Say what you want about Georg Solti’s conducting—broad strokes, big decibels, more heat than heart, and hey, does this guy ever relax? But with Wagner, he electrifies where certain philosopher-kings of the podium merely brood. And yeah, he can relax. In his last go-’round at this sprawling comedy, the back-slapping was hearty enough to raise welts, but now he’ll take the occasional breather from all the midsummer madness to smell die Blumen. London Records, celebrating a half-century as Sir Georg’s partners in crime, has given him benchmark engineering, with a wide, deep orchestral spread and instrumental detail always clear around the voices. The transition from overture to cathedral chorus has never sounded so exultant, the Act 2 finale so cleanly focused, and the Dance of the Apprentices so outdoorsy. And the cast gives the lie to critical hand-wringing over the death of great Wagner singing. Karita Mattila’s creamy Eva is as radiant on disc as onstage, and heldentenor-of-the-week Ben Heppner, as Walther, finally sounds emotionally invested in a role he’s singing. Other pluses include a sexy, young Magdalene (quite a rarity), a Beckmesser whose comedy is served up with digestible portions of ham and cheese, and a chorus with greasepaint under its fingernails. So why is sonorous, authoritative Rene Pape singing Pogner instead of the linchpin role, Hans Sachs? Not that Jose van Dam is an uninteresting choice for Sachs—his third act is full of fine, ruminative detail—but his beige tone and sec, world-weary phrasing paint the cobbler-poet less as a robust pillar of this German community than as some visiting French existentialist who keeps to himself. No matter: You get used to him, and this recording is too good to miss.

Part of Solti’s success is his skill at forging an American orchestra and a Belgian-Canadian-Finnish-German-English-Austrian cast into an idiomatic ensemble. But Wagnerites weaned on recordings from the pre-multiculti days know the extra lift singers can give these roles when performing in their native language—even, it seems, when that language is Italian. A tiny label called Datum has unearthed an ear-opening 1962 broadcast of Meistersinger (sorry, I Maestri Cantori di Norimberga) sung in Italian by the likes of Giuseppe Taddei, Renato Capecchi, Boris Christoff (a natural Verdian despite the Bolshoi pedigree), and Luigi Infantino. Revelations here are mostly of the associative kind. Patches of the score suddenly sound like lost pages from Verdi’s Falstaff or the Fra Melitone scene in Forza, and, even less expectedly, the shift in language and singing style bring out uncanny anticipations of Puccini in Wagner’s writing. In fact, this Maestri Cantori is a veritable fritto misto of all styles Italian, Verdi and verismo rubbing shoulders with bel canto—you can hear Bellini’s influence on Wagner and Wagner’s on the whole Boito gang. Bruna Rizzoli’s Eva and the Beckmesser of veteran comic baritone Capecchi (an over-the-top delight) slip effortlessly into the soubrette and basso buffo traditions, and there are places in Act 2 that sound as if Norina, Cavaradossi, Phillip II, Don Alfonso, and Benoit have wandered in from their respective operas for one big block party. Yet it all works somehow, because the performers make the material their own and play off each other like a true ensemble. The Mediterranean glow throughout is pretty damn seductive—no more so than in the easy, spinto lyricism of Infantino’s Walther, exhilarating in spite of (because of?) his weakness for tenorial schmaltz. The orchestra plays with surprising finesse, and the sonics are pleasant, if dry, early broadcast stereo. Worth hunting down for a deconstructive jolt.—Joe Banno