Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Review

A 1995 Deutsch Opera recording of Richard Wagner’s opera, starring Gösta Winbergh, Wolfgang Brendel and Eva Johansson. Released by Arthaus.

Franconian knight, Walther von Stolzing comes to settle in Nürnberg and meets Eva, the daughter of the goldsmith and mastersinger, Veit Pogner. Stolzing finds out that he can only marry Eva if he wins a singing contest and becomes a mastersinger – one of an elite guild of poets and singers with strict rules and traditions. His youthful enthusiasm and unbounded lyricism are not appreciated by the other mastersigers, and his marker, Beckmesser, who also hope to marry Eva, takes great delight in failing the young man in the test that he undertakes.
Only Hans Sachs, the shoemaker, sees the potential in Stolzing’s singing and despite his own affection for Eva, helps the young man channel his artistic talent within the confines of the mastersinger rules. Beckmesser’s plans to serenade Eva are frustrated, but he discovers the lyrics that Sachs has helped Stolzing to sing and, believing them to be written by Sachs, plans to use them himself to win the contest. On the Midsummer’s Day festival, he fails to do justice to the words. Stolzing is revealed as the real author and wins the singing competition triumphantly. Winning the hand of Eva, he agrees to respect the traditions of the mastersingers.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg for the most part is certainly one of Wagner’s lighter operas, and although I think it would be going a bit far to describe it as a comedy, as the accompanying booklet does, it certainly has its humorous moments. Most of the comedy material is at the expense of the villain of the opera, Sixtus Beckmesser, wonderfully played and sung by Elke Wilm Schulte. The other roles in this production are well handled. Wolfgang Brendel plays the lead role of Hans Sachs, the most sympathetic character in the opera. He handles a complex character well and with a certain degree of subtlety. He puts aside any feelings he has for Eva when he sees how in love she is with the young knight and even assists Stolzing in the composition of the song that will win her hand. Swedish tenor Gösta Winbergh is a little stiff and wooden in his performance as the Franconian knight, Walther von Stolzing, but his singing – bold and strident as the role of the impetuous young knight requires – cannot be faulted. His rendition of the centrepiece song “Morgenlich leuchtend in rosigem Schein” is bold and impressive. Also notable are Eva Johansson as Eva and Uwe Peper as Daniel, although it would be hard to find fault with any of the cast or chorus of this production.

I have to admit I am not the biggest fan of Wagner’s operas, and occasionally found the 4 hour opera a bit heavy going. The plot drags in a number of places, particularly early in the Third Act, when Daniel describes the action already seen in the previous Act. Hans Sachs musings on the nature of mankind and the destructive impulses of nationalism and traditionalism lend the opera a certain gravity and an important message, but also slow proceedings down considerably. The elaborate lyricism of the Meistersinger songs also are a little bit excessive. But although I usually favour more melodic bel canto opera, I did find Wagner’s music here to be a strong emotional and expressive accompaniment to the actions of the plot and the emotions of the characters.

The stage set, designed by Peter Sykoras, is traditional and well-designed and the costumes are period and Bavarian. The production is well-lit and superbly directed for television by Brian Large. The DVD picture is excellent, presented anamorphically for 16:9 televisions, but nothing astounding. Surprisingly there are signs of digital artefacting, although I only noticed it on shots of the stage sets during the prelude and the scene change before the final scene – but you would really have to be looking for this to notice any problems.

We only have the choice of a PCM stereo soundtrack for this opera DVD, which seems to be the preferred soundtrack for Arthaus releases, and apart from certain releases with DTS soundtracks, it is certainly the best sound format to represent the dynamics of musical performances on DVD. Once or twice I thought I heard faint crackles and pops in the sound. I couldn’t tell if this was down to hiss on the microphones, mere stage noise or the sound testing the limitations of my speakers, but I suspect the PCM soundtrack was exposing the limitations of the original recording. In any case, these noises are infrequent and certainly do not detract from the otherwise fine and sometimes remarkable soundtrack. Both voices and orchestration are presented in a clear and well-balanced mix.

The only extras included on the DVD are the booklet insert, which is relevant and informative and trailers for two of the showpiece DVDs from the Arthaus catalogue, Krzysztof Prenderecki’s Seven Gates of Jerusalem and Hector Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, which I have already covered in my review of The Arthaus Musik DVD Video Sampler II.

Priced at around £33 for this 4 hour opera on a 2 DVD set, you would need to be sure you are going to like this before buying. If you do like Wagner though, for the same price as an CD recording you can buy a DVD of a full widescreen performance of the opera featuring fine singers and a PCM stereo soundtrack that technically is superior to the quality of a CD. No competition really.


Updated: Oct 24, 2001

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