Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Georg Solti
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
8 February 1969
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Hans SachsHubert Hofmann
Veit PognerDavid Ward
Kunz VogelgesangKenneth MacDonald
Konrad NachtigallHugh Sheehan
Sixtus BeckmesserGeraint Evans
Fritz KothnerGeorge Macpherson
Balthasar ZornJohn Lanigan
Ulrich EißlingerDavid Lennox
Augustin MoserEdgar Evans
Hermann OrtelDavid Kelly
Hans SchwartzInia Te Wiata
Hans FoltzDennis Wicks
Walther von StolzingJess Thomas
DavidGeorge Shirley
EvaBožena Ruk-Fočić
MagdaleneJosephine Veasey
Ein NachtwächterEric Garrett
The Spectator

All’s well that ends well

The new production of Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden is thoroughly workmanlike and well prepared, though not quite of a quality which leaves one feeling that one has fallen in love with the work all over again.

It is, perhaps, a little unfair, for two reasons, to judge too much by one’s impressions of the opening night. First, the appalling mishap of Hubert Hoffman’s bad throat, and his emer- gency replacement as Hans Sachs by Sadler’s Wells’ Norman Bailey at less than twenty-four hours’ notice, must inevitably have affected everyone’s confidence, especially in the first act. In the event, Mr Bailey’s performance seemed almost a miracle, and an outsider can only wonder at the reserves of professional skill and experience which enable a singer, in such an incredibly short time, to switch his mind from English to German and, without apparent effort, transfer to a production which he can have had only the briefest opportunity to rehearse.

One has heard richer voices, yet few more moving or intelligent performances of this great role. Mr Bailey lays the main emphasis, surely rightly, on Sachs’s sensitivity and independence of mind, ranging far deeper than mere ‘benevolence.’ Nothing in the whole evening pleased me more than his handling of the scene in which he makes the suggestion that `the folk should sit in judgment’ on the singing contest, and his relaxed, unabashed reaction to the out- burst from his fellow-members of the guild. More than ever, one regretted that the Sachs who begins by suggesting that ‘we the rules themselves should probe’ should have to end the whole work with those intolerable lines about German art (‘blieb ale doch deutsch und wahr’).

The second reason for caution in one’s verdict is that I had the feeling that Solti was, all through the evening, increasingly warming to his task_ I confess that the opening prelude (as Wagner called it) disappointed me a little. One missed a certain spaciousness and glory, and the second half of the prelude set off an energetic spin that seemed more appropriate to the Journey to the Rhine. The lovely end of the first act misfired, and though the second act had its fine moments, it did not quite sufficiently take its mood from the key line in the Flieder monologue: ‘So mild, so stark und von.’

But the prelude to the third act was memorably beautiful and gloriously played by all the departments of the orchestra. In these days when Mr Cohn Davis suggests to us that the Wagnerian emphasis on harmony, at the expense of melody and rhythm, was a wrong turning in the history of music, one is particularly glad to hear so restrained, unvulgarised, yet utterly committed a performance of what I have always felt to be one of the most moving interludes in late nineteenth century music. Solti observed Wagner’s dynamics in this prelude most scrupulously, never rising above forte until the final appearance of the G Minor theme that symbolises Sachs’s heartache.

I much admired, also, Solti’s handling of the key moment in the Wahn monologue: ‘Nun aber kam Johannistag’; the sudden crescendo at this point, as the music changes key from E to C, is by no means easy to bring off, as one remembers from Kempe’s failure in his timv recording. Another great success was the burst of sound from the chorus at ‘Wach auf in the final scene. In fact my only disappointment in Act 3 was Solti’s treatment of the short A Flat motif which depicts Eva’s anxiety. It was not sufficiently tender. So that the quarter of an hour of heavenly music leading up to the quintet did not quite make the effect it should. Of the other singers, Jess Thomas looked fine as Walther, and on the whole sang credit- ably, especially in the ensembles. But there were times when his voice, to borrow the language of hi-fl, did not seem to track the music securely—for instance, there were some inaudible notes in the ‘rehearsal’ of the Prize Song, especially in the line ‘you aller Wormer, nie ersonner.’ Bozena Ruk-Focic looked charming as Eva, and began promisingly, but she was disappointing in the quintet; ‘Selig wie die Sonne’ sounded sadly tentative and matter-of- fact, and she attacked her final note uncomfortably from below. One noticed also her inability to trill at the moment when she wreathes Walther’s brow.

