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Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Hans Sachs – Franz Hawlata (bass-baritone)
Veit Pogner – Artur Korn (bass)
Kunz Vogelgesang – Charles Reid (tenor)
Konrad Nachtigall – Rainer Zaun (bass)
Sixtus Beckmesser – Michael Volle (baritone)
Fritz Kothner – Markus Eiche (baritone)
Balthasar Zorn – Edward Randall (tenor)
Ulrich Eisslinger – Hans-Jürgen Lazar (tenor)
Augustin Moser – Stefan Heibach (tenor)
Hans Schwarz – Andreas Macco (bass)
Hans Foltz – Diogenes Randes (bass)
Walther von Stolzing – Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor)
David – Norbert Ernst (tenor)
Eva – Michaela Kaune (soprano)
Magdalene – Carola Guber (mezzo-soprano)
A nightwatchman – Friedemann Röhlig (bass-baritone)
Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra/Sebastian Weigle
rec. live, 2008 Bayreuth Festival
OPUS ARTE OACD9031D [4 CDs: 268:03]

This Meistersinger was Katharina Wagner’s debut production at Bayreuth in 2007 and I was lucky to see it the following year, when this recording was made. ‘Lucky’ may not be the most adequate adjective to express my reaction to it, since I didn’t care much for the visual aspects of the performance, but I enjoyed much of the singing a lot. When it appeared as a sound only recording I tendered for it and I wasn’t disappointed. On the back of the box there is a warning: “This live recording of a staged performance includes audible stage and audience noise.” It is true that it was a noisy performance, but today, when complete opera recordings almost always are from live productions, we have become used to this and the present production is not the worst in that respect. There is no need to hide behind the furniture in one’s listening room, which has sometimes happened in the past. The quality of the recorded sound is excellent, clear and well-balanced and conveys a great deal of the famous Bayreuth acoustics. So unless you are allergic to extra-musical sounds there is no need to fight shy of this issue on purely sonic grounds.

It is indeed a treat to savour the excellent sound of the Bayreuth strings, as well as the just as excellent woodwind and brass. Sebastian Weigle, who made his Bayreuth debut with Meistersinger and conducted it throughout the five-year period it was running, is a splendid Wagnerian which was obvious to me back in 2008 in Bayreuth and a few years later I reviewed ¾ of his Frankfurt Ring cycle. It was, to be sure, ruled out through too much uneven singing but the conducting was sure-footed and inspired. Here in Die Meistersinger he chooses sensible tempos that keeps the long work constantly on the move. He never drags, he never rushes things, I would say his reading is in the middle of the road, but this can be misread as safe and uninteresting, which it definitely is not. But he doesn’t make ‘clever’ things just to show his personality. He lets his forces loose with tremendous power and intensity in the tumultuous fight scene at the end of act two. This is a true highpoint in this performance, and when it dies away to complete stillness and the Nightwatchman appears and a horn call brings forth the enthralling midsummer night. This is magic. One understands the ovations afterwards. Throughout there is idiomatic Wagner conducting on the highest level and he respects his singers and gives them the space they need, just as he did in the recent recording of Flotow’s Martha, which of course is a quite different kind of opera. The big choral numbers also get their due, in particular the great choral procession in the last act (CD 4 tr. 3), the Wach auf chorus and all that up to the finale. This is Wagner at his most natural, most human, free from all the gods and giants of the mythology. Fresh air and folk dance. He was never folksier than here.

And so to the singers. In each generation there is only a handful of truly great Wagner singers, and often they are in so heavy demand that they tend to wear themselves out. Here among the main characters there is not a single wobbler. Well, Carola Guber’s Magdalene is quite shrill and wobbly, but the role is comparatively small in comparison with the real central characters. Michaela Kaune’s Eva, for instance, the only other female role in this male dominated opera, is warm and lyrical and is truly glowing in the quintet (CD 4 tr. 1). There are few other Evas on the more than one dozen recordings I have who can challenge her.

But the real revelation back in 2008 was Klaus Florian Vogt’s Walther. Here was a lyrical tenor with a Mozart sound – Tamino in Die Zauberflöte would be his ideal role, I thought then. But his voice expands easily and without losing anything of the pure lyrical qualities, and his big set pieces, Fanget an (CD 2 tr. 1) and the Prize song (CD 4 tr. 11) ring out with glorious tone and not one sign of strain. He was, and is, a phenomenon.

Walther is a big role but Hans Sachs is even bigger and the singer who undertakes the role needs enormous stamina. Franz Hawlata has stamina, but I remember from 2008 that he, after his last big solo, Verachtet mir die Meister nicht (CD 4 tr. 13) was totally exhausted at the curtain calls. But the actual sound shows no signs of wear as registered by the microphones. His is an ideal bass-baritone with enough expansion upwards to make him the ideal Sachs. He has a kind of fatherly approach in the first act and in the Flieder monologue in the second act (CD 2 tr. 9) he sings the opening softly and warmly but with dramatic bite when he remembers the controversy over the young knight. And the words Dem Vogel der heut’ sang are sung with admirable warmth. Even greater is the Wahn monologue (CD 3 tr. 4) in act three, which gets a magisterial reading.

Michael Volle, who today has adopted the role of Hans Sachs, was for several years the reigning Beckmesser. I heard him in the role also in a concert version of Die Meistersinger at Royal Festival Hall a couple of years before the Bayreuth production. His Beckmesser is less of a clown and more a serious but maybe not so clever bureaucrat, and his singing is characterised by strength and expressivity and superb enunciation. Norbert Ernst is a lively and articulate David, and his tone is rather like Vogt’s. Artur Korn is a black-voiced and noble Pogner and Markus Eiche is a good Kothner.

There is no libretto with this issue but it can be easily accessed online. Unless one can’t accept stage noises, this is a version of one of the greatest operatic masterpieces that takes its places as one of the finest currently available.

Göran Forsling

Previous review (Blu-ray): Robert Cummings


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