WAGNER Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Sebastian Weigle, cond; Franz Hawlata (Sachs); Klaus Florian Vogt (Walther); Michael Volle (Beckmesser); Artur Korn (Pogner); Norbert Ernst (David); Michaela Kaune (Eva); Carola Guber (Magdalene); Bayreuth Festival Ch & O OPUS ARTE 9031 (4 CDs: 306:00) Live: Bayreuth 2008
Andris Nelsons, cond; Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin); Annette Dasch (Elsa); Petra Lang (Ortrud); Jukka Rasilainen (Telramund); Samuel Youn (Herald); Georg Zeppenfeld (Heinrich); Bayreuth Festival Ch & O OPUS ARTE 9034 (3 CDs: 199:43) Live: Bayreuth 8/14/2011
These two recordings from Bayreuth, the Meistersinger made in 2008, the Lohengrin in 2011, have previously been available on DVD and Blu-ray, and the various merits or otherwise of the provocative stagings discussed in many reviews. Now they are available as audio recordings (there is also a Tristan, from 2009 released as Opus Arte 9033), taken directly from the video soundtracks. Given that these are already available in surround sound, Opus Arte has missed a trick in not releasing these in SACD—Meistersinger in particular is poorly served in that medium—but given the controversy surrounding both productions, it is good to be able to focus on the musical performances, both of which have considerable merits.
Katharina Wagner’s Meistersinger was a statement of intent, produced before she took over the running of the festival and taking a refreshingly confrontational approach to the work’s dynamic of tradition and innovation. We are in a modern-day setting, and the Meistersingers are conceptual artists. Ghosts of the past appear in the form of dancers wearing huge heads representing famous composers in caricature. Most radically, Katharina Wagner changes the dynamic of the song contest, making Walther into a sentimental traditionalist and Beckmesser into the more engaged and contemporary artist. The whole conception works well on its own terms, and also does a good job of unseating the last of Wagner’s mature operas to have resisted updated staging. Hans Sachs’s final monologue is presented as explicitly proto-Nazi, something that several other productions have taken further since, especially the David Bösch version currently at Bavarian State Opera, but the reimagining of Beckmesser in Katharina Wagner’s production remains a unique innovation.
All of which raises the question of how much we can ignore the visual side of a radical production when we are only listening to the music. Conductor Sebastian Weigle gives a dynamic account, but his first concern is always to accommodate the singers, with the result that the tempos, while fluid, are never overly fast or aggressive: The provocation onstage is not reflected in the pit. Even so, changes in the dramaturgy are evident. When David (Norbert Ernst) tells Walther of the rules of the singing contest in the first act, it is clear that there is a darker edge here than usual, that an irony is also being expressed. Concessions also need to be made for a lot of stage noise (the Bayreuth audience, of course, is silent, though there are loud boos at the end), and a note in the liner tells us that Sachs’s cobbling in the second act is represented by a typewriter. The typewriter also returns briefly in the third act, a similarly annoying addition.
These inconveniences aside, the musical performance is very fine, with a cast, chorus, and orchestra of a quality that only Bayreuth and a few other German houses could hope to muster. Franz Hawlata has a suitably agile but authoritative voice for Sachs, and dark enough, too, for the sinister dimension that Katharina develops, though he loses some tone in the last act. Wagner fans should know by now where they stand with Klaus Florian Vogt, and if you are a believer, he is as good here as anywhere. Eva is one of the few characters that Katharina fails to find anything interesting to do with in the production, but Michaela Kaune holds her own in the audio version, as does Carola Guber as Magdalene. The production’s reimagining of Beckmesser is clearly audible in the performance from Michael Volle. There’s little comedy here, and instead a certain malicious edge. He has a great voice though, certainly equal to the part.
Moving on to Lohengrin, we find ourselves in a behavioral laboratory, with the burghers of Brabant all represented as lab rats. This production has so far been the only unqualified success of Katharina Wagner’s tenure, though its successor, directed by Yuval Sharon, has also received plaudits, though I found it much less interesting. The audio-only version demonstrates how much less tension there is here between the work and the staging than in the Meistersinger. None of the roles are reinterpreted to the extent that they are sung differently, nor is there any noticeable stage noise, nor any booing at the end.
Lohengrin has become a signature work for Andris Nelsons, and his reading alone would justify the release of this set. His pacing is dynamic and dramatic, but also flexible and lyrical, always accommodating the singers, but never deferring to them in the way that Weigle seems to. The recording boasts another strong cast, headed again by Klaus Florian Vogt, as distinctive, and therefore probably as divisive, as ever. Annette Dasch is suitably innocent and pure of tone as Elsa, more so than Anja Harteros in the latest Bayreuth production. Georg Zeppenfeld is a spectacular Heinrich, noble and rich of voice, but also expressing an undertone of vulnerability and indecision. Both Zeppenfeld and Petra Lang, as Ortrud, are in the new Bayreuth Lohengrin, but Lang’s voice has noticeably deteriorated in the years since this recording. Here weaknesses are apparent, but the color and emotion of her voice, and the sustained power in the upper register, are always thrilling. Jukka Rasilainen is a malicious-sounding Telramund, not easy on the ear, but a good partner to Lang.
Packaging for the two sets is minimal, each with a cast, cue list, and synopsis, but no libretto, and production stills only on the covers. The Lohengrin gives a single date, August 14, 2011, while the Meistersinger does not, suggesting the latter has edits.
Both recordings are strong contenders. The Lohengrin is the finer of the two, although the Meistersinger might come off better commercially for lack of competition among modern-audio releases. The Lohengrin is up against a superior SACD version from Seymon Bychkov and the WDR SO on Profil (PH09004), which also features a fresher-voiced Petra Lang. The Oehms (946) release from Frankfurt Opera with Bertrand de Billy received good notices, but I haven’t heard it. Then there is the Mark Elder version with the Concertgebouw (RCO Live 17002), which is in SACD, but is let down by a decidedly mixed cast.
Also in SACD are the concert versions in the Pentatone cycle with Marek Janowski (now in a box set: 186700). The Lohengrin there shares Vogt and Dasch with this version, while Zeppenfeld appears as Pogner in Meistersinger. For me, Janowski’s fast, unyielding tempos and insensitive phrasing discount the entire project, but others may feel differently. That is currently the only SACD version of Meistersinger available, making the red-book specification of this release particularly lamentable. Elsewhere among modern recordings, the Glyndebourne DVD has recently been rendered in audio-only format (as Glyndebourne 21), and is an attractive option, especially for the young but talented singers in the lead roles. Otherwise, the most recent alternatives are from the last century, and most have detractors for one reason or another, the Solti Chicago version, the Jochum/Fischer-Dieskau, Haitink and Covent Garden, Barenboim at Bayreuth. Against all of those, Weigle’s Meistersinger comes up as a surprisingly dependable and consistent alternative.