Hess but based on existing productions in the house. These films are now being made available on DVD, to my knowledge for the first time. Being made 35 to 40 years ago there are of course technical limitations as compared to latter-day productions: the sound is mono and roughly no better than LP recordings of the 1950s. Fast camera movements can sometimes blur the picture. This is a small price to pay for performances that are not only historical documents of a by-gone era but valuable for the high standard of direction, playing, acting and singing at one of the more important opera houses in Europe. I have already lavished praise on two Mozart operas, Die Zauberflöte and Le nozze di Figaro and this Meistersinger is even better. Indeed I have never felt so engaged in a performance of this opera either live or through AV media.

Sets and costumes are highly realistic and we feel transported back to16th century Nuremberg. In the first act we are in St. Katherine’s Church. In the second we can imbibe the fragrance from the lilac outside Hans Sachs’ house. In the third every nook and cranny of Sachs’ workshop seems permeated with pitch and wax. The festival meadow in the final scene is more abstract: the empty stage, shining white, is crowded with festively-dressed people in multifarious colours. Now and then we get an overview of the different settings but mostly the cameras are very active participants in the action, often on the move, scanning the congregation in the opening church scene and zooming in on interesting faces, registering every movement, gesture or facial expression throughout the performance, diving into the crowd in the last scene and, during Hans Sachs’ long Wahn-monologue, making the viewer an attentive conversation partner. One nods approvingly when Sachs sings Überall Wahn (Delusion everywhere) and shakes one’s head at Wer gibt den Namen an? (Who can put a name to it?). It is indeed a gripping performance, bringing forth laughter as well as tears. We never miss a detail of Beckmesser’s antics, especially in the scene in Sachs’ workshop, and the close-up of Eva’s cock-eyed grimace, when Beckmesser is making a fool of himself at the song contest, is priceless. The only blunder, to my mind at least, is Kothner’s roll-call of the masters in the first act, where I would have wished a distinct picture of each of them; as it is they just flash by. Later during the performance we get good opportunities to see their individually chiselled characters but the question remains: Who is who?

Whoever they are each and every one of the masters are excellent actors, which matters even more in a performance on TV with so much close-up shooting than during a stage performance. Among the masters we find some fairly well-known singers: Willy Hartmann for instance, William Workman, who was a wonderful Papageno on the Zauberflöte DVD, and a young Franz Grundheber as Hermann Ortel.

When we move over to the main characters we note an expressive portrait of Fritz Kothner by longstanding Hamburg favourite Hans-Otto Kloose. According to the booklet Kloose was a member of the ensemble for thirty years, clocking up nearly 1,800 appearances in over one hundred roles. Another mainstay in Hamburg, the impressively black-voiced bass Ernst Wiemann, was also a new name to me but he had an intense international career, including almost a decade at the New York Met. Gerhard Unger must be counted as one of the most important character tenors during the post-war era and David was one of his specialities. He sang the role at Bayreuth in 1951 for Karajan, the recording available on Naxos. He sang it again for Kempe in 1958 and also for Kubelik in 1968. Here, at 54, he still looks and sings as youthfully as ever and there seems to be not a trace of routine in his acting. His Magdalene is the pretty and lively Ursula Boese who sings with a roundness of tone few singers have mustered in this role. Endearingly pretty and sweet-looking is Arlene Saunders as Eva and her crystal clear and warm voice combined with her looks makes her ideal for the role. Her singing of the opening solo in the quintet Selig wie die Sonne (DVD2 tr. 15) is indeed divine. But she can also pucker up her brow and adopt a harsher tone when she is displeased. Richard Cassilly’s Walther is more ordinary. He is not a very convincing actor, rather wooden and gawky with a limited supply of gestures and expressions. His singing is solid but without much warmth. In the second act, outside Pogner’s house he delivers some truly heroic singing however, worthy a Tristan, a role he later successfully sang also at the Met. More through his superb acting than through his singing, Toni Blankenheim makes a memorable Beckmesser. He is a lively and expressive actor with a perfectly timed body language. He specialized in modern opera and there exists a fine recording of Alban Berg’s Lulu from 1968, recorded in Hamburg with Leopold Ludwig conducting, Anneliese Rothenberger, a surprisingly successful Lulu, Blankenheim as Doctor Schön and Gerhard Unger as his son Alva. It is of course the unfinished version but I believe it would still be attractive if EMI were to reissue it. There is also a Wozzeck DVD from Hamburg coming up.

Giorgio Tozzi, who sang at the Met for 25 years, is best known, at least to the record-buying public, for his many memorable Italian roles but he was also a fine Boris Godunov and on records he was an imposing Daland in Der fliegende Holländer for Antal Dorati (Decca). He makes a deeply humane, warm-hearted Hans Sachs, caring, loving but also authoritative and stern. He delivers his long and demanding role with untiring security and wonderful dark tone. Once or twice one can discern some strain on the uppermost notes but apart from this his is one of the most complete and rounded portraits of the Nuremberg cobbler I have come across, second only to Paul Schöffler on the old Knappertsbusch recording.

Contributing to the overall success of this production is the playing of the Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra under the experienced Leopold Ludwig. Although not one of the "star" conductors he had deep insights into Wagner’s music. Just listening to the act III prelude makes clear what a fine musician he is. Despite the fairly primitive sound we can appreciate Wagner’s masterly orchestration, where every strand is clearly audible and Ludwig makes the music breathe. The cello section’s opening is beautifully played and the cameras take us on a guided tour also through the pit. The chorus is excellent and there is a great deal of individual acting from the chorus members. The finale of act II with Beckmesser’s unsuccessful serenade is just as breakneck chaotic as one could wish.

I can’t imagine living with only one version of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, but when in the future I want to bask in the humour, warmth and humanity of Wagner’s brightest creation, this is probably the version I will return to most often.

Göran Forsling

 

 


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