Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Wagner, As We Remember Him

May 24, 2011


One of the great things about the Metropolitan Opera’s recent expanded presence both in movie theaters, via the Live in HD Broadcast series, and on the radio, via SiriusXM, is the increasing number of great performances from both series that subsequently become available for the first time for closer inspection on both DVD and audio formats. I've featured some of these before, but there are two recent audio releases that bear further attention not only for the remarkable quality of the performances, but also their timeliness in terms of the endless kerfuffle that surrounds nearly all aspects of the Met. Lately the hand-wringing over current music director James Levine, his health, and the fantasies about the Met after he has moved on have reached a fever pitch. As I've written about before, I find all of this attention a bit ridiculous and distasteful. But with all the concurrent hoopla over Levine's 40th anniversary at the house, two of the most recent Sony releases from the company's extensive broadcast archive ironically provide an interesting footnote to the hue and cry.

The two recordings in question are both works by Wagner. The first is a 1968 recording of Die Walküre conducted by Berislav Klobucar who had filled in for an ailing Herbert von Karajan when this broadcast was held. The casting and vocal performances are unparalleled with Brigit Nilsson as Brünnhilde, Thomas Stewart as Wotan, Leonie Rysanek as Seglinde, Jon Vickers as Siegmund, and Christa Ludwig as Fricka. The other Wagner offering from Sony and the Met is a Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from 1972 conducted by Thomas Schippers. This cast includes Pilar Lorengar as Eva, James King as Walther von Stolzing, Benno Kusche as Beckmesser and Theo Adam as Hans Sachs. Both of these performances aired around the same time as James Levine was making his house debut in 1971. And while Wagner's music had a long history at the Met prior to this time, Levine's recognition as a specialist in all things Wagner was still off in the future. Since then, many conductors have led Wagner's operas at the Met, but there is little question now that Wagner's operas are near and dear to Levine's heart. He has personally helmed most of the new productions and major revivals of Wagner's operas since taking over as music director there in 1976 and his mark on these works at the Met is indelible.

But if one is looking for clues of what the future holds, what better place to start than with these recordings, offering a state-of-the-art view of Wagner at the Met in the years immediately preceding Levine's take over. Of course, the vocal performances are out of this world. Nilsson is at her best as are Stewart, and Rysanek in the Walküre performance. But with these riches, the orchestra performances can be surprisingly scrappy at times with rough tidbits in the most exposed moments. Levine's Wagner legacy at the Met has come mostly from the pit where his attention to the house's world class orchestra has created a richness and shine to the ensemble's sound, especially in this corner of the opera repertory. No doubt this is an asset, but there is something to be said for the vitality in these earlier recordings when the house orchestra didn't necessarily share the reputation it does today. Schippers and Klobucar both manage to produce something that may not be as polished as what audiences have come to expect under Levine's guidance today, but there is no lack of mission or energy in either of their performances. Some grit can be a good thing and both of these recordings avoid the kind of stasis that can plague the more controlled and refined playing that now dominates. Is this what Wanger at the Met will sound like in Levine's absence? Most likely not, because there is no going back. But both of these excellent offerings suggest that there are many different ways of doing things and both come recommended.


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