wagner meistersinger naxos

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868), Opera in Three Acts
Libretto by the composer
Walther von Stolzing – Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor)
Eva – Heidi Stober (soprano)
Hans Sachs – Johan Reuter (bass-bar)
Sixtus Beckmesser – Philipp Jekal (baritone)
Veit Pogner – Albert Pesendorfer (bass)
David – Ya-Chung Huang (tenor)
Magdalena – Annika Schlicht (mezzo)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin/John Fiore
Jossi Wieler, Sergio Morabito, Anne Viebrock, stage directors
rec. live, June & July 2022 at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, Germany
Reviewed in stereo and DTS 5.1
Naxos Blu-ray NBD0178-79V [281]

The premise behind this Deutsche Oper production of Meistersinger is very silly, but if you approach it with a huge dollop of good will then it just about works. The directors (three of them!) set it in Dr Pogner’s Private Conservatory. Pogner is about to hand the institution over to public ownership, and the new head is to be the winner of the song contest, who will also marry his daughter, Eva. He doesn’t know that Eva has secretly been carrying on a relationship with Hans Sachs, a music lecturer and therapist who works at the Conservatory, though whoever wins the contest Pogner hopes still to exercise a level of control through their marriage to his daughter. Pogner has hitherto favoured the candidacy of Beckmesser, the head of the examination committee, but is growing more to favour Walther, a visiting aristocrat who has fallen in love with Eva, because some blue blood will add some prestige to the institution. 

If you squint and look at it sideways then this just about works as a frame within which to recast Wagner’s glorious human comedy, and Act 1, in particular, is quite fun to watch as you see the parallels working out. Walther acts like a reckless vandal in Act 1, strumming a violin and drawing a face inside David’s treble clef, while Sachs is the alternative therapist, barefooted and dressed in a trendy hipster outfit. The problems rapidly pile up in the execution, however. The entire opera is set inside Pogner’s institution, effectively in one room, though Act 3 adds a slightly different angle. That means that the outdoor scenes really suffer. The street scene in the second half of Act 2 stretches credibility very hard, and the riot is so staid as to look silly. Furthermore, the festival meadow doesn’t work at all well when it’s just the stage of the institute.

Worse, there are lots of little touches that either don’t add up or which detract from the overall picture. Sachs isn’t a cobbler, but has some sort of therapeutic interest in feet, so gives everyone crocs to wear. There is a distracting quantity of sexualised writhing going on in the background of his Fliedermonolog, and for most of the last hour of the staging I genuinely wasn’t sure what was going on. Why Magdalena looks so outraged during the Quintet, why the clock goes backwards during the Act 3 scene change, or why the dances at the meadow are reinterpreted as a garish nightmare I genuinely couldn’t tell you.

My alarm bells always ring when directors feel they need to explain themselves at length in a programme essay, such as this BD’s booklet. The whole point of a form such as opera is that the performance should do the taking. An explanatory essay of such length is effectively an admission of defeat, and all the more so when several aspects of the performance don’t make sense to the casual audience member. 

It’s a special shame because it does a terrible disservice to a strong musical performance. Johan Reuter’s Sachs is wise, vulnerable and very beautiful-sounding. He tires a little towards the end, but what Sachs doesn’t? His is a performance I’d love to hear again in a few years’ time when the voice has developed into it a little more. Klaus Florian Vogt is an enormously experienced Walther, though he’s also an acquired taste vocally. His overgrown choirboy tones get a bit wearing after an opera of Meistersinger’s length, and he too tires unattractively towards the end. He’s still worth hearing, though all round he’s finer in Barrie Kosky’s Bayreuth production.

None of the rest of the cast are household names, but they all sound very good. Heidi Stober sings Eva with beautiful confidence and is well contrasted with the dark Magdalena of Annika Schlicht. Ya-Chung Huang sings the part of David with forthright energy, as does Philip Jekal’s Beckmesser who sounds younger and more energetic than most, not at all oily or malevolent. As Pogner, Albert Pesendorfer has a foghorn of a voice which he uses very effectively, and all of the other Mastersingers are individually and effectively characterised. The Nightwatchman’s voice appears only as a recording over the Conservatory’s Tannoy, so you hear Günther Groissböck but never see him.

As you might expect from a performance at this theatre, the chorus and orchestra sound tip top terrific, and John Fiore conducts them unfussily, letting everything unfold at its natural pace over the opera’s huge arc of time. The picture quality is bright and clear, and the surround sound is terrific. 

Or, at least, it is in the first disc. There is a serious technical issue with the surround sound on disc two, which contains the whole of Act Three. The sound channels aren’t synchronised properly, sounding as though the rear channels are heard dimly about a second or so before the front ones. The effect is to give the sound a very distracting pre-echo or shadow, which makes it unlistenable to. I had to watch Act 3 in two-channel stereo rather than on the surround, which is better than nothing but should really have been avoided. I only had one copy of the disc, and I only have access to one BD player, so I can’t say with 100% confidence whether the problem was unique to me or whether the problem as at my end. All I can say is that it wasn’t a problem on the first disc, and it greatly detracted from my enjoyment of the second.

All of which means that I can’t imagine anybody opting for this one over the Deutsche Oper’s previous production, a handsome staging from Götz Friedrich conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, filmed in 1995. If you really want a radical Meistersinger then Stefan Herheim does it better (though still not brilliantly) in his 2013 Salzburg Festival production. Far more pleasure is to be had from the Met’s wonderful Otto Schenk production, ultra-traditional but beautifully sung and conducted, and the musical joys are greater still on CDs from Solti in Chicago and Sawallisch in Munich.

Simon Thompson

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Other cast & production staff
Kunz Vogelgesang – Gideon Poppe (tenor)
Konrad Nachtigall – Simon Pauly (baritone)
Sixtus Beckmesser – Philipp Jekal (baritone)
Fritz Kothner – Thomas Leman (baritone)
Balthasar Zorn – Paul Kaufmann (tenor)
Ulrich Eisslinger – Clemens Bieber (tenor)
Augustin Moser – Burkhard Ulrich (tenor)
Hermann Ortel – Stephen Bronk (bass-bar)
Hans Schwarz – Tobias Kehrer (bass)
Hans Foltz – Byung Gil Kim (bass-bar)
Voice of the Nightwatchman – Günther Groissböck (bass)
Anna Viebrock, Torsten Gerhard Köpf, set designers
Anna Viebrock, Charlotte Pistorius, costume designer
Olaf Freese, lighting designer

Video details
Picture format: 1080i/16:9; Sound format: PCM Stereo/DTS-HD MA 5.1
Region code: A, B, C
Sung in German; Subtitles: German, English, French Korean, Japanese