Friday, 28 May 2010
So what is it, the tree under which cobbler Hans Sachs sits and reflects in Act 2 of Wagner's Die Meistersinger, praising its scent 'so mild, so strong and full'? Does it matter? Well, it does to me, because now that I've reached the fourth of ten City Lit classes on the opera - what a luxury - we can walk out and smell the lilacs. Flieder was originally the German for 'elder'; but when the lilac was introduced - some time after the period which Meistersinger is supposed to depict - it was called 'spanische Flieder' ('Spanish elder'). As a note I found on the net tells us, 'eventually, the 'Spanish' part was dropped and lilac was simply called "Flieder" while elder was called by its alternate name, "Holunder" '.
Pedantry? I insist not. Anyway, if lilac is an anachronism in the Nuremberg of the Mastersingers, elder, I'm told, wouldn't have been in bloom on 'Johannistag'. The above illustration and the one below, from a wonderful site devoted entirely to antique postcards of Wagner's operas, confirm the hunch. And gardening doyenne Deborah van der Beek wrote to me that 'lilac sounds more likely and very Victorian, elder being a shade catty and rather sneezy.' To complicate matters, there should also be a lime tree in any staging of Act 2, but that's by Pogner's house, while the Flieder is in front of Sachs's cobblery.
But the music's the thing, and of course it's the perfumed airs of a summer night as well as the inspiration of what Sachs has heard Walter sing in St Catherine's Church earlier that day which matter. Two horns waft the scent, and the phrase of infinite yearning dogs Sachs's meditation. I went through half a dozen versions, and easily the most tender, the oakiest and the best phrased was Norman Bailey's on the much-maligned (and occasionally miscast, but which recording isn't somewhere?) Solti recording. Our Norm kicked off my Wagner craze singing Sachs under Gibson in Scotland in the early 1980s, and I still count his interpretation, simple goodness personified, as one of the top ten, top five probably, I've seen of anything.
Alas, Norm's not on YouTube, but two will do. One is an historic interpretation to set alongside the much more famous Friedrich Schorr - a very distinguished bass sound, this, too, from Michael Bohnen:
The other is from the man we expect so much from next month when Richard Jones's Welsh National Opera production is unveiled in Cardiff, Bryn Terfel. I listened to a rather soft-grained Fliedermonolog he recorded with Abbado, but this is better, and actually suits the usually ponderous Thielemann well, too. Like Norman, Bryn brought tears to my eyes. Enjoy.
And the latest news is that Welsh men of a certain age, preferably bearded, are being asked to hie down to Cardiff's Millennium Centre to be photographed for Richard Jones's wall of masters. What fun! And I wonder if he's going to turn the whole thing into a kind of Eisteddfod. It would fit. Can't wait.