Wednesday, 1 April 2015


That's actually a leap over the beltane bonfire on midsummer night, a Johannissprung, rather than a celebration of the day itself, but I felt quite like jumping high after 10 weeks with the Opera in Depth students on Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, culminating in our own Johannistag two Mondays back, a good few months before the eagerly-anticipated time itself.

Our constant companions have been three DVDs and snippets from the seven recordings I possess, and over time it became clear which stood out among the others. None of the films matched up to Richard Jones's ENO production throughout. Stefan Herheim's Salzburg staging is far too mannered to home in on the human qualities of its leading characters; we watched wildly overacting chorenes and/or actors around David in Act One and an expressionistic handling of Act Two's opening scenes. McVicar's Glyndebourne show is beautifully filmed by Francois Roussillon, but I already knew its shortcomings, namely some serious miscasting - less in Gerald Finley's Sachs than in the Eva and Walter - and a cramped , unfocused final scene. I used it for the scenes with Beckmesser, since Johannes Martin Kränzle is the real star.

The cameraman for Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Zurich Meistersinger wanders all over the place and tries too many arty angles, but there's definitely a core here. When I saw that team in concert on the South Bank, José van Dam's Sachs seemed a little blunted in timbre, but he's such a sympathetic actor and makes us believe so in Sachs's serious disillusionment that the decision to help his love-rival seems all the more heroic. And who could not warm to Peter Seiffert's Walter? Michael Volle's Beckmesser is all the better, too, for being a real person, the proper mixture of arrogance, nastiness and insecurity. More gravitas needed from Welser-Möst, but there's plenty in an oddly disconcerting - but not unjubilant - final scene with hints of Regensburg's neoclassical Valhalla and the chorus in contemporary casual dress (I see our Lottie in there from time to time, too).

When I compared Parsifals for Radio 3's Building a Library, the leader was crystal-clear: Kubelik's studio recording with a perfect cast, only buried for decades because of Karajan's jealous machinations. And Kubelik's 1967 Meistersinger comes out on top for me, too. I wouldn't chuck out my Karajan, especially for the midsummer night tenderness of Act 2 and the Staatskapelle Dresden sound which seems to move him to more warmth than usual. Norman Bailey is good for majestic Goodall and majestic for bumpy Solti, while the old Kempe moves so easily and has the best Eva in Elisabeth Grümmer. But Kubelik's cast is the best overall, and while Gundula Janowitz is a bit tremulous in the bigger Wagnerian moments, she lights up the conversations and the best quintet since Elisabeth Schumann, Lauritz Melchior, Friedrich Schorr et al for Barbirolli. So three more cheers for Arts Archives in keeping this recording in the catalogues.

We've all of us, I think, been on a high - one student said he left every week walking on air - and we've also been lucky in picking one of the great operatic achievements of recent years. Richard Jones again showed incredible generosity in coming to talk; I little thought, years back, when he picked my brains on Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel, that he'd return the complement with three visits to date. It would be indiscreet to cite his characteristically unexpected views on wider issues, but I can precis a few highlights.

I started by asking him if he found himself moved on first night, as so many of us were again and again. Oh no, he replied, much too worried. About? The minute and a half's scene change in Act Three: it had never been right in rehearsals and he couldn't rest until it worked on the night. He talked a bit about backstories, a part of his work I know from what singers told me about the Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier and from what he himself had told the class about Gloriana. Chief surprise this time was to find out that Sachs's mistress had been absent from Nuremberg for six weeks, which was why he found himself more than usually susceptible to young Eva's charms.

We asked him about changes since the Welsh National Opera production. The last-act set, for a start, and the romping of the principals, finally allowed - Beckmesser included - to step Mozart-like out of character as they held up their historical figures on the placards. And I didn't remember Beckmesser being starkers with only a mandolin to cover his privates. That was thanks to Andrew Shore's willingness, he told us: he'd seen him naked, very movingly, in Tippett's King Priam, suggested it to him and Shore agreed. We must get him along to talk, said Richard: such a nice man, and so many interesting ideas especially about English text (Shore's Beckmesser pictured below with Iain Paterson's revelatory Sachs by Catherine Ashmore for ENO).

Classic Jones: 'the libretto is a bit Rupert Bear' (the other analogy out of the two choicest it would be indiscreet to reproduce). I asked him why Eva's arch line about 'the trouble I have with men' wasn't supertitled: he doesn't like it. Did the audience laugh at it? Not much, I said. Good. And he doesn't care at all for Sachs's self-regarding Tristan/King Marke reference. Would he do it again? No, it doesn't leave enough scope for the director's ideas. The Ring he definitely wants to tackle once more. When he visited to talk about Gloriana, he was looking forward, albeit  to Tristan und Isolde. Now he's rejected it: he spent two months with those two characters in the second act, and couldn't decide what to do with them. Christof Loy's Royal Opera production got it pretty much right, he thought, and that decided it.

