Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Horst Stein
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
18 – 29 June 1983
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live   studio
  live compilation   live and studio
Hans Sachs Bernd Weikl
Veit Pogner Manfred Schenk
Kunz Vogelgesang András Molnár
Konrad Nachtigall Martin Egel
Sixtus Beckmesser Hermann Prey
Fritz Kothner Jef Vermeersch
Balthasar Zorn Udo Holdorf
Ulrich Eißlinger Peter Maus
Augustin Moser Helmut Pampuch
Hermann Ortel Sándor Sólyom-Nagy
Hans Schwartz Heinz Klaus Ecker
Hans Foltz Dieter Schweikart
Walther von Stolzing Siegfried Jerusalem
David Graham Clark
Eva Mari Anne Häggander
Magdalene Marga Schiml
Ein Nachtwächter Matthias Hölle
Stage director Wolfgang Wagner
Set designer Wolfgang Wagner
TV director Brian Large
Mostly Opera

Who is more likely to know Richard Wagner’s Meistersinger conception, than his grandson, Wolfgang Wagner, director of this production? Think again..

Apparently Wolfgang Wagner was keen on avoiding any discussion of the nationalistic aspects of Meistersinger- therfore he emphasized the down-to-earth folkloristic aspects of the people in this staging. The sets are traditional, half-naturalistic, minimalistic and dull, depicting the traditional Meistersinger locations as written in Richard Wagner´s libretto with the singers in traditional costumes.

Wolfgang Wagner is known as a director who expects his singers to be able to move on a stage and starts his work from there. Which, in theory, sounds reasonable, especially since his knowledge on Richard Wagner´s works is immense. However, intellectual analysis rarely makes for engaging theater unless backed up by hands-on stage direction or at least exceptional sets. Or an exceptional conductor. Or any combination of the above. In fact, this seems to be the main take-home message of this staging.

For once, we have a young, good-looking an vocally strong Walther in Siegfried Jerusalem. To nail it completely, he´d probably have had to be on pitch and slightly less stiff. For some reason he wants Marie-Anne Häggander´s rather ordinary Eva. She has the slightly less ordinary Manfred Schenk as her father.

Bernd Weikl is a rather young Sachs and while he is in fine voice, he is not the revelation some make him out to be. Eyeing the DVD competition, I´d still prefer James Morris, from an over-all interpretative point of view. Graham Clark makes a vivacious and entertaining David.

Hermann Prey was a surprise casting as Beckmesser and he is the stand-out of this production. He tones down the malicious and ridiculous aspects of the part and is simply a lonely man making some unwise decisions, though I didn´t find his singing quite as superb as rumoured.

While Horst Stein is a fine conductor, Meistersinger is outrageously difficult to lift off, and he doesn´t quite make it. It just takes listening to Solti, Barenboim or Thielemann among recent conductors to hear the difference between a good and a great Meistersinger conductor.

The premiere of this staging was in 1981, 5 years after Patrice Chéreau´s Ring. Wolfgang Wagner should have known better and hired an outsider to do this production. He wasn´t even close to doing that as he also staged the suceeding Bayreuth production of Meistersinger. At least at that point he had the sense to have the two top-Wagnerians Daniel Barenboim and Christian Thielemann conduct it…

I´d still recommend the Metropolitan Schenk production as the top choice of a Meistersinger DVD.

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Siegfried Jerusalem: 4
Marie-Anne Häggander: 2-3
Manfred Schenk: 3
Hermann Prey: 4
Bernd Weikl: 3-4
Horst Stein: 3

Wolfgang Wagner´s production: 2

Overall impression: 2


For many years, the only DVD of Meistersinger was the 1993 Götz Freidrich production, conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, with truly exemplary performances from Gösta Winbergh, Erik Wilm Schülte and Uwe Peper. My copy is an antique. The back cover is taken up with instructions on how to operate a DVD ! In those days, people really did need to know what a “Menu Button” did, what “Title” meant, and how to adjust their TV sets to take DVD formats. Fortunately that production has been reissued and is widely available.

If ever there was a composer whose work cried out for intelligent filming, it was Wagner. With his fundamental belief in Gesammtkunstwerk, the unity of the arts, the new medium would have opened fascinating new interpretative possibilities. On the other hand, this production, from Bayreuth in 1984 comes from an even earlier pre film period than the Frühbeck de Burgos masterpiece. It really can’t be judged in the same terms as, say, the Levine/Met production from 2001 with Mattila, Morris and Heppner.

Unlike the Ring, or Parsifal, the Meistersinger depends on its German bearings for context. It may be a universal human drama, but at the same time there are so many questions implicit about artistic tradition and theory, particularly about expressing a German sensibility. Wagner was a dialectitian after all, driven by ideas. As the German experiences changes, there’s plenty of room for thinking anew about “Holy German Art”. In the Metzmacher/Konwitschny production in Hamburg in 2005, when the grand chorus was interrupted by a Meistersinger saying (more or less) “How can we sing such things after what happened in the Third Reich?”. But there’s little irony or imagination in this straightforward production by Wolfgang, rather than Wieland, Wagner.

Indeed, this DVD demonstrates why performance in the theatre doesn’t necessarily translate on film. On stage, the distance between performers and audience adds to the suspension of belief. Modern film techniques have turned this into a strength, intensifying the experience, so outright veracity isn’t essential. We know we’re watching opera not cinema verité. But film adds a dimension to performance that isn’t necessarily obvious on a purely sound recording. Seeing this on film, I realised why, much as the individual vocal performances are wonderful, the whole is vaguely unsatisfying.

Basically, Hermann Prey steals the show. He’s mesmerisingly good. His Beckmessers were legendary. He rethinking of the role purged it of accretions attracted in the Third Reich, restoring it to something perhaps closer to the logic of the opera itself. The warmth of his tone, and its richness of colour make it obvious why Beckmesser was elected a Meistersinger in the first place, and as Town Clerk had high status. Essentially, he’s an insider in the establishment, even if he has some odd ideas about music. This is central to a truly Wagnerian understanding of the role of artist in society. Sachs, despite being universally loved and admired, doesn’t go in for the trappings of power and status. He’s a shoemaker. Walther, despite his background, is an outsider too. We never really discover why he left the aristocracy and wandered into town. Wagner, despite his love for fancy velvets and luxury, never really cased being something of an anarchist. Indeed, he exploited Ludwig II shamelessly. The implication, then, is that a true artist is an outsider. Beckmesser is a bad musician who needs to steal ideas because he represents the uncreative.

Prey’s glorious singing on its own convinces, for even his off key “bad” singing has charm and wit. But why does Eva love Walther? Prey’s voice alone trounces Jerusalem’s. Without visuals, Jerusalem just about convinces. On film, though attractive enough, he just doesn’t project the same charisma. In the theatre, Prey’s Beckmessser would have been more integrated with the ensemble. On film, we get the close-ups, like Prey’s animated face and deliciously wicked panache. He shakes his foot, dismissing Walther’s mistakes. No wonder the Meistersingers are won over. Walther may be a callow youth but film doesn’t help build his case as the more talented alternative. Prey and Gösta Winbergh’s Walther : that would have been interesting.

Bernd Weikl’s Sachs, too, is superlative. Sachs is an extremely complicated personality, but Weikl brings out a powerfully potent character. No decrepit world weary Sachs, this. Instead, Weikl’s firm, animated singing portrays Sachs a vitally active man who stands up for what he believes in – Wagner’s idea on a true artist and hero. The acting is as good as the singing. The only quibble is that young looking Sachs and Beckmessers need an even younger looking Walther as contrast. Jerusalem’s tenor is high enough to convince aurally, but again, video does him no favours.

Orchestrally, this is not one of the sharpest performances. It’s no match for Frühbeck de Burgos and the Deutsches Oper. Of interest too is an early Graham Clark David. Yet the Berlin production had exceptional performers, too, in Winbergh’s Walther, and Schülte’s brilliant Beckmesser. Peper’s David is also far more developed than Clark’s. And Götz Friedrich is a far more incisive director. But to miss Prey’s Beckmesser and Weikl’s Sachs would be miss out on two critically important interpretations, both of whom add immeasurably to a greater understanding of this opera.

Anne Ozorio


The best Meistersinger on video so far reaches DVD at last. Wagner’s most humane masterwork comes up fresh and shining, despite a rather hard echo in the DTS soundtrack – the original stereo is fine. Stein isn’t the most individual interpreter, but his immense Bayreuth experience and craft illuminate the score with deceptive naturalness, its glowing textures brought out by the marvellous orchestra and chorus. Soloists fit their roles no less naturally. Wolfgang Wagner deliberately set out to create a feel-good production – unnecessarily so, since despite Nazis and contemporary dissectors, Meistersinger read as his grandfather intended has nothing to apologise for. Consequently, the action seems a little neutered and PC. Designs are ‘timeless’, traditional 16th-century to quasi-Victorian. Jerusalem’s Walther, instead of an aristocratic puppy transfigured by love and art, becomes limply sensitive from the start; Weikl’s resonantly baritonal Sachs becomes merely middle-aged, making his dilemma over Eva less poignant, wisdom less hard-won; and Prey’s Beckmesser becomes mellifluous yet somewhat bland. The performances remain splendid, nevertheless, well matched by Häggander’s delightful Eva and Graham Clark’s characterful David, clear-voiced and athletic; Schenk’s rather lightweight Pogner heads a Mastersinger line-up and supporting cast without weak links. Wolfgang Wagner’s intervention to establish the happy ending is kitschy, but hard to resist.

