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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, opera in three acts
Hans Sachs – Georg Zeppenfeld
Veit Pogner – Vitalij Kowaljow
Sixtus Beckmesser – Adrian Eröd
Walther von Stolzing – Klaus Florian Vogt
David – Sebastian Kohlhepp
Eva – Jacquelyn Wagner
Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden/Jörn Hinnerk Andresen (chorus master)
Bachchor Salzburg/Alois Glaßne (chorus master)
Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
Stage direction – Jens-Daniel Herzog
rec. live, 13 & 22 April 2019, Großes Festspielhaus, Osterfestspiele, Salzburg
No sung texts
PROFIL EDITION PH20059 [4 CDs: 274:20]

The Profil Edition Günter Hänssler label continues its ‘Edition Staatskapelle Dresden’ series with a live recording of Richard Wagner’s festive masterpiece Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg). This release was recorded during the premiere and second performances of Jens-Daniel Herzog’s new staging as part of the Salzburger Osterfestspiele (Salzburg Easter Festival) 2019.

Here, artistic director of the Salzburg Easter Festival, Christian Thielemann takes the baton as principal conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden, the festival orchestra in residence from 2013. Following this Salzburg Meistersinger with Thielemann at the helm, the co-production moved on for a short run at the Semperoper Dresden (the home of the Staatskapelle) which commenced in January 2020 with essentially the same orchestral and choral forces, although the Bachchor Salzburg is absent and, of the principal vocal soloists, Camilla Nylund replaces Jacquelyn Wagner as Eva.

An acknowledged Wagner authority, Thielemann also serves as music director of the Bayreuther Festspiele (Bayreuth Festival). Incidentally, it was with Die Meistersinger that he made his Bayreuth conducting debut in 2000. In the booklet notes Thielemann discerns, ‘Die Meistersinger as the pivot and central point of Wagner’s entire oeuvre… The fascinating thing about Die Meistersinger is that you can find everything in it. Hero and anti-hero, comedy and tragedy, upper-class and working -class lovers, burlesque and reflection, the old and the new, in short a whole world.’

Wagner’s career is inextricably linked with Dresden, having lived in the Saxony capital for some twenty years, which is longer than he did in any other city. With this Salzburg Die Meistersinger the Staatskapelle Dresden maintains its lengthy and strong tradition of performing Wagner works. From 1843 Wagner was appointed Königlicher Kapellmeister (Royal Capellmaster) at Dresden, bestowing the city with the legacy of having three of his operas premiered at Königliches Opernhaus (now Semperoper) namely Rienzi, Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser, all performed by the Staatskapelle Dresden. Although given its world premiere under Hans von Bülow at Munich in 1868, Die Meistersinger had nine productions staged in Dresden, clocking up over five hundred performances since it was first performed at the Saxony capital in 1869. Clearly enamoured by the orchestral sound, Wagner famously labelled the Staatskapelle Dresden as his ‘miraculous harp’.

Turning his attention away temporarily from Teutonic mythology, Wagner’s lifelong obsession, after Lohengrin and work on Parsifal he chose the contrasting subject of a comic opera for his next project. When writing his own libretto to Die Meistersinger, Wagner was unquestionably inspired by German historical tradition and literature. It is thought that Wagner in 1829 as a young man had attended the drama Hans Sachs by Johann Ludwig Franz Deinhardstein at Vienna and later in 1842 Lortzing’s opera Hans Sachs at Dresden. Likely literary sources that enthused Wagner include Jakob Grimm’s book Concerning the Old German Master Songs; E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fantasy tales; Georg Gottfried Gervinus’s book on the history of German poetry and literature; Johann Christoph Wagenseil’s treatise on the noble art of the Die Meistersingers of Nürnberg and philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s theories on aesthetics. The role of leading protagonist Hans Sachs is based on a renowned historical figure of the same name, a Nürnberg born cobbler-poet (1494-1576) who was a German Meistersinger and a prolific poet and playwright.

Wagner’s idealised setting is a close-knit community thriving in 16th century Nuremberg. With their select trade associations, the master craftsmen, many of whom were amateur poets and musicians, could earn membership of the distinguished guild of Meistersinger (Master Singers). Wagner described the Meistersinger Guild as a bourgeois society. I notice that Wagner in his libretto employs rhyme patterns and lines are recurringly finished off with rhyming couplets, and translations usually follow this plan. This is Wagner’s only comic opera from his maturity, a predominantly sunlit score, although there are some less palatable aspects, concluding with an irrepressible celebratory tone of affirmation.

