Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
16 October 1993
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Hans SachsJohn Tomlinson
Veit PognerGwynne Howell
Kunz VogelgesangAlasdair Elliott
Konrad NachtigallDavid Ellis
Sixtus BeckmesserThomas Allen
Fritz KothnerRoderick Earle
Balthasar ZornIan Thompson
Ulrich EißlingerPaul Crook
Augustin MoserChristopher Gillett
Hermann OrtelMichael Pearce
Hans SchwartzAlan Ewing
Hans FoltzClive Bayley
Walther von StolzingGösta Winbergh
DavidDeon van der Walt
EvaNancy Gustafson
MagdaleneAnne Howells
Ein NachtwächterMark Beesley
The New York Times

A Top Drawer ‘Meistersinger’

The Royal Opera’s first new production of the new season is Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger,” and both first-night audience and critics have agreed that it is one of the best in many seasons.

The producer is Graham Vick, who was responsible for another of the company’s finest recent achievements, Mozart’s youthful “Mitridate” of two seasons ago, which returns to the repertoire now to run concurrently with the Wagner.

What is as surprising as it is welcome about this new “Meistersinger” is that in this age of producer-dominated opera it is the cast and the conductor, Bernard Haitink, who have harvested the headlines.

And there is a curious thing about the cast: there is not a German in it. A further curiosity: several of the principals are singing their roles for the first time. You would never know it, least of all with the Hans Sachs of John Tomlinson, an outstanding Bayreuth Wotan in recent seasons, but new to Wagner at Covent Garden.

His Sachs is vocally and dramatically magnificent. The only hint of inexperience in the role was, on the first night, a failure to husband his prodigious vocal resources to accommodate its inordinate length and vocal exactions. That will come.

Also new to his role, and to Wagner, is Thomas Allen, a lyric baritone, as the pedantic town scribe, Sixtus Beckmesser. He gives an astonishingly original – and convincing – interpretation of it, less crudely caricatured, but more thoughtfully detailed in voice and deportment, than the German Beckmesser to which we are accustomed. He even dares to sing well, and why not? Beckmesser is, after all, a card-bearing master singer.

Walther is the Swedish tenor Gösta Winbergh, more familiar as a Mozart and Rossini singer – and David in “Die Meistersinger.” He has had one previous Walther under his belt, in Berlin, but he is already at ease with the role, noble in appearance and bearing, vocally impeccable, if a shade too light.

The same may be said of the South African Deon van der Walt as David, also more familiar as a singer of Mozart and Rossini. But, then, everyone sounds light against Tomlinson’s imposing bass-baritone.

The Eva is the American Nancy Gustafson, not so new to the role. She has sung it previously in Vienna and Milan, and she sings it well, looks it well and plays it well. Anne Howells’s Magdalene and Gwynne Howell’s Pogner are on more familiar ground and at home on it. The remaining master singers, many of them, too, new to their roles, are all excellent.How much of the admirable manner in which Wagner’s “comedy” is played is attributable to Vick and how much to the individual singers themselves is impossible to say, but either way it earned the ovation accorded it.

I took exception only to Tomlinson’s angry outbursts in the monologues that conclude Acts II and III. The words are there, and they can be read that way, but as Tomlinson sang them I felt that he was stepping out of Sachs’s benevolent character.

As for the production as a whole, it is reasonably true to period and tradition, but Richard Hudson’s designs for Acts II and III are not. A single linden tree will not do for a midsummer night in a street in Nuremberg or for a festival meadow.

And Vick’s staging of the riot in Act II and the festivities in Act III are more Brueghel than Dürer. Both, as the British say, “go over the top.” Production numbers? Yes. Wagner’s Nuremberg? No!

Henry Pleasants | October 20, 1993


Midsummer magic in the air

MIDSUMMER DAY dawned belatedly at Covent Garden on Saturday night. Bernard Haitink reawakened Wagner’s lofty paean to the creative spirit and the flowers quite literally rained down. Expectations had been high for Graham Vick’s new Royal Opera production of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. Maybe not high enough. Here was one of those very special occasions where the heart and soul of a piece is simply, deftly rediscovered. No portentous statements, no stillborn operatics, but clarity, enlightenment, and a stream of tiny revelations. We’ve no right to expect better.

