23 December 2013

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner – DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG (G. Finley, A. Gabler, M. Jentzsch, J.M. Kränzle, T. Lehtipuu, A. Miles; Glyndebourne GFOCD 021-11)

Richard Wagner - DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG (Glyndebourne GFOCD 021-11)

RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg—G. Finley (Hans Sachs), A. Gabler (Eva), M. Jentzsch (Walther von Stolzing), J.M. Kränzle (Sixtus Beckmesser), T. Lehtipuu (David), M. Selinger (Magdalene), A. Miles (Veit Pogner), C. Judson (Kunz Vogelgesang), A. Slater (Konrad Nachtigall), H. Waddington (Fritz Kothner), R. Poulton (Hermann Ortel), A. Elliott (Balthasar Zorn), D. Norman (Augustin Moser), A. Thompson (Ulrich Eisslinger), G. Broadbent (Hans Foltz), M. Mikhailov (Hans Schwarz), M. Almgren (Nightwatchman); The Glyndebourne Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladimir Jurowski [Recorded ‘live’ during performances at Glyndebourne, Lewes, East Sussex, England, in May and June 2011; 4CD, 257:00; Available directly from Glyndebourne and from major music retailers]

There are operas that are daunting propositions for even the largest opera houses, and then there is Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  This magnificent monstrosity, touched on every page of the score by the hand of genius, can confirm the artistic merit of an opera company while also crippling its financial resources.  Even after the success of their inaugural Wagnerian outing, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger was a bold choice for the Glyndebourne management.  Requiring a large cast of talented singing actors, Die Meistersinger is a logistical nightmare, and volumes are spoken about the integrity and inventiveness of Glyndebourne by this recording’s confirmation that there was nothing small-scaled about the Company’s 2011 production of Wagner’s gargantuan effort at comedy.  In fact, in this year in which the bicentennial of the composer’s birth has been celebrated with dozens of new and reissued recordings and productions of his operas on virtually all of the world’s important stages, this recording of one of Wagner’s most difficult scores goes a long way in restoring confidence in the standards of Wagnerian singing in the 21st Century.  With so much genuinely ugly singing inflicted upon listeners in the name of ‘stylish’ Wagner singing, the performance heard on these discs is balm to the ears.  A half-century ago, a RAI broadcast performance sung in Italian with the unlikely quintet of Giuseppe Taddei (Hans Sachs), Boris Christoff (Pogner), Luigi Infantino (Walther), Renato Capecchi (Beckmesser), and Bruna Rizzoli (Eva)—a cast one might reasonably expect to encounter in a score by Donizetti rather than one by Wagner—revealed that there is in Die Meistersinger a gushing flow of bel canto that is harnessed only by singers who take care to caress rather than shout Wagner’s melodies.  This is, in short, one of the most refreshingly melodic performances of Die Meistersinger committed to disc in many years and one of the few in which love for—rather than fear of—Wagner’s leviathan score is audible in every note.

The chorus and orchestra are perhaps more important in Die Meistersinger than in any other Wagner opera.  In that regard, this performance has nothing to fear from comparisons with celebrated recordings in the Meistersinger discography, the singing of the Glyndebourne Chorus and playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra leaving almost nothing to be desired.  The choral contributions are critical in Die Meistersinger, not least in the chaotic closing scene of Act Two—the point at which many performances of the opera come unhinged—and the opera’s valedictory final scene.  Prepared with obvious affinity for the requirements of the score by Jeremy Bines, the Glyndebourne choristers acquit themselves magnificently, singing circles round many of the world’s finest opera house choruses.  Their singing of the great ensemble in the final scene of Act Two is astonishing, both in its barely-contained vigor and spontaneity and in the innate but unforced precision: such impeccably-trained but ‘in the moment’ singing exemplifies the notion of the art that conceals art.  This superb singing is not confined to one or two scenes but persists throughout the entire performance.  Equally resilient are the sure intonation and finely-judged balances of the playing of the London Philharmonic.  As in all of his operas, even the early ones that are relegated to relative obscurity, Wagner makes strenuous demands on orchestras, and Die Meistersinger is launched by one of the most famous overtures in opera.  From the first fanfares of the ubiquitous Vorspiel, the Philharmonic players produce an account of Wagner’s score that combines throbbing intensity with velvety grace.  Brass and woodwinds frolic in Wagner’s witty part-writing, and the strings maintain firmness of tone even in gossamer passages on high.  The instrumentalists bring stirring power and heart-warming finesse in turn, shaping the score’s chamber-music-like passages with radiant simplicity of approach.  In this, they are guided with audible absorption of the spirit of the score by Vladimir Jurowski, a conductor whose mastery of German repertory exceeds that of many more aggressively-promoted conductors.  In his conducting of this performance, in which the inner structures of Wagner’s fastidiously-wrought scenes are subtly revealed, Maestro Jurowski proves a peer of Hans Knappertsbush and Rudolf Kempe, conductors who—on records and in opera houses—mastered the energy and hairpin turns of Die Meistersinger without sacrificing the slightly wistful sentimentality with which Wagner lined the score.  Maestro Jurowski seeks to make no apologies for the length of Die Meistersinger, setting tempi that serve the music rather than striving to have fidgety audience members en route back to London at a decent hour.  Nothing drags, nothing feels rushed: no scenes hang fire, musically or dramatically, and no passages whiz by unintelligibly.  Few performances of Die Meistersinger manage to be genuinely funny, but even fewer blend comedy and emotional depth as meaningfully as this one, and the insightful, refreshingly musical conducting of Maestro Jurowski deserves much of the credit for this.