To summarise, the plot of Die Meistersinger centres around shoemaker-poet Hans Sachs, the Meistersingers Guild and its annual song contest. Handsome stranger Walther, a young Franconian nobleman/knight, is visiting Nuremberg and falls in love with Eva, the daughter of wealthy goldsmith Pogner. A Meistersinger, Pogner has offered Eva’s hand in marriage as a prize to the winner of the song contest. Walther a talented singer learns the art of the Meistersinger quickly under Sachs’ tutelage. In the face of a challenge by his ridiculous rival Beckmesser the town clerk, Walther goes on to win the competition and marry Eva, ensuring a happy ending for the lovers.

Performed here at the Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg, clearly the visual aspects of this new production from stage director Herzog and his creative team do not affect us here but for those interested he chose to reframe the opera using a stage within stage design with a contemporary mise en scène. This is a well-chosen cast and of the six principal roles I am familiar first-hand with the on-stage work of Georg Zeppenfeld, Klaus Florian Vogt, Vitalij Kowaljow, Adrian Eröd and Christa Mayer. On the other hand, it is pleasing to have the opportunity of hearing for the first time singing of Jacquelyn Wagner and Sebastian Kohlhepp.

Making his debut in the leading role of Sachs is German bass Georg Zeppenfeld, who gives a genuine and steady enough performance. Wily, dependable, talented and humane, Sachs is a middle-aged widower, a shoemaker and a senior Meistersinger. Sachs is a most substantial and demanding role, and especially enjoyable here is the Act 2 Flieder Monologue: Was duftet doch der Flieder (The scent of the lilac how tender) and the Act 3 Wahn Monologue: Wahn, Wahn! Überall Wahn! (Madness! Madness! Everywhere madness!). Fairly smooth and steady Zeppenfeld’s voice exhibits a quiet confidence with the baritonal requirements of the part, achieving his high notes without too much trouble. In his debut performance Zeppenfeld undeniably sings well but when compared to the finest exponents of the role his characterisation seems too stilted and tame to convince entirely. No doubt Zeppenfeld will develop in the role, although I suggest he is a far better Pogner, a part he is certainly no stranger to. Upon reflection, I cannot help thinking of the great singers I have heard from previous generations to have graced the role of Sachs such as Friedrich Schorr, Paul Schöffler, Ferdinand Frantz, Wolfgang Brendel, Thomas Stewart, Theo Adam, Hans Hotter and John Tomlinson. Of those singing the role today, my ideal Sachs for his huge stage personality, aptitude for characterisation and outstanding voice is unquestionably German baritone Michael Volle both on CD and especially in a filmed performance on DVD/Blu-ray.

With his hallmark sweet, fresh and fluid tone the voice of German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt certainly divides opinion. Having attended several of Vogt’s recitals and opera stagings, I have become accustomed to the distinctive quality of his voice which I greatly admire. Vogt, as the romantic young knight Walther von Stolzing, displays a near-effortless projection in his mid-to high-range, his light lyric tenor being deceptively effective in piercing through Wagner’s orchestration. By contrast, he realises the lowest notes of the role acceptably but less easily. Standing out is Walther’s Preislied (Prize Song) - Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein (Warm in the sunshine at dawning of day) from Act ,3 a poetic love song to Eva attractively sung by Vogt with satisfying control and diction, a performance of utmost sincerity.

Here the role of maiden Eva, Pogner’s daughter is sung by Jacquelyn Wagner who is America born having resided in Germany for a number of years. She is a name I know by reputation only and a quick check of Wagner’s schedule shows her to be in demand for Romantic German repertoire, namely, Weber, Beethoven, Wagner and Richard Strauss. Her suitably girlish rendition of Eva’s Act 3 aria O Sachs! Mein Freund (Oh Sachs! My friend), where she disappoints widower Sachs by saying her interest in him is platonic, is admirable. Despite not having a large voice, Wagner’s lyric soprano is attractive and well-focused, confidently reaching her high notes. On the downside, there is some unevenness and a certain blandness of tone colour which slightly detracts from the enjoyment.