Michael Scott Rohan


Un petit goût d’avant guerre

« [La mise en scène des Maîtres chanteurs de Wolfgang Wagner] me parut conventionnelle jusqu’à l’insupportable. La plus grande partie des mécènes, en majorité des bourgeois incultes, étaient enthousiasmés de revoir les Maîtres chanteurs de Nuremberg représentés enfin comme au bon vieux temps. »* On pourrait accuser Gottfried Wagner, fils de Wolfgang et auteur de ces lignes, d’être indigne et ingrat vis à vis du travail de son père… si son jugement n’était d’une lucidité et d’une justesse totales. Bien qu’il parle ici de la production que son père signa en été 1968, ces propos s’appliquent hélas parfaitement à celle de 1984, publiée aujourd’hui par DG.

On est loin de la « magie de l’espace scénique, avec ses effets de lumière changeant sans cesse devant le cercle d’un horizon simple et clair » dont parle le même Gottfried au sujet des Maîtres chanteurs que son oncle Wieland mis en scène en 1956. On imagine alors aisément le grand écart esthétique et intellectuel auquel devait se résigner le public du Festspielhaus lorsque les deux frères présentaient chacun leurs nouvelles productions. C’est peu de dire que la vision de Wolfgang Wagner est traditionnelle, tellement les décors sont simplement illustratifs et les gestes et attitudes des personnages redondants par rapport au texte. Rien n’y manque : ni le banc de pierre dont parle Eva à l’acte II, ni le panier rempli de fleurs et de saucisses qu’apporte David à Sachs au début de l’acte suivant !

La notice introductive a beau essayer de justifier la démarche de Wolfgang Wagner qui se serait efforcé, dans cette production, de « rendre vie à l’action de manière naturelle et humaine où il n’y aurait plus trace du pathétique nationalistes », le petit-fils de Wagner ne fait que nous servir des Maîtres chanteurs dans la plus pure tradition entretenue par Cosima à la mort du compositeur, et à des années lumières du Nouveau Bayreuth voulu par Wieland.

A ce jeu de reconstitution de la moindre didascalie, le premier tableau du troisième acte est le plus pénible : l’atelier de Sachs, aux allures de cellule monacale, manque de la poésie et du lyrisme qui imprègnent musicalement la matinée de la Saint-Jean. En outre, certains plans de foules, filmés depuis la coulisse, soulignent même l’inconsistance de la direction d’acteur de Wolfgang Wagner.

Cela accepté (et c’est déjà beaucoup), reste un spectacle efficace qui tient la route pendant plus de quatre heures, grâce notamment à des interprètes assez familiers à la scène et aux rôles pour évoluer avec une aisance qui confère un minimum de fluidité à l’action. Si on aurait aimé une Magdalene moins bonne copine et plus nourrice que le personnage insignifiant que dresse Marga Schiml, le David de Graham Clark est pour sa part d’une solidité vocale et d’une efficacité scénique à toute épreuve. L’Eva de Mari Anne Häggander est bien chantante, charmante et fraîche mais manque de grâce et d’aura, notamment dans le quintette qu’elle se contente de chanter alors qu’elle devrait le conduire. Est-ce l’image qui donne cette impression, en tout cas, Siegfried Jerusalem trouve une certaine juvénilité en Walther qu’il n’a pas dans ses autres rôles wagnériens et arrive au Morgenlich final radieux d’aigus.

Reste la confrontation des deux clés de fa qui prend des allures de ying et de yang. Le Beckmesser tout en éclats, en emportements et en démesure de Hermann Prey est néanmoins d’une telle élégance que le personnage en devient plus inquiétant que ridicule, alors que Bernd Weikl a cette sérénité du chant qui traduit la philosophie de vie un rien terrienne mais particulièrement touchante qui fait la grandeur de Sachs.

Une mise en scène digne des années 30 mais sans les distributions légendaires qui en font le prix, c’est en quelque sorte n’avoir ni le beurre ni l’argent du beurre…


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