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WAGNER: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

spacer Gabler, Selinger; Jentzsch, Finley, Kränzle, Miles, Lehtipuu; Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra, V. Jurowski. Production: McVicar. Opus Arte OA 1085 D (2 DVDs) or OA BD7108 D (Blu-ray), 280 mins. (opera), 20 mins. (bonus), subtitled


Opera goes through periods when it seems singer-driven, and it goes through periods when it seems director-driven. In fact, opera is the highest form of collaboration, and nowhere is this principle more clearly displayed than in the presentation of the character Hans Sachs in this production of Die Meistersinger from the 2011 Glyndebourne Festival. This performance demonstrates the overwhelming result when a singer (Gerald Finley), a conductor (Vladimir Jurowski) and a director (David McVicar) have all thought very deeply about Wagner's creation and how each contribution relates to the whole. 

The level of performance is supremely high by the middle of Act II, when Eva comes to visit Sachs outside his workshop. Earlier, the character has been having a troubled evening, loosening up only a little bit when he catches the scent of the linden. Everything is a struggle for him; his hands are permanently stained from his cobbling work. Finley's Sachs is not yet middle-aged, and we get the feeling that he keeps mentioning how old he is simply as an excuse to keep from opening himself up to human kindness. It pains him even to look at Eva, and he uses the growing shadows, the averted gaze and the absorption in work to keep her from seeing his own face. But Jurowski's orchestra wells up with his inner life. When Eva mentions "whoever you once held in your heart, maybe it was me," McVicar has her touch him, perhaps for the first time since she came of age; at the same moment, a pained grace note in the bassoon pierces the music. This is how opera is supposed to work.

And the portrayal only deepens in Act III. This interpretation of Sachs, atypically, centers on the solo "Hat man mit dem Schuhwerk." Finley plays it as the anger of a man who thought he had put his feelings away but now finds them stirred up. McVicar sees the solo as part of a longer span, something that would provoke Eva's "O Sachs! Mein Freund!" (Sachs has made a huge sacrifice for her, and she has just become mature enough to understand it.) All the while, from Beckmesser's entrance onward, Jurowski has his orchestra crackling and kindling like the start of a bonfire. Then, amid the four joyous lovers at the end of the scene, Finley plays his part of the quintet like a man who just closed another chapter in his life, one where he lost. 

As ever, Finley's vocal values can be taken for granted. "Mein Freund, in holder Jugendzeit" is something of an inside joke, being its own example of master-singing. At the end of the performance, which finds him in fresh, free voice after many hours of singing, Finley receives what well may be the ovation of his career from audience and cast alike.

If nothing else is quite on this level, it is fair to note that opera seldom works on this level at all. The best element of the rest of the production is the relationship of Sachs and Beckmesser. There is an element of true friendship here: they sit together in Act I, and later Beckmesser seems genuinely to expect that Sachs will comfort him after his beating in the riot. But there are obvious, believable tensions, too. Beckmesser remains at the contest to listen to Walther's prize song, and he joins in the singing of Sachs's chorale. Sachs offers him a deep bow at the end of the contest, but Beckmesser ultimately stalks off. Johannes Martin Kränzle gives a finely sung performance. 

The Walther, Marco Jentzsch, is not much of an actor (inquisitive llama being his primary expression), and his voice is thin, rather than expansive, on top. McVicar has strengthened the women's roles. Anna Gabler's Eva deliberately takes off her shawl and brooch at the start so that she can pretend to have lost them, and she plants a sudden, passionate kiss on Walther's lips at the sound of the watchman's horn. Michaela Selinger's Magdalene is even bossier of Eva and David than she is in Wagner's libretto, but the idea here is that they allow her to do it.

Wagner came late to the Glyndebourne Festival. (The only previous Wagner opera there, Tristan und Isolde, did not arrive until 2003.) A few signs of the unaccustomed challenge are in evidence. Certainly there is nothing left to be desired from the orchestral performance. Jurowski, for example, brings a tremendous cheerfulness and industry to the underpinning of Beckmesser's serenade in Act II, the entrance of each instrument making its own expressive effect. But the choral singers, impeccably prepared by Jeremy Bines, are not numerous enough to split off into each competing guild in the final scene. Designer Vicki Mortimer has diminished Wagner's intended effects for Act II and the second scene of Act III by setting them in covered arcades rather than outdoors. There's not a hint of magic in the air. On the other hand, video director François Roussillon and sound supervisor Andy Rose have done their jobs with unobtrusive brilliance. And if the measure of success of a Meistersinger is whether it reduces the viewer to a quivering puddle a few times, this one is a success. spacer


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