It is to be hoped that the artistic leadership of any organization charged with the task of planning an operatic production collectively set for themselves the goal of assembling the best cast possible for the score at hand.  Regrettably, many performances during the past decade have suggested either that this is not a priority or that it is an exceedingly quixotic undertaking.  There can be little doubt that it is now easier to cast L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Atys, or Rodelinda than any of Wagner’s operas, but those who suggest that this year’s Wagner Bicentennial was a celebration without partygoers worthy of their invitations are not paying attention—and certainly have not heard this recording.  Die Meistersinger depends more than most of Wagner’s operas upon consistency of casting among secondary rôles, and this performance adheres to Glyndebourne’s legendary standards of excellence in casting.  Even the small part of the Nightwatchman is cast from strength with the bass Mats Almgren, who brings gravelly sonority to his lines at the end of Act Two.  Unusually, there is not a single weak link among the ranks of the Mastersingers, and each of the accomplished singers—tenor Colin Judson as Vogelgesang, bass-baritone Andrew Slater as Nachtigall, bass Henry Waddington as Kothner, baritone Robert Poulton as Ortel, tenor Alasdair Elliott as Zorn, tenor Daniel Norman as Moser, tenor Adrian Thompson as Eisslinger, bass Graeme Broadbent as Foltz, and bass Maxim Mikhailov as Schwartz—performs his rôle characterfully and with consummate musicality.  As an ensemble, these gentlemen form a formidable, delightfully euphonious college of Mastersingers.

Pogner, the goodly goldsmith who offers his daughter Eva’s hand in marriage as the grand prize in the Song Contest, is entrusted to one of Britain’s busiest and most reliable basses, Alastair Miles.  That trust is handsomely repaid by Mr. Miles’s shapely singing, the voice centered and filling Wagner’s vocal lines with solid tone.  The plangent tenderness of Mr. Miles’s singing of ‘Wie klug! – Wie gut! Komm’ setz’ dich hier’ in the third scene of Act Two is very effective, and his slightly bumbling doubt of the wisdom of pledging his daughter as a prize to the victorious Mastersinger is both amusing and endearing.  Though his discography is considerable, his broadly-sung Pogner is a marvelous addition to the recorded legacy of Mr. Miles’s artistry.