In the role of wealthy goldsmith Veit Pogner is bass Vitalij Kowaljow. Some six years apart I reported from Kowaljow’s performances as Zaccaria (Nabucco) both in Berlin and Dresden and his progress has been marked. Ukraine-born and now Swiss based, Kowaljow is an in-demand Wagnerian bass. In the Pogner Monologue from Act 1 Das schöne Fest, Johannistag (The lovely festival of St. John - Midsummer day), the goldsmith is anticipating the finale of the following day when he will give his daughter Eva away in marriage as the song contest prize. During his substantial monologue, Kowaljow gives a characterful performance of pleasing clarity and expression. Such a solid bass, he displays a deep, engaging tone well able to contrast moments of propriety and threat. Especially admirable is Kowaljow’s passionate delivery of the final two lines of his monologue …mit all’ meinem Gut, wie’s geh’ und steh’, Eva, mein einzig Kind, zur Eh’ (…with all my possessions and all I own, Eva, my only child, in marriage).

Sixtus Beckmesser, town clerk and chief marker of the Meistersinger Guild, is subsequently held up to mockery and disgrace for his devious behaviour. Beckmesser is Adrian Eröd, an Austrian baritone whom I have seen perform several times at the Semperoper Dresden. A convincing exponent of comedy roles, Eröd excels in the Act 2 Beckmesser Serenade: Den Tag seh' ich erscheinen (I now see the dawning day). With Eva within earshot, the preposterous Beckmesser strums his lute and sings his Serenade to Eva in anticipation of winning her hand in marriage in the song contest. Sachs, intent on sabotaging Beckmesser’s Serenade, noisily hammers leather to drown him out and then at every mistake Beckmesser makes in his song. Throughout the opera Eröd shows his prowess, revealing a clear and steady tone in a characterful performance and demonstrating his complete engagement in the role.  

A name I have not encountered previously is German lyric tenor Sebastian Kohlhepp. A look at Kohlhepp’s schedule reveals that he is clearly progressing well, especially with roles in a number of Mozart and Wagner operas. Here in his role debut as David, Sachs’ apprentice, Kohlhepp notches up his fifth Wagner role. His singing of David’s act 1 aria Mein Herr! Der Singer Meisterschlag… (My Lord! The Mastersinger’s way…) Schumacherei und Poeterei… (Shoemaker’s craft and poet’s art…), where he is familiarising Walther with the often-bewildering regulations he must follow to gain admission to the Meistersingers Guild, is admirable, and although one senses a few early nerves, he grows quickly into the role, providing hale and hearty singing bolstered by clarity of projection and expression. 

Prominent in the supporting roles are Bavaria born mezzo-soprano Christa Mayer as Eva’s nurse and companion Magdalena, and Hungarian bass Levente Páll in the role of the baker Fritz Kothner, also a senior Meistersinger. An experienced Wagnerian, Mayer, a valued ensemble member of the Staatsoper Dresden who also appears regularly at Bayreuth, sings well throughout, giving a spirited performance as Magdalena, a role without a specific aria. Páll, a hard-working ensemble member of the Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz, Munich, has previous experience of Meistersinger roles. From Act 1, Kothner’s semi-spoken aria Ein jedes Meistergesanges Bar (A song hath ‘bars’ as the master’s teach) is communicated with solid, clear diction by Páll who creates a realistic sense of occasion as he recites the bewildering rules a candidate must follow to become a Meistersinger. A major highlight of the opera, from Act 3, Scene 4, is the famous and much-admired Quintet - Selig, wie die Sonne (Radiant as the dawning) for Eva, Walther, Sachs, Walther, David and Magdalene, sung quite gloriously here and creating significant atmosphere.

Christian Thielemann conducts the Staatskapelle Dresden assuredly, pulling his forces together with a keen feeling for dramatic balance. Ever alert to changing staging situations, Thielemann can easily be pictured coordinating and shaping the sound with his distinctive gestures and cueing in the singers, as I have seen him do on many occasions. I find Thielemann’s pacing persuasive and there is plenty of impetus when required, whilst he is careful to not drown out the singers. The orchestra’s cohesive ensemble and the quite splendid solo contributions from the section principals are both notable. In impressive form, too, are the combined forces of the Staatsopernchor Dresden and Bachchor Salzburg, unreservedly compelling and discernibly well-unified. Especially worthy of appreciation is the celebratory atmosphere generated in the Act 3 choruses - Sankt Krispin, lobet ihn! (Saint Crispin, Saint Crispin!) and Silentium! Silentium! (Silence! Silence!)... Wach auf, es nahet gen den Tag (Awake! The dawn of the day draws near) and the Schlußchor (Closing chorus) - Ehrt eure deutschen Meister (Honour your German masters).

