Three years ago I raved about the qualities of a DVD of 'Meistersinger' starring Wolfgang Brendel as Sachs. I thought it was magnificent. But the present DVD -- recorded in 1970 -- trumps that one; it is better musically and much better dramatically. In fact, this is the most consistently dramatically engaging performance I've ever seen of this opera either onstage or video recording (and I've seen most of the videos and a number of staged productions here and in Europe). Indeed, I'm tempted to say it is the most engaging video production of ANY opera I've seen. Much of the credit goes to the Sachs of Giorgio Tozzi. My surprise was that I had never known he ever sang the role. He is not only the most engaging, human, natural and vocally magnificent Sachs I've ever encountered, he is surrounded by a cast who are both musically and dramatically first-rate. Much of the credit must go to the director for television, Joachim Hess, who took the stage production of the Hamburg Opera and recast it for a television studio recording. The advantage of a studio recording is that we not only get lots of closeups, which of course make the subtleties of the various portrayals all the more lifelike, but there is also sophisticated camera movement, important for a production that features so large a cast and their individual characterizations. I do wish we could be a little clearer about which master was which, but no matter: anyone knowing the opera well would immediately be able to tell Hermann Ortel, say, from Balthasar Zorn. And for others that probably doesn't matter all that much. One does notice that there are no women singers amongst the apprentices (as called for by Wagner's score); they are replaced onstage by young men no doubt for a more lifelike effect.
There are some niggling technical limitations. This was one of the first full-length television opera productions in color. Consequently, the constraints inherent in camera equipment of the time -- only a few years after color TV became available -- causes some quick camera movements to be just a bit blurry. Color, though, is true. Sound is mono but good nonetheless. The playing of the Hamburg Philharmonic under Leopold Ludwig, the Hamburg Opera's longtime music director, is marvelous. The sound mix tends to place the voices in an aural spotlight, but the so-important orchestral score is never lost in the background.
The cast could hardly be bettered for its time. Almost all the main singers were company members of the Hamburg Opera. The only exceptions were Richard Cassilly, a then-much-admired American heldentenor, and Tozzi, another American, long a stalwart of the Metropolitan (and the voice for Rossano Brazzi in the movie of 'South Pacific'). Cassilly is not much of an actor, but his part really just calls for him to stand and sing, and that he does with a beautifully controlled tenor voice that rides over the orchestral sound in such set-pieces as the Prize Song ('Morgenlicht leuchtend'). Arlene Saunders, an American lyrical soprano then a member of the Hamburg company, is a beautiful woman, perhaps no longer a teenager but capable of conveying both the innocence and the romantic longings of Eva. In her scenes with Sachs, she is charming and kind; there is real sexual tension in the scene where she and Sachs discuss his possible entry into the song contest in an effort to win her hand. One particularly funny spot is her facial expression (including crossed eyes) when Beckmesser is making a fool of himself during the singing contest in Act III. Her soprano shines in the Quintet ('Selig wie die Sonne'). Ursula Boese makes a marvelous, rich-voiced Magdalene, more a woman of spirit than a virago. She and David make the most of their comic byplay. Special mention must be made of tenor Gerhard Unger who virtually owned the role of David for twenty-five years and whose portrayal is full of boyish charm and earnestness, not to speak of the ideal vocal qualities called for in the role. This production makes the usual cuts in Wagner's perhaps overlong (for some) opera and one of the victims is a cut in David's delicious first act instruction for Walther of the Master's musical 'tones.' It is, truth be told, usually cut, but I missed hearing it. (I am delighted that in the current Met production it is kept in and Matthew Polenzani as David makes the most of it.) Toni Blankenheim makes a human yet laughable Beckmesser. He sings the role, rather than bawling it as some do. Outstanding among the masters is the black-voiced Ernst Wiemann as Eva's father, Veit Pogner. His first act aria in which he pledges his daughter's hand to the winner of the Song Contest is moving.
Visually this is a traditional production; the extreme care that has been taken to make the sets and costumes seem real is laudable. Everywhere one looks, in say Sachs's workshop, one sees verisimilitude. This even includes, in Sachs's Fliedermonolog, a pretty convincing portrayal of cobbler Sachs working on a pair of shoes with authentic appearing tools and leather. Only in the third act do we have a more generic set depicting the bank of the Pegnitz River, but this is because the stage is filled with masters, apprentices and townspeople, as well as the principal singers. That said, the procession of the apprentices and masters is filled with little details that delight.
One final word about the portrayal of Sachs by Giorgio Tozzi. Not only does he sing musically and dramatically aptly, his acting is, in a word, sensational. He is a handsome strongly-built, broad-shouldered man with an imposingly leonine head, twinkling eyes, mobile and responsive facial expressions, natural and yet complex movements, including little bits of stage business that are inspired -- a look here, a gesture there -- and all the while his dark commanding bass voice is rolling out in unending supply. Musically this is one of the great portrayals of Sachs. Dramatically it is nonpareil.
I urge anyone who loves this work to consider getting this DVD. In spite of its minor technical limitations, it is a revelation.
TT=240 mins (2DVDs); Sound: mono; Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish, Italian; Format 4:3; Region 0 (worldwide)