In recent years, scholars with generally respectable Wagnerian credentials have suggested that, whether by intention or by implication, the rôle of Beckmesser is an unsavory anti-Semitic stereotype, a sort of Shylock in sheep’s clothing.  Perhaps there is merit to this theory, but it also surely subjects Die Meistersinger to a post-Holocaust social awareness that has little bearing on Wagner’s score.  What is more apparent is that Beckmesser is representative of the small-minded stupidity that exists in every community, an archetype depicted in opera from its inception.  The decision that must be made by each singer who performs the part—or, in too many cases, imposed on him by the director of the production in which he participates—is whether his Beckmesser will be a genuinely mean-spirited figure or, as Shirley Maclaine might define him, merely a decent fellow who has been in a bad mood for rather a while.  The significance of psychology is reduced when the listener has a well-sung account of Beckmesser’s music with which to contend, however, and baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle graces this performance with the finest Beckmesser heard on records in a generation.  This is a gentleman with a nasty streak, to be sure, but a gentleman nonetheless, and one whose baser actions are the misguided expressions of his frustrated affection for Eva.  Mr. Kränzle’s voicing of lines like ‘Den Stümpern öffnet Sachs ein Loch’ (‘Sachs is opening a loop-hole for bunglers’) wonderfully conveys exasperation, increasingly so as Beckmesser senses that his chances with Eva are evaporating rapidly.  His Serenade, upset by Sachs’s unwelcome contributions, is exuberantly sung by Mr. Kränzle, and his performance of Beckmesser’s losing entry in the Song Contest is comically inept but never ugly.  Mr. Kränzle’s Beckmesser is snarky, snobbish, and quirky but never truly threatening and certainly not an affront to any race or creed.  Most importantly, it is a first-rate piece of singing.

Glyndebourne’s casting of the second pair of young lovers, Magdalene and David, reveals an understanding of the fact that these are not comprimario rôles.  Magdalene is charmingly sung by mezzo-soprano Michaela Selinger.  This is no fruity alte Junger: Ms. Selinger’s Magdalene is audibly a young woman in her prime, brimming with sexual energy—and salaciously on the prowl.  If Tristan und Isolde is Wagner’s exposition of carnal passions, Die Meistersinger is an exploration of propriety, and the machinations of Magdalene and her mistress undermine the social order of which Wagner is so critical.  Eva is the mastermind of the deception of Beckmesser in Wagner’s twisted balcony scene, but a great deal of convincing is hardly required to enlist Magdalene’s help.  Ms. Selinger is a lively presence throughout the performance, and she sings her part in the great Quintet with distinction.  To David’s music, Topi Lehtipuu applies the most intelligent of his dramatic instincts and a lean but unstrained lyric tenor.  The savagery that Mr. Lehtipuu summons in David’s jealousy and assault on Beckmesser after discovering the town clerk unwittingly serenading Magdalene is pulse-quickening, and his singing of David’s long-winded description of the Mastersingers’ song-writing criteria is hilariously pompous.  Like Ms. Selinger, Mr. Lehtipuu contributes winningly to the Quintet and is a verbally—and musically—alert David from his first utterance until he gratefully accepts his promotion and the ear-boxing that comes with it.

In a sense, Eva is Wagner’s least-complicated heroine.  She has her tribulations, of course, but she is not accused of murdering a sibling, encircled by fire on a mountaintop as punishment for filial disobedience, or denied the comfort of death for having mocked the crucified Christ.  Still, Eva is no ingénue: the course of her true love being, as Shakespeare confided, far from smooth, she is not above engaging in a bit of intrigue in order to ensure that the path ultimately leads to her desired destination.  Soprano Anna Gabler clearly relishes Eva’s moments of spite, but she also conveys the character’s purity with delicious femininity.  In the interview with Sachs in which he tacitly acknowledges his affection for her by relaying the fate suffered by King Marke in the story of Tristan and Isolde, the sweetness with which Ms. Gabler’s Eva comforts Sachs is immensely touching.  It is obvious that this Eva is at least partially cognizant of the significance of Sachs’s sentiments, and the love that she discloses in her gentle dealing with the older—but far from old—man is palpable.  The girlish sensuality of Ms. Gabler’s singing in the Quintet—and, indeed, throughout the performance—is marvelously persuasive, and the natural beauty of her voice shines in even the least congenial sounds of the text.  There are a few ungainly patches, but these heighten the humanity of her portrayal, and Ms. Gabler’s technical acumen extends to a credible effort at Eva’s trill.  Ms. Gabler’s calmly ecstatic singing of ‘O Sachs! Mein Freund! Du teurer Mann!’ is the emotional climax of the performance, but honest feelings rise to the musical surface whenever she is singing.

