As usual with filmed opera there is always a sense of what might have been. At best there seems to always be some element or two, or three, or four, that prevents the show from being totally satisfying. This film of Wagner's 'Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg' is a classic case in point.
You have Christian Thielemann in the pit, a conductor who is regarded by many, including myself, as the greatest living interpreter of late romantic German opera; you have the Vienna Philharmonic doubling as the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, it gets no better than that; on a lesser level you have a penny plain, old-fashioned set by Otto Schenk, from a 34 year old production. It isn't one of those panoramic extravaganzas as you'd see at the Metropolitan Opera but it is charming, and aside from the astro turf in Act 3, satisfactorily fulfills the visual requirements for a small scale production of this vast opera. I should mention one gaff in the costuming, those terrible hats for the ladies in Act 3, in fact, the costuming for the chorus, generally speaking is a pretty mediocre. Schenk's productions are never very exciting in the couture department. And the skirmish at the end of Act 2 is directorially uninspired.
The casting of the two 'young' lovers is where the problem arises with this film. Ricarda Merbeth, Eva, is an unremarkable, matronly singer with a wobbly voice one size too large for this part. She is also not a very pleasant singer to watch up close. She makes some fairly alarming faces, bordering on gurning, when she sings, at times looking as if she were in the dentist's chair having her teeth cleaned. Her mouth is huge and it's open most of the time, even when not singing herself.
Her acting skills are for the big stage, not film. She stands and delivers in a stentorian fashion. She isn't an insuperable blot on the cast but her every entrance elicited an unrehearsed groan from my mouth. Johan Botha looks like his weight must be hovering around 350 lbs, but he sings like the highest angel and is the vocal embodiment of the young knight/lover. I found myself enjoying much of this film by shutting my eyes and just listening, it helped. Fortunately Botha has a sunny and charming personality which suits this part well and, though you never forget his size, he is not as irritating as his Eva.
The rest of the leads are splendid, notably the wonderful, funny and handsome Hans Sachs of Falk Struckmann. I haven't heard him sing this well in a long time. He seems to have overcome a period of wobbliness and emerged in prime vocal condition. Struckmann sings all the major monologues very well, putting it all into the last scene of Act 3, a noted killer, but the voice sounds easeful to the very end of this gargantuan bass-baritone role. The other great performance comes from Adrian Eröd as Beckmesser. This man is funny and he sings beautifully. The surprise performance was from a great new bass from Estonia named Ain Anger. He's a tall, young, handsome man and sings like he's destined to be the next great Wagner/Verdi bass. He also has a strong top voice and made me think he will someday be a fine Sachs himself, and perhaps even a Wotan. He's in the Hans Hotter mould, vocally. A true bass with a strong top and excellent dramatic skills. The only problem, if it can be called that, is that he looks like his daughter's (Eva's) younger brother. Michael Schade is very good as the young apprentice, David, though a bit old and neckless for a young buck, but his physical appearance is in no way an irritant.
Magdalena, Eva's nurse, is beautifully sung by a young mezzo, Michaela Selinger, who looks a good 10 years younger than her charge, making me wish she were singing Eva and not the other way round.
The Big Moment is, for me, the exquisite Quintet in Act 3. Eva is crucial here and Merbeth does absolutely nothing in the area of vocal nuance, and she hasn't a ghost of a trill. Once the other four begin to sing it gets better but Merbeth has a huge, noisome kind of voice that over-rules all the others; what's worse, she is placed forward of the rest and her over-singing dominates this great ensemble and sucks all the poignance from it. It was a great pity that the Vienna State Opera couldn't have hired Anja Harteros or Dorothea Röschmann, both of whom would have been exquisite as Eva.
It's a great shame because the other singers and Thielemann are splendid.
Having written all that, this is probably the most satisfying filmed M'singer that I know of. Certainly better than Wolfgang Wagner's production from Bayreuth in the 1980s, and more enjoyable than the regie theatre cartoon production by Katharina Wagner from the Bayreuth Festival a couple of years ago. The Barenboim film falls between these two stools. It's sort-of traditional but also rather sterile looking in a modernistic sense, especially Hans Sachs' white cubicle of a shop which resembles a cell in a mental institution. Barenboim has a finer Eva in Emily Magee and Peter Seiffert is almost up to the level of greatness (vocally) as Johan Botha, but he is also resembles a sumo wrestler.
I'd highly recommend this Viennese film if you are not averse to a traditional, slightly dull/cosy production with an unsightly leading couple, indeed a downright bad Eva that may keep some collectors from buying this otherwise quite outstandingly cast M'singer.
A late addenda, five years later! If you want to know what the fuss about Christian Thielemann is all about try to find his performances from radio broadcasts here and there. The most glorious of all Meistersingers in my extensive collection is his live performance from the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1999. It is astonishingly joyous and alive, the audience even laughs when they are supposed to! No po-faced worshipfulness like you find in Bayreuth, Vienna and other shrines of Wagnerian performance. And Jan-Hendrik Rootering's Hans Sachs, otherwise unavailable on commercial release (he isn't charismatic enough for the bean counters at the big labels, I suppose) is magnificent. Gösta Winbergh's Walther is also in a class of his own, even surpassing Sándor Kónya for Kubelik in vocal beauty and soul-commitment, if I can coin a phrase there. The cherry on the top is Eike Wilm Schulte's nigh-perfect Beckmesser. He sings beautifully when he needs to but is also sublimely funny and cracks the audience up a number of times. The Quintet is sublime into the bargain, led by the usually rather nondescript Nancy Gustafson who absolutely shines in this performance as Eva. René Pape and Michael Schade round out that extraordinary cast. This was a one-off and I'm lucky to have snagged these old tapes. The point is, Thielemann is On Fire when he's in the pit and not under pressure to live-up to his reputation with microphones and cameras running and a big recording or film contract hanging over his head. That night in Chicago he was In To It, even more than he was in 2000 at Bayreuth, I have that one too, when one can only imagine the pressure weighing down on the heads of all concerned to be Perfect. I'll skip perfect in preference to heart and soul, and great singing of course.
I mention this only as an example of how to suss out the secret to adding truly great recordings of anything to your library. Keep your recording machinery well-oiled and your eyes peeled and your gut instincts fine-tuned.
And don't give critics too much credence. Haha. Each to his own tastes!