Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Marek Janowski
Choeurs de l’Opera de Chambre Varsovie
Choeurs et Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
18 February 1990
Théâtre du Châtelet Paris
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Hans SachsJosé van Dam
Veit PognerMatthias Hölle
Kunz VogelgesangPetros Evangelidis
Konrad NachtigallJean-Paul Bogart
Sixtus BeckmesserEike Wilm Schulte
Fritz KothnerGunther Schneider
Balthasar ZornWilly Müller
Ulrich EißlingerMarcel Guillever
Augustin MoserGuy Gabelle
Hermann OrtelWolfgang Vater
Hans SchwartzJean-Louis Soumagnas
Hans FoltzAndreas Becker
Walther von StolzingNorbert Orth
DavidManfred Fink
EvaLucia Popp
MagdaleneHanna Schaer
Ein NachtwächterCornelius Hauptmann

France ‘Meistersinger’ in a mausoleum

In a short time the situation of opera in Paris has moved from drought to flood. The new Bastille theatre has finally been brought, albeit kicking and screaming, into operation (see pp. 516-9). For many opera-lovers of all sorts it is equally good news, if not even better, that after a painfully long period of semi-neglect the beloved old Opera-Comique is again in regular usage, with a new administration (a subsidiary of the Bastille team) and an enticing February-July programme of ‘small-house’ and unfamiliar works. There continue to be productions at the Theatre des Champs Elysées. And at the CHATELET, which has become Jacques Chirac’s municipal base for opera, music, and dance, the THEATRE MUSICAL DE PARIS continues its programme of staged and concert opera.

Not everything at the Chatelet has, however, come right as hoped or planned. A Fidelio which was to have marked the collaboration of Giorgio Strehler and Lorin Maazel landed in turmoil; and though the first Paris Meistersinger for some years seems to have reached the launching pad as intended, it was the reason for doing the opera ‘as intended’ that seemed gravely in question. There were built-in advantages to the production: Marek Janowski, an internationally admired Wagnerian conducting his ‘home’ orchestra, the French Radio Philharmonic; and a cast of some distinction, led by Jose Van Dam and Lucia Popp. But the production junked them all. This was, indeed, one of the maddest experiences of any opera I have ever had—fascinating (as madness can be) and not without flickers of psychological insight (ditto), but deeply frustrating. The producer, Claude Regy, is a distinguished man of the theatre acclaimed for his Paris stagings of Pinter, Sarraute, and Duras—a natural for Meistersinger, n’est-ce pas? He feels that there is far too much realism in opera in general, and in this opera in particular. (I offer grateful thanks to an interview in the February number of our admired Paris counterpart, Opera International, on what M. Regy was up to). So out of Roberto Plate’s single set, a beautiful grey-marbled mausoleum, went any reference to Nuremberg. In its place came hieratic gestures, always conducted at snail’s pace in conditions of murky gloom, while on a raised-stage area at the centreback highly symbolic doings—a naked Adam and Eve couple parading, a tutu-dressed ballerina, later the slow deposition of a green-tinged Christ-corpse during the Festwiese jollities, and much, much else—were enacted with fine art and complete irrelevance to the words. Occasionally, to insert an alternative to aching physical slowness, there would be bursts of slightly more energetic physical activity, such as the oriental fight with sticks by two muscled athletes during the Act 2 finale, while rain poured down from the flies and fire burst from the floor. Parallels between Sachs and John the Baptist were explored; there was much refined attitude-striking and groupcomposition. According to Regy, the audience already has in its collective head a traditional representation of this opera, which it could play against his own mythico-abstractemblematic ritual. The problems caused by the producer’s Wagnerian beliefs and viewpoint proved numerous. These added up, indeed, to intellectual elitism of the worst sort, which marginalized all but Regy acolytes in the audience; and they appeared to spring not from any ‘critical’ confrontation of the opera, any present-versus-past examination of core issues raised (such as can be appreciated and respected in the various polemical German Wagner stagings of the postwar period), but from the purest intellectual dandyism. (In the words of an editorial from the following month’s Opera International, it was ‘la masturbation intellectuelle’.)

Worse still, the act of denying—for whatever reasons of intellectual purity—a comedy its comic essence amounted to an act of audience provocation. This, at least, is how the audience at a matinee midway in the run (February 17) chose to take it; and, as ever in this city, they were not slow to respond. Cries of ‘Bravo Giselle!’ and `Sortez Monsieur le cadavre’ rent the air in Act 3, and loud laughter greeted some of the more farfetched symbolism. A good Paris scandale is always an enjoyable outing, but I was left to wonder what effect this brouhaha must be having on the music-making. Janowski’s account of the score, expertly paced, did seem unusually boisterous, quite unrelated to the tranced activities on stage, and wholly lacking in the warmth and deep-toned richness normally associated with this opera.

The singers, required to do so little in the way of active participation, were probably able to conserve vocal energies more effectively than in a ‘real’ performance. I have never heard Sachs’s music more beautifully or nobly sung, with line more steadily sustained or greater resources of melancholy poetry, than it was here by Van Dam, a great singer in his prime. (There must be a reason why we have him so seldom at Covent Garden, and I should love to know what it is.) He was not moving, but one hardly expected him to be, here. Popp’s Eva, though tending to edginess in highlying lines, sounded on the whole wonderfully fresh; the Walther of Norbert Orth (a quondam light tenor who has now taken on the heavier German roles) managed with easy address, if no very impressive range of tone or dynamics. In a generally sound cast the Beckmesser of Eike Wilm Schulte was outstanding—strong, pointed, characterful with voice and words to a self-sacrificing degree.

A waste of time? No: the opera, even when kept thus under wraps (in view of the setting, perhaps one should change that to ‘under shrouds’), is simply too vast and life-enhancing to be entirely straitjacketed by one producer’s intellectual posturing. But anyone whose first Meistersinger this was had my deepest sympathy.

MAX LOPPERT | May 1990

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
192 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 338 MByte (MP3)
In-house recording
A production by Claude Regy (1990)
Norberth Orth replaced Robert Schunk who had fallen ill.