Recorded in the Großes Festspielhaus the sound quality is satisfactory, balancing the singers, choruses and orchestra well. I found the sound to be quite warm, which probably comes at the expense of some clarity. As to be expected in a live opera recording, there is some minor stage noise including some audience applause but really nothing too troublesome. A major disappointment in this ‘Staatskapelle Dresden Edition’ is the omission of a full German libretto with an English translation, indispensable for opera releases. In all other respects, the set is lavish, a bilingual edition in German and English, having top drawer notes including seven informative essays, and a synopsis. Included, too, are a number of fascinating photographs of this Salzburg production and some historical drawings.

This competes with a number of established recordings I know from the 1950s-70s by justifiably famous Wagnerians - Herbert von Karajan, Rudolf Kempe, Rafael Kubelik and Eugen Jochum. Having already played it a number of times (despite its length), I rate it extremely highly; nevertheless, it ranks alongside rather than surpasses those treasured recordings that I have listed below. 

Admirable is Rudolf Kempe conducting the Staatsopernchor Dresden and the Staatskapelle Dresden, superbly cast with Ferdinand Frantz as Sachs and Tiana Lemnitz as Eva. Kempe was recorded in 1951 in mono under studio conditions for a radio broadcast by the Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (MDR). Remastering was undertaken in 2013 using the rediscovered original master tapes and released on CD by Profil-Hänssler (Semperoper Edition vol. 6). Not surprisingly, the nearly 70-year-old sound has some very occasional and minor shortcomings but nothing I cannot easily live with. This epic Kempe 1951 Dresden Die Meistersinger is preferable to the Dresden born conductor’s later 1956 mono studio recording from Wintergarten, Berlin on CD released by EMI and Pristine Audio. Much lauded, too, is the rewarding account from Rafael Kubelik and the Chor und Sinfonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks with an outstanding cast featuring Thomas Stewart in the role of Sachs and Gundula Janowitz as Eva. This 1967 stereo recording, produced under studio conditions for radio broadcast from the Herkulessaal, Munich, has been issued by Calig, Myto, Arts Archives and Opera Depot.

Another enduringly popular choice is Herbert von Karajan with the Leipziger Rundfunkchor, Staatsopernchor Dresden and the Staatskapelle Dresden, with Theo Adam as Sachs and Helen Donath as Eva. Karajan was recorded in stereo under studio conditions in 1970 in the Lukaskirche, Dresden on EMI ‘Great Recordings of The Century’. This Karajan Die Meistersinger is preferable to the conductor’s live-composite 1951 Bayreuther Festspiele recording. Acclaimed over the years, too, is the recording from Eugen Jochum with Chor und Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin. Sachs is sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Catarina Ligendza as Eva and Plácido Domingo as Walther. Jochum recorded the opera in 1976 under studio conditions in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, and it wasreleased on CD on Deutsche Grammophon. Of these Die Meistersinger recordings, my personal favourites would be headed by Kempe/Dresden (1951) on Profil-Hänssler, followed by Kubelik/Munich (1967) on Arts Archives then Karajan/Dresden (1970) on EMI.

On DVD/Blu-ray there are a number of competing releases. My particular favourite filmed production and one I have come to treasure is by stage director Stefan Herheim and his design team, conspicuously for the penetrating insights of Michael Volle’s quite magnificent performance as Sachs. Daniele Gatti conducts his Vienna choral and orchestral forces in this Herheim production filmed live at the Großes Festspielhaus as part of the 2013 Salzburger Festspiele on Unitel Classica/EuroArts.

Christian Thielemann's live performance overflows with generosity of spirit and is a real credit to all concerned.

Michael Cookson

Supporting roles
Magdalene – Christa Mayer
Fritz Kothner – Levente Páll
Kunz Vogelgesang – Iurie Ciobanu
Konrad Nachtigall – Günter Haumer
Balthasar Zorn – Markus Miesenberger
Ulrich Eißlinger – Patrick Vogel
Augustin Moser – Adam Frandsen
Hermann Ortel – Rupert Grössinger
Hans Schwarz – Christian Hübner
Hans Foltz – Roman Astakhov
Nachtwächter – Jongmin Park

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