George Shirley was a very winning David, not, perhaps, quite so agile of voice as some of his predecessors, but always sweet-toned and accurate. I was particularly glad, by the way, that no cuts were made in David’s recital of the works, which always seems to me one of the most inventive passages in the first act. About Geraint Evans’s Beckmesser I am not so sure. Of course, his performance is a riot, and superbly sung. But he misses something of Beckmesser’s malice, while his rapport with the audience is so good that—especially in the first scene of Act 3—we rather lose sight of his obsessive and complicated relationship with Sachs; he is at the same time both intensely jealous of the cobbler-poet, yet also fascinated by him. ‘Immer bei Sachs’—Beckmesser’s response to the roll-call in Act 1—is surely a key line for the interpreter of his role. Josephine Veasey and David Ward were thoroughly sound as Magdalene and Pogner and I made a special note of the beauty of the former’s interjection “Evechen ‘s is: Zeit,’ just before the Night- watchman enters for the first time.

Barry Kay’s sets were unexciting but suitable, though I was surprised that he disregarded Wagner’s explicit stage direction for Act 1, that only the last few rows of seats should be visible; and I hope it isn’t niggling to point out that Walther, according to Wagner, ‘exchanges glances’ with Eva during the chorale—he shouldn’t scamper from side to side. One other detail in Rudolf Hartmann’s production bothered me: when Walther opens his Spring Song with its shockingly unconventional repetition of Beckmesser’s words ‘Fanget an,’ surely it would be more natural that the mastersingers should immediately turn their faces towards him rather than towards one another. On the other hand, the meadow scene in Act 3, before the arrival of the principals, is very well handled; the production gains new impetus just when one’s attention can easily, in a routine performance, begin to flag.

Inevitably comparisons will be made between this new Covent Garden production and the highly praised production under Reginald Goodall at Sadler’s Wells; but I do not think such comparisons are really likely to prove very helpful. One may not feel that Solti has quite the same grasp of the opera considered as a whole; I doubt whether he is so ideally suited to Meistersinger as, say, to Götterdämmerung. But the best moments last Friday revealed his finest qualities, and those of the orchestra; and I feel pretty confident that later performances will prove still more rewarding to those who Jove and admire this great opera as I do.



Sir David Webster, in his speech before the opera began, told the audience that there very nearly was no ‘first night’ of this new production of Die Meistersinger. Hubert Hofmann, Covent Garden’s new Hans Sachs, had gone down with a throat infection which had been threatening the previous day. The number of Hans Sachses available in Europe at the moment can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. Yet one of them—indeed possibly the best of present-day interpreters of the part— was just around the corner at the Coliseum rehearsing for the revival there of The Flying Dutchman ; his name was Norman Bailey, well known to nearly every Wagnerian in the audience, if not to everyone at Covent Garden. Or perhaps his name might surely have been well known even if his accomplishments were not. It did seem rather a waste of time and money, especially with the difficulties of making overseas telephone calls, that (as Sir David said) Covent Garden had apparently telephoned round half Europe in an effort to procure a replacement for Mr Hofmann, when a local call would have done the trick! ‘Very interesting’, as a German character is wont to say in a popular American TV comedy show. Finally it was Mr Bailey who came and saved the occasion.