Walther von Stolzing tends to be cast either with a full-on Heldentenor who bruises the music or with a lyric tenor whose resources are strained by it.  Ideally, the part requires a fusion of power and poise, a partnering of qualities rarely encountered on records or in theatres.  From his first entrance, it is clear that tenor Marco Jentzsch is the rare Walther in whom the elements that produce a memorable Walther intersect.  Maintaining a repertory that mixes Wagner and Strauss rôles with Mozart’s Belmonte and Tamino, Mr. Jentzsch seems to possess the wisdom to make concerted efforts at preserving the flexibility of the voice as he takes on more dramatic rôles.  In this performance, the honey in Mr. Jentzsch’s tone glazes a core of bronze, and the sounds that the tenor produces are both bracing and beguiling.  In Walther’s early interactions with Eva, Magdalene, and David, Mr. Jentzsch conveys the natural unease of a young man among new friends, and the ardor in his singing grows as Walther’s love for Eva blossoms.  Walther’s tessitura is often daunting, especially in the Quintet, in which the singer is asked to scale the heights of his vocal lines with delicacy.  Mr. Jentzsch succeeds almost without fail, in the Quintet and throughout the performance, achieving proper placement and projection of his top notes.  ‘Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein,’ the Prize Song, is of course the principal test for any Walther, and here, too, Mr. Jentzsch rises to the occasion with panache.  Dramatically, Mr. Jentzsch allies his forthright vocalism with an insightful use of text to give life to a Walther who is credible as an innovator and a man in love.  For once, the strain is in the story rather than in the voice telling it.

He may be no Atlas, but there is no doubting that Hans Sachs ultimately carries upon his shoulders the responsibility for the success of any performance of Die Meistersinger.  A Meistersinger without a capable Eva or Walther is a wounded body that can nevertheless hobble into basic acceptability, and too many performances to count have survived musically disastrous and dramatically embarrassing portrayals of Beckmesser.  A Meistersinger with a maladroit Sachs is a beast without a heart, a corpse that may show cursory signs of life but amounts to nothing more than a mammoth collection of notes.  That Gerald Finley is an important singer and a gifted artist is so widely acknowledged that it is apt to be taken for granted: that he is such an authoritative Hans Sachs, even on disc, is a discovery for which no praise is too great.  In truth, moments in which Mr. Finley shapes text with the eloquence of a great poet are too numerous to be mentioned.  Cross with Beckmesser without becoming crass, Mr. Finley’s Sachs pursues the diplomatic course, cunningly defusing the clerk’s petty anger and averting catastrophes with cleverness.  Mr. Finley’s singing in the scene in which Sachs recognizes the full extent of Eva’s affection for Walther exudes disappointment and gentle melancholy.  There is not even the slightest hint of bitterness underlying the magnanimity with which this Sachs takes Walther under his wing, accepting not only the inevitability but also the greater righteousness of his unintentional rival’s triumph.  Vocally, Mr. Finley is troubled only by a couple of his rôle’s highest notes, but these minor struggles are emblematic of the absolute commitment that he brings to his performance.  In phrase after phrase, Mr. Finley offers the sort of burnished, beautiful tone for which Wagner’s music cries out but so seldom receives.  This is not an aged, world-weary Sachs but one who is still virile and in complete command of his resources; not so much of a different generation than Walther as representative of a different system of ideals.  Mr. Finley anchors the Quintet with uncompromising firmness of line and tone, and his singing of Sachs’s final monologue, extolling the paramount but evolving virtues of true art, ravishes the ears and lifts the soul.  In recent seasons, audiences have been fortunate to hear a competent Sachs: this recording preserves an unforgettable performance by a Sachs who makes mere competence seem woefully inadequate; an exquisite effort that leaves some of the most acclaimed performances of the past half-century in the dust.

Among the ranks of today’s opera singers, there are no Hotters or Schöfflers; no Grümmers or Schwarzkopfs; no Nissens, Schorrs, Reinings, or Müllers; but Glyndebourne’s 2011 production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg proved that the score need not be shelved until the dawning of a presumed new age of Wagnerian titans.  Recorded in spacious sound that nicely replicates a natural theatre acoustic and thus includes a good bit of stage noise, which contributes to rather than detracting from the immediacy of the performance, this production catches fire the moment that Vladimir Jurowski enters the pit and burns brightly until the last note is sounded.  No, even the sounding of the final chord does not extinguish the conflagration, for this is a performance that melts any resistance.  Remarkably, hearing the cast assembled by Glyndebourne provides the listener a glimpse of a distant Golden Age of Wagner singing even in these dark ages.  The Hans Sachs of Gerald Finley epitomizes the finest musical artistry of the fledgling 21st Century and reveals anew that, when great artists and great music collide, magic is possible even when it is least expected.