If there is a more inventive, resourceful mind than Graham Vick’s working in music theatre today, then I’ve yet to encounter it. Within seconds of the curtain rising, Vick and his designer Richard Hudson had solved one of the eternal Meistersinger dilemmas: how to engender that sense of midsummer magic and rosy, fairy-tale enhancement while maintaining a historical context, a tangible sense of time and place. And so the interior of St Katharine’s Church is a vision of sun-kissed innocence, all sponge- painted surfaces in bright, honest colours, peopled with pristine, picturesque townsfolk such as Hollywood might once have costumed. And then a procession of children and their elders passes through carrying perfect little wooden replicas of old Nuremberg landmarks, which they duly set down and admire. Civic pride. In Act 2, those replicas have grown into a full- scale model village, towering townsfolk proudly polishing away in readiness for the approaching festivities.

Yet within this semi-representational world, Vick unfolds the most minutely detailed and truthful of human dramas, not a gesture, not an interaction crossing his dramatic threshold that isn’t textually motivated. When town clerk Beckmesser (an inspired Thomas Allen) sits in judgement upon Stolzing’s song in Act 1, he is for a moment or two visibly, unwittingly captivated, like Salieri first recognising Mozart’s creative genius.

And there’s so much more where that came from, insight and character where generalisations have too often sufficed. The big set- pieces teem with incident, the Act 2 riot ruptures into a stupendously funny, spooky Hieronymus Bosch-like nightmare with white- clad figures poking, wriggling, hanging through every conceivable orifice, floor to ceiling – a capricious allusion to the night-watchman’s warnings of evil spirits abroad. And who could have come up with a neater transition into the final scene, where the wall of Hans Sachs’s cobbler’s shop flies out and the townsfolk swarm in to claim their shoes.

When Bernard Haitink’s tenure at Covent Garden comes to be assessed, people will talk about his Meistersinger, the rightness of his tempi, the sweep and vitality, the intimacy of those balmy nocturnal imaginings where horns blossom over nebulous strings, each new phrase greeted with a warm embrace. And when they do, they’ll remember John Tomlinson’s tough, resilient, unsentimentally humane Sachs. The potential for finesse may have diminished with all those Wotans he has now sung (the top is hurting a little, and I craved a more gratifying legato in his Act 2 monologue), but when he gives vent to a lifetime’s frustrations in the penultimate scene, his palpable anger is both original and unforgettable. And what a perfect contrast, this dark, grainy, callused voice to Thomas Allen’s mellifluous, for once entirely credible Beckmesser, a prissy, fastidious creation manicured down to the last syllable. Nor could you do much better than the Swedish tenor Gosta Winbergh as the too- good-to-be-true shining knight (literally so in his silver-and-white get-up for the final scene). Not many Walthers are still producing such lovely tone come the cruelly high tessitura of the Prize Song rendition in the final scene. But then, when the radiant Nancy Gustafson’s Eva is your prize . . . A glorious event.

EDWARD SECKERSON | Monday 11 October 1993


‘Meistersinger’ in perspective

It depended on one’s age, I suppose, whether one thought this Meistersinger von Nurnberg (October 8)—Covent Garden’s first wholly new production since 1969—the cat’s whiskers or, while hugely admiring and enjoying, weighed it, as people of my age inevitably did, against post-war Covent Garden performances with Hans Hotter or Paul Schoffier as Sachs, Schwarzkopf or Seefried or Grlimmer as Eva, Ludwig Weber as Pogner, Goodall or Beecham or Kempe as conductor. (Not to mention adventures in Bayreuth and Munich, and the Goodall Meistersinger at Sadler’s Wells.) Older colleagues reached further back still, of course, to pre-war Covent Garden memories of Friedrich Schorr’s Sachs, Lotte Lehmann’s and Elisabeth Schumann’s Eva. Since Edison invented the gramophone, such reaching back has been available to performers and listeners alike: not just the notes in the score but what great interpreters through a century have discovered in and made of them inform our understanding.

