Thu, Feb 17, 2005 - Page 15 News List

Classical DVD Reviews

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NURNBERG
Metropolitan Opera
Conductor: James Levine
Deutsche Grammophon 073 0949

The last few years have seen the appearance of a range of opera DVDs, many very fine. But few can compare with the extraordinary new Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg from The Metropolitan Opera, New York, in a performance dating from 2001. Watching something like this really can change your life.

Richard Wagner's Meistersinger is the greatest example in European culture of the Romantic era's fascination with the Middle Ages. It's a benign dream of social harmony before the arrival of what Marx termed the "cash nexus." It also displays Protestant Germany in its many facets, art with its roots in nature, and the creative process everywhere. Wagner without Meistersinger is heroic, dynamic and very frequently overwhelming, but with it he becomes incontestably congenial as well.

James Levine, with a smile both benign and ecstatic, conjures up wonders from the Metropolitan orchestra, the true stars of this 2001 production -- the vorspiele, played in the hushed dark, are glories in themselves. But when the curtain goes up on the beautiful sets (which for Act Two gets instant applause) and the soloists begin their long tasks, enjoyment only increases. This is an opera about music itself and here music of the highest order is given a treatment that avoids all temptations to be surprising or incongruous, but is offered instead in a naturalistic style the composer would surely have been delighted with.

Few will complain about the colorful crowd scenes, but for me it was the more introspective ones -- Act One, and Act Three, Scene One -- that were most telling. The latter in particular is beautiful beyond belief, culminating in a Quintet where the looks on the singers' faces tell even more than their entranced voices convey.

Surprisingly, the soloists are in some ways inappropriate to their roles. Walther is too large, Eva and David insufficiently young, Sacks possibly past his peak as a singer, and so on. But with the inspiration at such a high level it really doesn't matter. And this is typical of opera -- the potential musical rewards are so huge that audiences have always been prepared to make allowances. The fat lady -- not in evidence here -- was always welcome if she alone could give expression to the full splendor of the score.

James Morris as Sachs, wise and sympathetic in a way Wagner's enemies have never been able to credit, leads an all-star cast. Ben Heppner makes a marvelous Walther, puzzled and diffident even while remaining vocally thrilling. Rene Pape is a sympathetic Pogner, while Karita Mattila overcomes all obstacles to create a compelling Eva. High marks, too, for Matthew Polenzani's good-natured David and Jill Grove's genial Magdalene. But the acting prize must go to Thomas Allen whose Beckmesser -- trotting, wincing, flashing false smiles -- would be Oscar material if this were a Hollywood film. But these days opera singers on DVD really do need to be near-flawless -- never before have their performances been recorded for posterity in such detail.

All in all, humanity is the hallmark of this magnificent production, as manifest in the warm yet ringing orchestral playing as in the conviction and contentment radiated by the singers.

The avalanche of recent DVDs featuring the late Carlos Kleiber as conductor includes a 1987 version of Johann Strauss' operetta Die Fledermaus from the Bavarian State Opera. The bottom-pinching absurdities of bourgeois high jinks are at the heart of this alcoholic confection, replete with head-spinning waltzes, a frantic polka and endless jokes about hangovers and delirium tremens. It may have some memorable tunes, but after Meistersinger it's like a mosquito's whine after a lion's roar. Sexual repression is at the heart of it, of course. Nevertheless, if you like the frivolous music and can tolerate the sight of the middle classes at play, you'll have no complaints about this high-spirited and colorful production.

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