Varviso's Meistersinger: Take One
I said that I'd get to Varviso's 1974 Bayreuth Meistersinger later when my post on the Wagner Cube ran long (over Levine's Parsifal, fittingly enough). Here, then, is my opinion. The commentator here who was "impressed" by the orchestral contribution and less so by the singing was, in my view, correct. The problem, of course, is the fact that Wagnerian singing took a major downturn at the end of the 1960s - even on the Green Hill - and it took twenty or so years to begin a recovery, which, even at that, was far from complete. Karl Ridderbusch is the star of the Varviso set, and, while an excellent Hagen, he was not an ideal Sachs. The rest of the cast is, at best, second-rate (including but not limited to Jean Cox' Walther von Stolzing). The choral work, though, is really very good.
Varviso's orchestral contribution is and should be the main draw to this set (though that's misleading, since the other 29 CDs in the Cube might be more of a draw seriatim or otherwise). In a way, I think Varviso's approach is the logical complement to Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1943 Bayreuth set. The latter, though technically primitive (not unlistenable, just not great), shows a concept of really solid internal dignity. Now, I don't mean to imply that oft-cited "granitic" adjective that is usually thrown around when Otto Klemperer is mentioned. I mean that the orchestral contribution is well-honed and balanced. Furtwängler, even in this Wagnerian comedy, brings a fundamental dignity to it. Nothing is overplayed or underplayed. Varviso's approach is similar, but he brings an internal lightness and buoyancy that suits the material just as well as Furtwängler's approach.
It's a quick interpretation, but I wouldn't say that it's unnecessarily or unduly fast. Given the general approach, a slower reading would seem a little out of place. Let me put it another way: It runs quicker than a standard reference version like Von Karajan's 1970 EMI set (which has, oddly enough, a far better cast), but it is still - to my ears - idiomatic. It does, for lack of a more felicitous phrase, glisten and gleam. Varviso's lightness, while avoiding the trap of turning Meistersinger into Figaro or Così, creates an atmosphere that isn't quite as heavy as Karajan's set. One must remember, too, that there is much celebrating in the drama. Varviso manages to affect a sort of festival atmosphere, while matching the moment-by-moment mood of the plot.
That's just my take on it, though, and I'll probably need a few more run-through listenings before I can make a final judgment on it. That's the thing, there are some impressions that can be had quickly and easily, but others require some time to form. Meistersinger is a deceptively difficult music-drama, passing itself off as a comedy, but like the Mozart-DaPonte collaborations, there is much more going on there than mere comedy. It does, then, take some time to form a coherent and reasonably rational opinion of it, just like the rest of Wagner's mature oeuvre.