I know what big operatic project we can expect next, because we had a dramaturgical pow-wow about it in Carluccio's near the Barbican: Musorgsky's Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera with Bryn Terfel and Pappano (this is hardly confidential news as I've seen it touted in various biographies). Despite agreeing that the Polish act was so wonderful, brought a different atmosphere to the piece, he's since decided on the 1869 original. Apparently my thoughts on the bells in three scenes have been helpful. We talked Sondheim - 'his' cast had just been on a reunion outing to see the film, would love to have been a fly on the wall then - and he's interested in Follies, having had a long chat with the Old Vic's Matthew Warchus (I think because Warchus had done it in New York). Imminently, of course, there's an adaptation of Kafka's The Trial at the Young Vic with Rory Kinnear: our doughty director, after having watched 2000 episodes of a certain telly classic for a putative project in the States, has just spent two weeks agonising over the novel's adaptation.

Meanwhile the opera class moves on to two summer specials: Rossini's Guillaume Tell, which I'd originally thought of devoting a whole term to, and Strauss's Intermezzo, in anticipation of Garsington's production.

Do join us at the fabulous Frontline Club or leave a message here - I needn't send it live - if you want to contact me about it. We kick off again on the 20th. And listen to my Building a Library on Sibelius's Fourth Symphony on Saturday (I wrote something about the background on The Arts Desk). It will be up thereafter in perpetuity* and downloadable as a podcast, so plenty of time to hear it.

*14/4: Here it is in 'clip' form, which presumably outlives the 28 day format. 


Susan Scheid said...

I love your opening image, which captures perfectly, as of course you intended, the joyful spirit of this post. As you described the response of your students, and in particular the one who said he left each week walking on air, I did think how fun it would be to hear from class members about what the experience of your Opera in Depth class was like. On other fronts, I very much look forward to listening in to your upcoming BoL.

Susan Scheid said...

David: I've now had the opportunity to listen to the Sibelius 4 BoL/CD Review and am sending on huge applause and thanks. Needless to say, I've added your selection to my "to buy" list. You demonstrated SO many fascinating differences in conductor interpretations--remarkable how wide-ranging. As just one priceless moment, your audio clips of the "glocken." interpretations make clear without doubt which one is correct.

David said...

Thanks, Sue - had I not received quite a few warm messages by e, some from unexpected sources, it would feel a little lonely out here. But your sincerity is always appreciated.

I must say that I haven't listened to the whole, but had to dip from abroad because I was still worried about the results of the cold that had plagued me when I recorded, and to my surprise it didn't show in the snippet I heard. But oh, the agony of finding the chords not joining and having to retake so many sentence openings. Usually I whizz through it.

Susan Scheid said...

That you had a cold was not the least bit noticeable. I had passed on the BoL link to my music conversation group, and I think you'll appreciate Brian's response:

"I did finally get a moment to listen to David N's Sibelius 4 program this evening. It is an excellent program. I find this one of the "toughest" (in the best sense) symphonies around. As Sibelius says, the music is totally pared back. There is not a note too many.

"The score I have is equivocal on whether tubular bells or glockenspiel is called for. At the start, before page 1, the list of instruments includes simply the German word for bells: glocken. But when you turn to the fourth movement it is clearly listed as glockenspiel. But who knows, that could be the work of a copyist in the publishing house. The Blomstedt version with tubular bells does sound unusual to my ear, but that may just be a question of familiarity.

"The only recording I have of this symphony is the old Berglund one and it is certainly much slower at the end than the Oramo. I hope I am not being too easily swayed by David Nice, but I do agree that the Oramo end is better than the Berglund and makes more musical sense."

David said...

Thanks as ever for your support in relaying Brian's commentary, Sue. I may seem pathetically hungry for approval, but as writers, we work in the dark - which is why I teach - and it's more a question of feedback and exchange that I like.

I think I may have said so in the programme, but the manuscript says 'glockenspiel' so it would seem to be the printing that made the error of 'glocken'. I could have continued on this theme - Davis Mark 1 hedges his bets and has both, Beecham had a specially loud kind of glockenspiel invented for his recording. I'm in no doubt personally that the smaller instrument facilitates the dance: and the livelier the dance, the greater and more powerful the fall.

One of the unexpected folk I heard from was Philip Borg-Wheeler, viola-player with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and excellent writer, who said that for him Berglund, with whom he worked on that first recording, was still supreme for him in Sibelius - but that the second half of his finale did rather let his Fourth down.