I got to know Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden, when in the new company’s second season, 1947-48, Julius Gellner produced it in the pre-war sets (much like those of the Munich premiere). Hans Hotter was the Sachs, singing in English. Heddle Nash was the David. Memory retains what is golden and glorious: I turn to Harold Rosenthal’s Covent Garden history to be reminded that ‘Frank Sale was a raucous Walther’, Graham Clifford ‘a most unmelodious Beckmesser’, and Constance Shacklock ‘a fussy Magdalene’: that Victoria Sladen’s Eva and David Franklin’s Pogner were no more than ‘adequate’: that under Karl Rankl ‘orchestral playing was rough and there were many mistakes’. (But I did hear performances in which Goodall took over.) Harold also observed that ‘the chorus sang magnificently, and the pre-war sets still looked authentic’: I grew up hearing a Meistersinger that looked more or less the way Wagner meant it—picturesque, ‘historical’, the Fliedermonolog delivered beneath elder blossom, a lime tree shading Pogner’s house, bushes around the stone seat where the lovers shelter.

The next season, Schwarzkopf sang Eva in English while Set Svanholm sang Walther in German. Beecham returned to Covent Garden in 1951 to conduct a German Meistersinger with what he later described as ‘poor singers’ (they were Elisabeth Griimmer, Peter Anders, Hans Hotter, Benno Kusche, and Ludwig Weber); and his last Covent Garden appearance was a Meistersinger the following season—his 250th performance in the house, and the 150th of the opera. It was back to The Mastersingers for Kubelik in the 1957 new production (Joan Sutherland, Peter Pears as David, James Pease the Sachs, and, as for the next 25 years, Geraint Evans the Beckmesser), and back to Die Meistersinger for Solti in the 1969 production (Jess Thomas, Norman Bailey, David Ward). That production was revised for Colin Davis in 1982 and, with Dohnanyi conducting, was remounted by John Cox in 1990.

But enough of ‘history’. Both for better and for worse this latest Covent Garden Meistersinger professed to ignore tradition.2 For better in that it was directly and freshly performed, with honest, arresting responses to the great work—and that was much. For worse, perhaps, in that some of the great moments—David’s ‘Kann em n Lehrbub volkommen sein’, Pogner’s `Wie klug! wie gut!’, Eva’s ‘0 Sachs, mein Freund’, a dozen Sachs phrases—slipped by unmemorably, delivered honestly enough but as if in ignorance of how generations of great interpreters had made them marvellous. This new Meistersinger lacked something of romance, of dignity, and perhaps of poetry and ‘resonance’. Graham Vick, its producer, was quoted as saying, ‘I simply don’t know what the performing traditions of Die Meistersinger are (though many people have been ready to tell me) . . . The piece has the feel of those Italian medieval to early-Renaissance comedies. . . It could be Boccaccio . . . That airiness and translucency of comedy is something that I’ve always heard in the music, and I’ve set out to tackle that visually and dramatically with what I hope is a lightness of touch’. I’ll return to that.

