The predictable problem with this film of Richard Wagner's 'Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg' is the typical mish-mash of the splendid with the mediocre and the occasionally misconceived element. Very few opera recordings achieve perfection and almost no opera films get anywhere near it. This one gets close. The barriers to greatness in this Viennese production are countable on one hand which is saying something very positive about the over all excellence of the final product.
There are some great aspects to this show. The first is the conducting of Christian Thielemann, who is considered by many, including me, to be the greatest living exponent of 19th century Germanic opera. His leadership of this performance is finely nuanced and beautiful from start to finish. Second, he has the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, aka the Vienna Philharmonic, who play like gods, something they don't always do if they don't like the conductor. They obviously adore Thielemann. Finally, the cast is largely splendid, with three outstanding performances from three of the leads and excellence from the balance of the cast, with two very glaring exceptions, well, one and a half.
The half exception is the South African tenor, Johan Botha, who sings the hero, Walther von Stolzing, a wandering knight who comes to town and wants to learn to sing properly so he can win the hand of the beautiful (euphemistically speaking as it turns out) Eva Pogner, daughter of the goldsmith and leading citizen, Veit Pogner. The problem is, Mister Botha weighs about 350lbs and moves like the Michelin Tire man. But he sings like the most heavenly vision of a knight errant and dream lover you can imagine. He is vocally perfect in this role and it would be hard to imagine anyone topping his performance here. And he has charm, he's just enormous and impossible to take seriously. So I just shut my eyes and listened to his singing and all was well, almost.
The almost comes in with Ricarda Merbeth's matronly and frightening looking Eva. She is no actress and is a mediocre singer, though she doesn't ruin anything she doesn't enhance anything either. Her voice is too big for this role and I find it impossible to believe that the epicenter of the opera world, the Vienna State Opera, could not find one or two more suitable, younger, lighter-voiced sopranos to play this part, especially as it was being filmed!
Falk Struckmann is superb as Hans Sachs; funny, handsome and wise. Adrian Eröd is also great as Sixtus Beckmesser, the thwarted buffoon of the opera. He is extremely funny and a very good physical actor, not to mention a fine singer. Ain Anger, a young, tall, dark and handsome Estonian bass, is a rising star and is a delight as Veit Pogner, though he looks more like his daughter's younger brother than her papa. Michael Schade is a little too pudgy for the randy young apprentice, David, but he sings beautifully and his chubbiness does not annoy.
Otto Schenk's 34 year old production is intimate, atmospheric and a refreshing relief from all the regie theater rubbish being bandied about by self-proclaimed genius producers these days. The sets and costumes nicely recreate medieval Nürnberg, though I can't imagine where they came up with the idea that those hats for the ladies in Act 3 fit in with the rest of the production. They are ridiculous, more like something for 'My Fair Lady' than 'Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg'.
The camera focuses almost solely on the stage action, mixing close-ups with full stage shots and the occasional medium range for ensembles. No bouncing back to the pit for vanity shots of the conductor, except in the Preludes and the endings of each act. Very nicely filmed in that regard. The sound and picture quality are excellent.
Highly recommended in spite of a rotund romantic lead and an 'ingenue' whose facial expressions when she sings make her appear as though she were in the dentist's chair having her teeth cleaned.
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