> Opera and Oratorio
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Haller, Breedt; R. D. Smith, Sonn, Henschel, Dohmen, Zeppenfeld, Pursio; Rundfunkchor and Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Janowski. Text and translation. Pentatone PTC 5186 402 (4)
No conductor who decides to perform all ten of Wagner's canonical operas can expect to have an automatic success with each of them. But there is no question that Marek Janowski, who is in the middle of just such a project, shows a special affinity for Die Meistersinger with this live recording made in Berlin in June 2011. Each of Wagner's three long acts is given a continually engaging shape. Janowski's timings, by the clock, are not quicker than those of most other conductors, but the opera has never seemed so short and light. It's a canny performance, in which careful delineation is made of the moments where the characters are meant to be singing as part of the story. David's precise instructions in Act I about the rules of songwriting are delivered in a flowing, intimate manner, but when he does an audition of his composed song in the workshop in Act III, he really performs it. The banter among the masters in Act I is blithe and rapid, but Walther slows it down for the first time with his over-eager attempt to impress everyone at "Am stillen Herd." In Act III, there is a real differentiation between the first two verses of Walther's tentative improvisation of a prize song in his lesson with Sachs and the way he completes it in Eva's presence. Beckmesser is required to play it both ways in his Act II serenade, with real-life distractions finding their way into the vocal quality of his ostensibly polished performance. The characters emerge fully rounded, both passionate and full of humor. I've never heard a performance that so consistently and successfully reminds us that Die Meistersinger is meant to be a comedy. And Janowski sets it all up perfectly with an overture of Figaro-like busy-ness.
Janowski has brought off the type of interpretation that Georg Solti (in his second recording of the work, another live-in-concert performance) attempted to produce in Chicago in 1995. Solti, in his emphasis on the conversational aspects of the opera, ended up shortchanging the lyricism, even though his cast had more vocal glamour than Janowski's. But Janowski knows just when to be rhapsodic. Robert Dean Smith understands both the uncertainty and formality of Walther in the early scenes and the rapture he shows with Eva later in the story. Dietrich Henschel gives a detailed performance of Beckmesser, letting us hear how the character is always suspicious that he's being cheated. Albert Dohmen, as Sachs, gains in stregth and vocal character as the long role builds. He also brings a beautiful color to the opening of Act III, somehow suggesting Wagner's stage direction that Sachs should play the entire scene without stirring in his chair, and he manages to show us how embarrassed Sachs is to be honored at the festival. But he certainly doesn't back away from his contentious final solo. Edith Haller's Eva is characterized more by Janowski's orchestra than by the singer. It's the orchestra that defines her in Act III, showing us how beautiful she is in her finery but then immediately catching her melancholy mood. Georg Zeppenfeld is a polished and elegant Pogner; he and Janowski take their cue from the delightful spring day. Everyone in the quintet sings beautifully, and lightly enough so that each line can be heard.
Even the choral singers differentiate their "real" singing of hymns and chorales from their everyday chatter. The men are rhythmically precise, excited and in tune for the opening of the final scene. The opera is very touching in all the right ways, and it is good to be reminded that for centuries now people have already been worried about traditions slipping away. The orchestral playing is brilliant, with the violins alternately virtuoso, tender and sweeping. The recorded sound is extraordinary; Super Audio sound is making a good play to keep music-lovers from settling for downloaded sound. One's heart soars to see the extensive program notes in the booklet, then quickly crashes at the tough slog of getting through them.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN