Die Meistersinger von Glyndebourne

I’m trying to understand why I responded the way I did to the Glyndebourne production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. It’s a relatively straight-forward production that might even be called conservative. David McVicar and the team who made the DVD have struck a balance, unlikely to offend anyone, possibly pleasing everyone.

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Richard Wagner’s operas are regularly updated and re-thought by adventurous directors. Many of the most adventurous examples of Regietheater (director’s theatre) were visited upon Wagner scores:

  • …because his stories are often symbolic templates right out of Jung that seem to invite re-interpretation
  • …because the production history of his operas for a time couldn’t escape the footprints of Nazi jackboots left over it at the Bayreuth Festival

McVicar doesn’t go there, however, doesn’t impose anything onto Wagner’s text. This is a Meistersinger to please the most ardent Wagnerian. Does that make this a conservative production? If by “conservative”, one means a production that includes almost 100% of Wagner’s stage directions, then so be it, this one is conservative.

But the epithet is misleading.  Whatever McVicar asks of the singers & chorus, we’re in the presence of remarkable high-definition camera-work, directed by François Rousillon. Over the course of this immense opera –the longest one that can in any sense be understood as standard repertoire (and considering how rare Meistersinger productions are, perhaps the designation is misleading) –we get to watch not just the singer singing, but many reactions to that singing as well. I am most impressed by the subtle responses, where so much of the drama resides.

I’ve already alluded twice (1 | 2) to Gerald Finley’s Hans Sachs. If 60 is the new 40, then –as I was pondering how Finley might look as Falstaff—Finley is a 21st century sort of old. He’s active, vibrant, really a baby-boomer’s Sachs because he’s middle-aged rather than aged, alongside a foppish Beckmesser from Johannes Martin Kränzle. Neither is really young enough for Anna Gabler’s Eva, yet because Finley is on the boundary line we can feel his genuine pangs of attraction when Eva looks his way. Marco Jentzsch isn’t much younger looking as Walther, but that doesn’t matter, so long as we can believe that these two middle-aged men might long for the beautiful Eva.

Topi Lehtipuu as David is perhaps the key –with Gabler of course—to making the ensemble tick. In Act I a huge amount of exposition must be accomplished in the scene between Walther & David that follows the church scene (where the attraction between Eva & Walther, the other key fundamental, is established). Lehtipuu is the nerdiest of the apprentices, a quality that sometimes makes him seem very old on other performances I’ve encountered. I love Peter Schreier’s take for instance on that wonderful von Karajan recording (which I listened to in its entirety last week), meticulous in his execution of all those musical details that are an indication to poor Walther of the impossible task he is undertaking in seeking to become a master. Lehtipuu has a stunning gentle tone that is in wonderful contrast to almost everyone else on the DVD, a lyrical voice that floats up to his many high notes, even as he seems genuinely young: which may simply be due to his hairstyle and physicality. Look at this guy!  

This is acting, and the point is –as in much of this production—it’s not when he’s singing. It’s in his reactions. The character never lets up for a second, and for much of the opera I can’t take my eyes off of him. His performance alone –of a part that is almost impossible to do this well—is worth the price of the DVD.

See what i mean about the camera-work? We’re watching reactions, back and forth between singer and listener. They’re very close to one another, making the singing conversational and directed, instead of the unfortunate tendency on bigger stages and in bigger theatres to bellow, making these speeches into pompous and self-congratulatory addresses opened out to the audience (an approach that is boring I am afraid). McVicar and his cast avoid those deadly moments fastidiously. In fact Gabler gives both Finley and Lehtipuu a run for their money, never dull and sometimes remarkably insightful. Jentzsch is very sympathetic as Walther.

Credit too must be given to conductor Vladimir Jurowski , leading the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Glyndebourne Chorus at fearsome quick tempi, which usually means that the audience is the beneficiary. Choreographer Andrew George has the chorus doing folk-dance moves that seem very authentic looking, even as the simmering class-war—between apprentices and masters, between the guilds and the nobility (meaning Walther)– threatens at times to bubble to the surface, but never hijacks the opera.

With Vicki Mortimer’s stage and costume designs, we are not in the Middle Ages, but rather in a post-Napoleonic Nuremberg. I think that’s important because it’s the time of Wagner’s youth, when Germany was an idea that hadn’t even begun. There was no Germany yet, no military juggernaut for decades yet, just a series of smaller states and cities. As such the dreams of the masters and of Walther can focus on the artistic issues Wagner sought to express, without the directorial gloss.

In case you couldn’t tell, this is the Meistersinger I would recommend to any Wagnerian. The camera work gives it the edge of a good comedy –thinking more of Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer’s Night rather than anything Hollywood produces—even as the musicianship is astonishingly good.  It bears repeated watching.  Lord knows i can’t stop watching it.

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4 Responses to Die Meistersinger von Glyndebourne

  1. Edward Brain says:

    Thanks for the review, Leslie. Die Meistersinger is my favourite opera, and I am glad that this is not a ‘butchered’ production, although I do question the post-Napoleonic period when the opera specifically takes places in the 16th Century. Yet from the clip you provided, it does not appear to really hurt the production.

    But, I think I may have to look into getting my hands on a copy of this production.

    • barczablog says:

      I think the question always must be asked with any change to a text: what is it doing? i don’t oppose such things on principle, i try instead to see what we’re getting. Wagner was born in 1813, just before Waterloo. I think that this production is a distant cousin of those Parsifal productions (and i can think of at least three different ones) where, in one sense or another, the action is inside Wagner’s life or inside Wagner’s head. The timeframe for this one overlaps Wagner’s life, so that perhaps –metaphorically if not literally– we’re seeing the world through the composer’s eyes. But it’s very gentle. This is a very loving friendly place. Sachs makes a genuine effort to reconcile with Beckmesser, but Sixtus –and i don’t think i am being a spoiler if i say this–simply walks away.

      • When I saw this setting I thought McVicar was going to do more with it. In the immediate post-Napoleonic period the issue of Heilige Deutsche Kunst and foreign rule (French) has an obvious set of meanings which the director could have explored but didn’t. I’ve felt that with most of McVicar’s recent productions he has hinted at ideas that could be explored but then he hasn’t followed through. Too many productions at the Met?

  2. barczablog says:

    Hi John, thanks for the remarks. I suppose sometimes it’s hard to know what meanings one wants to see explored. NB that the production zeroes in on what i feel was Wagner’s primary concern: not issues of nationhood but simply art. Foreign rule is completely relevant when one looks at the history of opera in Germany, and just about everywhere else for that matter (in other words, composers in Germany and elsewhere, insecure about foreign influences). I feel that the setting allows McVicar to be almost completely innocent –in the sense of being untrammeled by all the weight of allusions that sophistication brings– when Walther and Sachs talk about art. The holy Wagnerian empire that would arise can get in the way of the opera. I see this, too, in the question of how the opera is sung, where i’ve heard people knock the production for the lightness of the voices, as though Wagner somehow prefers big fat wobbly voices sung in slower tempi (NB Nilsson, Flagstad, Vickers, Tomlinson or any of the voices I admire avoid barking or wobbling). I think that when something or someone becomes an institution that the dogma and the layers of procedure interfere with clear thinking. It’s true for politics and religion, and come to think of it, Bayreuth is very political, and very much like a religion (if not a cult). Maybe i credit this DVD too much, for accidental successes, but the more i look at it the more i see depths and profundities, all while honouring the score.

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