Wagner: The Mastersingers of Nuremburg

By Breckbill, David | ARSC Journal, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Wagner: The Mastersingers of Nuremburg


Breckbill, David, ARSC Journal


Wagner: The Mastersingers of Nuremburg. Reginald Goodall conducting the Sadler's Wells Opera, live performance of 10 February 1968, with Margaret Curphey (Eva), Ann Robson (Magdalena), Alberto Remedios (Walther von Stolzing), Gregory Dempsey (David), Norman Bailey (Hans Sachs), Derek Hammond-Stroud (Sixtus Beckmesser), and Noel Mangin (Veit Pogner). Chandos CHAN 3148(4), (4 CDs).

The trajectory of Sir Reginald Goodall's career makes for a grand and moving story. One of his great early successes was presiding over the premiere of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes in 1945, but Goodall's ambitions as a Wagner conductor were mostly thwarted at Covent Garden in the 1950s and especially during Georg Solti's tenure as director there (1961-71). He nevertheless was known behind the scenes as an invaluable, insightful coach for singers preparing Wagner roles. Nearly retired, he was asked to lead The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (sung in Andrew Porter's English translation) for a 1968 production by the London-based Sadler's Wells Opera Company (which within months was to move its base of operations from the Rosebury Avenue Theatre to the London Coliseum and in 1974 would be renamed the English National Opera). The Mastersingers was such a resounding success that practically overnight Goodall became the foremost British Wagner conductor. In that role, he led the legendary Sadler's Wells/ ENO production of the Ring during the course of the 1970s (the complete recording of the Ring first issued on EMI and now available on Chandos was taken from live stage performances during this production). He also led productions of Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal both at the ENO and at the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff (studio recordings in German resulted from the Welsh productions, Tristan for Decca and Parsifal for EMI), and even had the opportunity to conduct Parsifal at Covent Garden in 1971 (this recently appeared on the Royal Opera House's own label as ROHS012). Now Chandos has released a performance of The Mastersingers taken from that 1968 production, and thus we can at last hear the event that launched the distinguished Indian summer of Goodall's career.

Not surprisingly, it turns out to be a considerable performance. One of the perpetual criticisms of Goodall's Wagner from those who did not experience it live (and I must unfortunately count myself among that number) is that the conductor's approach, which favors long-breathed tempi and mellow, richly humane textures that avoid hard edges, makes it difficult for these works to come to life as convincing theater. Musical, psychological, and even spiritual beauties abound, but dramatic volatility and a simulation of spontaneity often seem not to be part of Goodall's intent. Unlike Wagner's more consistently serious works, however, The Mastersingers contains much infectious music that emerges as cheerful and natural even when performed in a patiently loving way. Consequently, on this occasion Goodall's approach is saved from itself by means of the variety built into the score, and by the fact that this work requires a greater amount of activity in staging and interaction between characters than the other Wagner operas Goodall recorded. The moments of pomp or wit emerge with breadth but also with energy and commitment; by contrast, some of the more lyrical and lovely moments--the quintet, the "Prize Song", the Act III Prelude, and numerous shorter passages throughout--possess a numinous beauty that is more effective for being juxtaposed with music endowed with natural vitality.

So uncommonly well integrated is this performance that no individual component or moment can be adequately understood except in connection with Goodall's conception and pacing, Porter's translation, the staging (of which audible traces often survive, if only indirectly through audience reaction), and the singer involved. A striking example of this comes in considering the Hans Sachs of Norman Bailey, who in 1976 recorded the role in German in Solti's first recording of the opera (for Decca in Vienna).

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