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.
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.