British operatic audiences are notoriously sporting when it comes to last-minute rescue operations ; but the enormous ovation that greeted Norman Bailey at his solo call, and his further appearance alone in front of the curtains, long after the house-lights had gone up, was no more than he deserved. Not only did he save the performance, but he offered one of the most beautifully sung and acted performances of Hans Sachs in my experience. He certainly has earned his Bayreuth engagement—and is a worthy success of Schorr, Bockelmann, Schoeffler and Hotter. Although Bailey had not had an opportunity of a stage rehearsal or of working with the cast, his professionalism and assurance (certainly as seen from the audience’s side of the footlights) had a calming effect on his colleagues, and one could discern little or no discomfort on the stage. Georg Solti, on the other hand, was obviously put out somewhat, and his reading of the beautiful expansive score exhibited a rather tense excitement and edginess. The overture was played at a fast pace, and then the opening chorale was sung so slowly—as if we were about to embark on Parsifal. The conductor’s generally light-fingered touch was welcome ; but one missed the real magic of Midsummer’s Eve, and the blossoming out of those great pages in which a more relaxed, expansive approach would have been welcome. There was some lovely playing, however, and the Prelude to the last act was most beautifully done, as was the SachsEva scene in the same act. I am sure that when things have settled down, Mr Solti will be more relaxed, and we will have a better opportunity of assessing his Meistersinger.

Jess Thomas’s Covent Garden debut has come later than it should ; he is an accomplished Walther, but the voice has lost that bloom it had in Munich five years ago. His Walther has become too knowing, too 20th century ; and his Munich costumes (at least I believe they were) looked too glossy and fresh. Božena Ruk-Fočić, whose Sieglinde I had so admired in Geneva last summer, I found disappointing. She was given to over-simpering, and did not sing all that well either. She seemed to lose both her pitch and her way in the Quintet, which almost became a disaster. Geraint Evans’s Beckmesser is well known. He must beware of letting it become over-exaggerated ; there was always the danger, at least in the first two acts, that he was letting this Beckmesser become a caricature instead of a character. He was, however, in excellent voice, and his timing and the scene with Sachs in the last act were superb. David Ward’s benign, kindly and suitably bearded Pogner was first-rate—he rose to the climax of his address to the masters superbly ; and his little scene with Eva at the beginning of the second act would have been even more moving with a more sympathetic Eva. George Shirley was nearly a perfect David ; the voice was just not quite free enough, but his recital of the modes was beautifully sung. Josephine Veasey, in her only role during the main 1967-8 Covent Garden season, was a superb Magdalene. George Macpherson made little of the part of Kothner, either vocally or dramatically—a role that has had such distinguished interpreters as Herbert Janssen, Hans Hermann Nissen and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, as well as our own Forbes Robinson. Eric Garrett’s Nightwatchman lacked weight of tone—perhaps he and Macpherson should swop roles. The lesser Masters were nicely characterized and included such Covent Garden stalwarts as John Lanigan, Edgar Evans and David Kelly. A word for Douglas Robinson’s chorus, whose singing in the Act 2 finale and in the Wach auf’ chorus was stunning.

Rudolf Hartmann’s unobtrusive production lets everything fall into place naturally. There were a few novel touches, like the positioning of the congregation in the opening scene up-stage backs to audience, and the arranging of the masters for the singing trial in a semi-circle (repeated in the closing scene). I liked the way he had Pogner standing alone at the back, obviously disappointed after Walther’s failure. Hartmann never asks his crowds to do too much, in fact the reverse, so that the riot at the end of Act 2 was very tame indeed. Barry Kay’s conventional settings were just that. St Katherine’s Church looked pretty solid and grand ; and the Nuremberg Street scene was less Walt-Disneyish than some. But what was the closing scene supposed to represent? At first, with the white cyclorama I thought we were inside a marquee—but then I saw the town walls of old Nuremberg at the side. One must have a blue sky and greenery and trees, surely, and a suggestion of the city in the background?

March 1969

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Media Type/Label
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128 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 248 MByte (MP3)
Sounds like an AM-recording
Broadcast (BBC)
A production by Rudolf Hartmann (1969)