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S & H Opera Review

Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Soloists, Choruses and Orchestra of Zürich Opera/Franz Welser-Möst. RFH, Monday, June 21st, 2004 (CC)

Concert performances of Wagner’s masterpiece Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg do not come along every day, still less ones that feature the great José van Dam as Sachs. It was an enticing prospect but almost immediately doubts surface - just how old is José van Dam? Has Franz Welser-Möst improved at all? A mixed but generally impressive LSO concert at the Barbican in February implied all might not be lost as far as the young conductor is concerned.

Alas, for the most part, it was. This was a Meistersinger that was superbly played (the Zürich Opera Orchestra is an excellent band, especially the strings) and which included some memorable vocal contributions, although not all were memorable for the right reasons.

So what happens when you put a musically inferior conductor (inferior to whom? - most) in front of a skilled orchestra? A strange feeling of disinterest is the answer. The Overture immediately revealed the Zürich Orchestra’s warm sound and its lovely velvety pianissimo. It also revealed timpani with little or no definition and a conductor who was unwilling to ‘give’ in recognition of the music’s flow. Something was already suspicious, in that the clear first-division status of the orchestra was at odds with some scrappy ensemble, especially in the light of Welser-Möst’s textbook (not in the positive sense) technique, almost as if some ragged entries were on purpose. Surely not. The introduction to Act II fuelled the debate, with some superb discipline, yet distinctly under-powered woodwind trills.

Welser-Möst did manage to get the orchestra to play down when necessary for the singers, to his credit. And ‘when necessary’, in reference to José van Dam’s Sachs, is just about all the time. Van Dam is no longer young, and though Wagner’s cobbler is mature, he’s not ready for his pension-book just yet. Van Dam was born in 1940, making the present assumption bravery almost beyond belief. Right from the start, van Dam’s tone was woolly (with lots of air around the notes), uncentred, and the lower notes were no longer really there. Worst of all was the loss of the authority born of wisdom that is so central to the character of Sachs - here replaced by a rather doddery old man whose ideas might just as well have been born of senility.

Sachs was at his best in the ruminative ‘Fliedermonolog’ of Act II (‘Was duftet doch der Flieder ..’, ironically spoilt at the beginning by ragged orchestral horn playing). Here van Dam projected the requisite feeling of resignation. The problems began when the orchestra played at mezzo-forte, at which level one could not hear van Dam at all. It was left to Act III before we could hear any of his art (the passage when he states he does not want to share King Marke’s fate, and the orchestra quotes from Tristan). The ‘Wahn’ monologue brought surprising strength on the first cry of that word, and he floated the voice nicely on the word ‘Johannisnacht’. Yet it was sad to hear the strain on his voice increase towards the end.

A substandard Sachs and conductor seems an equation for disaster, yet there was much else of interest and, at times, delight. Matti Salminen was a superb Veit Pogner, blessed with a large voice and superb diction, and silky legato. And the ladies held much delight. Their initial exchanges in the church revealed complementary voices, with Brigitte Pinter’s rich, contralto-ey mezzo (as Magdalene) contrasted with Petra-Maria Schnitzer’s light and bright-toned soprano Eva. Indeed, this Eva was so right because she was able to convince the audience of her impetuous youth, particularly in the second act. Pinter, an Abbado prodigy (his personal recommendation enabled her to attend New York’s Juilliard School) had such a lovely voice one wished Wagner had written more for this part.

As David, Christoph Strehl presented an interpretation in the making. His first ‘Fanget an!’ was the weakest I have ever heard, and as he sang on there was the distinct impression that just more power and he would be on his way - there is an interpretation here bursting to get out. He was, of course, not helped by being juxtaposed with Peter Seiffert’s Walther von Stolzing. Seiffert is an experienced Wagnerian, having taken his Lohengrin to Bayreuth as recently as 2003. His singing was, if not the most powerful, certainly agile (he can do decorations very impressively) and his lyricism in his big moments was most affecting.

Beckmessers can make or break a Meistersinger. The experienced Michael Volle seemed determined not to caricature the role and as such to begin with seemed rather banal. Yet as time went on, his Beckmesser, more human than some, won me over.

Notable among the rest of the Meistersingers was Rolf Haunstein’s Kothner: plenty of character but a little wobbly. A special mention should go to the small role of Nightwatchman, here taken by the young up-and-coming bass Günther Groissböck, who only this season joined Zürich opera (he is also booked to sing Titurel in Strasbourg). He has a lovely, yet large voice that is completely focussed. Someone to watch out for.

The chorus was generally excellent, and impressive though the Zürich Opera Chorus was in the final pages, without a master-Wagnerian at the helm it was well-nigh impossible for this passage to carry the triumphal weight it really should bear.

In addition, this was the most humourless Meistersinger imaginable. True, Wagner’s humour is not the sort to send one’s legs into the air, but Meistersinger does sparkle magnificently. Usually. It was impossible not to wonder whether anyone in the audience had either read the plot or was watching the surtitles, but the fault in the end lay squarely at Welser-Möst’s feet. That give and take, that elasticity, that was lacking in the Overture to Act I was missing elsewhere, also, and the music was liable to sag (towards the end of Act II, for example). Certainly there are times that Wagner makes it impossible to erase his genius (the great Quintet, for example), but Welser-Möst made us wait for the famous bits - and then, more often than not, disappointed. On the present evidence his success in today’s musical world, be it in Zürich or in Cleveland, is incomprehensible.

Colin Clarke


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