The Sachs, John Tomlinson, new to the role, lacked legato. He has a mighty voice, noble and thrilling in sound, but when he drops the pressure the timbre can sometimes go curiously dead. He evidently knows this, knows that his soft singing can be suddenly inexpressive, and so much of the time he sang very loud, even though this meant turning some conversations into something like harangues. I hope it’s not too late for him—long established as Bayreuth’s Wotan—to acquire the full Wagnerian dynamic range and fulfil the promise of the forte passages. His instincts, his intelligence are right; his passion and understanding are evident. He feels the anger. He seems to feel the tenderness, too, but does not always give voice to it: warmth and smoothness of sound elude him. Gosta Winbergh approached his first Walther from the right side, the Mozartian. He sang truly and freely, without ever forcing, but he lacked variety and radiance of timbre, the sudden swell into rapture (and he was hampered from romance by being got up as tinselled barrel; both his costumes should have been killed before they reached the public eye). Having proved that he can manage the role, he can now afford to sing it more sweetly and lightly. Nancy Gustafson, who had already sung Eva at La Scala and in Vienna, was a fresh, attractive heroine, if without fine focus on the words; her personality is always engaging. Beckmesser, Thomas Allen, was the star of the show—incisive, consistent in every gesture, every stillness, every flicker of hands, eyes, or voice. (I can’t help hoping that Glasgow, Cardiff, or Leeds lets us hear a Meistersinger around his Sachs while his voice remains expressive and strong.) Deon van der Walt rather pushed and overemphasized his first David; a later broadcast showed him starting to relax into lyricism, charm of timbre and word. Gwynne Howell was a grave, lyrical Pogner but a shade unimpressive (do I remember Ludwig Weber too well? Pogner must surely be a very substantial personage). Anne Howells was a perfectly judged, pleasingly positive (and not ‘fussy’) Magdalene. Mark Beesley, like most modern Nightwatchmen, made no more of second call (the old boy rubbing his eyes in startled disbelief, shaking his head, singing mit leise bebender Stimme) than he had resonantly made of the first. Roderick Earle was a good Kothner, with a command of coloratura that justified his election to the Guild. Overplaying by one of the minor mastersingers (front-left in Singschule) needed squelching. Bernard Haitink’s first Meistersinger was earnest, honest, substantial. It moved very surely, convincingly, at tempos one never thought to question as too fast or too slow. In the Prelude, some ‘bringing out of inner voices’ sounded odd; it’s all very well to ‘notice things one had never noticed before’— but only when they are meant to be noticed. Covent Garden’s string tone seems to me less rich than in Solti glory days (have I just been hearing the Met orchestra too often?), too readily brass-swamped. The performance became more romantic as the evening progressed, and there was much eloquent soft playing. The chorus was excellent.

Graham Vick’s production, straightforward, direct, and economical, burst into a directorial fling only in the Act 2 finale, when the plain monochrome screens of Richard Hudson’s chaste set suddenly sported portholes, with heads popping out at all levels, and acrobats dangled perilously from the roof, threatening to crash onto the crowd below. (Ron Howell was the movement director, as of Mitridate, and Wolfgang Gobbel the lighting director—Covent Garden debut, but already admired at the Coliseum, Glyndebourne, Cardiff.) It was a startling image of the mass madness and violence that can suddenly break out in an apparently peaceful society. It was also, however, so eye-catchingly intricate, alarming, and brilliant that I somehow missed the attempted elopement of Eva and Walther, which Sachs frustrates. The scenery is minimal, not as spare (or as poetic and beautiful) as that of Wieland Wagner’s famous Bayreuth production, but clear, bright, with realistic detail pared down to what the action makes indispensable. (I wondered how the hundreds of shoes ranged on benches in Sachs’s workshop could be cleared in time; St John’s day revellers simply poured in, put them on, and got on with the celebration.) Hudson’s costumes are simplified, not particularly attractive. The social scale is somewhat downgraded: the masters don’t really suggest wealthy burghers. Kothner wears his baker’s apron while presiding at the Guild meeting; the crowd scenes are more merry-peasant—Brueghelish, people said—than burgerlich in effect. Elsewhere in this issue (reviewing the Mitridate revival) I’ve remarked on Vick’s exhilaratingly fresh, distinct approach to each work he tackles. This was his first full-scale Wagner. I can understand the disappointment of those who thought his version rather too insistently bright, too determinedly unsentimental. People feel deeply about Die Meistersinger and approach it with a heavy charge of expectations. In the 1990 programme note I wrote of ‘a hymn of love to the German people and to German art—but beyond that, to all that is wise and warm in human nature, to young love and ripe experience, to the diversity and richness of life and of art’. I understand, too, the near-unbounded enthusiasm that others felt. This was not a ‘grand international Meistersinger’: despite the international cast (though all but one of it Anglophone) and original language, in spirit it was in some ways closer to a Sadler’s Wells ‘company’ production; Vick has said that he can choose now to be employed with singers who will work together as a team. I’m not sitting on the fence—just trying to describe a performance that, if less moving than some have been, gave great joy and aroused quick admiration for the precision, perception, and accomplishment of its achievement. Hearing and watching it grow should be rewarding.

Andrew Porter | December 1993

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221 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 432 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (BBC 3)
A production by Graham Vick (1993)