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Max Lorenz: Wagner's Mastersinger - Hitler's Siegfried

EuroArts // Unrated // January 27, 2009
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted March 2, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
The old adage "it's not what you know, it's who you know" could not find a better example than Max Lorenz, the famous Wagnerian Heldentenor who personified Bayreuth during the Nazi regime. As Max Lorenz: Wagner's Mastersinger - Hitler's Siegfried makes clear, had Lorenz not had the protection of Winifred Wagner, his career most certainly would have perished at the very hands of the movement for which he became a symbol. Lorenz, as was actually more or less known at the time, was gay, though as so many notable gay people did, he entered a marriage of convenience to a Jewish woman (his manager Lotte Appel). Both his sexual orientation and his wife's religion could have spelled certain death under different personal circumstances, but Lorenz' celebrity and connections to the Nazi "in crowd" instead catapulted him to the heights of German stardom during its most notorious era.

Lorenz was born Max Sülzenfuß in 1901 in Dusseldorf and by his 20s was attracting enough attention that he was invited to audition at Bayreuth, the home of the Wagners and the annual Ring Festival. Richard Wagner's son Siegfried, as is mentioned in this piece, wasn't immune to the charms of young men, and Max's affable manner and impressive voice impressed the musical heir. Unfortunately, Lorenz' voice wasn't able to withstand the rigors of a weeklong audition and he quickly realized he didn't yet have the strength to master Wagner's heroic roles. That, however, was just a momentary bump in the road, which soon saw Lorenz gaining national accolades in Germany which led to celebrated performances in New York and London.

By the time he returned to Bayreuth in 1933, he was there to stay for the next several years, becoming his generation's most acclaimed interpreter of such Wagner challenges as Tristan and Siegfried. Lorenz clear Nordic tone and commanding stage presence made him an opera star of the first magnitude, one whose achievements ripple down to today's stars.

While some biographical pieces are to be faulted for having too much point of view, the opposite malady hampers Wagner's Mastersinger. What we get is a 55 minute or so recounting of Lorenz' life and artistic achievements, with very little analysis or insight into what any of it meant. This is especially incredible when you take into account what an iconoclast Lorenz was during the Nazi era. In fact, this piece never really fully discloses the outcome and consequences of Lorenz' trial after being discovered with a young boy at Bayreuth, other than to comment that Hitler himself told Winifred Wagner that Lorenz would be permitted to continue performing after Wagner told Hitler she'd have to close up Valkyrie shop without her most famous tenor. And Lorenz' staunch protection of his wife and Jewish mother-in-law is similarly mentioned only in passing, something which has insult added to injury when a letter from Appel's brother is quoted which seems to imply that Lorenz actually harbored and saved several other Jews during the War years. Why isn't any of this delved into, at least a little?

The other peculiar choice in this documentary is the decision to have long segments of Lorenz singing, which is fine in and of itself. But instead of seeing archival images of the singer himself, we're instead shown long, lingering shots of such current stars as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sitting there, head cocked, as Lorenz' archivally preserved voice pours out of a speaker. While there is some cogent commentary from some of these learned participants (especially tenor Rene Kollo, who gets off a memorable zinger or two), why this particular method of watching them listen is used seems awfully strange.

What is here is a biography of a noted operatic star that is fine as far as it goes. But it's like a shorthand bulleted list found in a printed program that doesn't have enough space for a whole article. We get the highlights, all described quickly and efficiently, but nary an inkling of anything deeper than the surface. It's like a soaring, beautiful voice with no emotion supporting it.


The enhanced 1.78:1 image has a variety of source material and quality varies as a result of that. Contemporary interview and "listening" segments (for wont of a better description) are sharp as a tack, with excellent detail, color and contrast. Various archival footage is in lesser condition. This includes some great rare footage of Lorenz singing on German television in 1962, which looks and sounds pretty good for its age, as well as some rarer footage of Winifred Wagner being interviewed (passable quality), and some other footage of Hitler arriving at Bayreuth one year (quite a bit of damage). Nothing archival is horrible, but don't expect pristine quality here.

The PCM Stereo soundtrack has exactly the same issues as the image: contemporary segments are just fine. Older archival recordings of Lorenz suffer from quite a bit of hiss and the boxy compression that was part and parcel of broadcasts and early recordings from the 1930s. Some of the later archival material sounds relatively robust, at least in comparison to the earlier items. English, French, German and Spanish subtitles are available.

Aside from a nice illustrated booklet contained within the trifold case, there's a nice bonus CD featuring a previously unreleased 1938 Buenos Aires performance of Siegfried. Unfortunately the CD contains only excerpts from Act II, though it does contain all of Act I. Sound quality is "archival," if you're up on modern parlance.

Final Thoughts:
Wagner's Mastersinger could have been a truly exceptional piece with just a little more depth and exploration. Perhaps this had to come in at 55 minutes for television broadcast, but it seems truncated and lacking in real insight as a result. What's here is perfectly fine, it's just not very revelatory. Any opera fans, especially Wagnerians, should Rent It for an evening's diversion.

"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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