Great moments in opera: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

February 25, 2010

Fresh from Tristan und Isolde, and preparing myself for Der Ring des Nibelungen, I listened for the first time this week to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and I fully expected it to fall into line with the others: monumental and tragic, but also ponderous, dramatically slack, and at least twice as long as it needed to be.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Die Meistersinger is a comedy!

It is true that, if brevity is the soul of wit, Wagner would have to be accounted one of the least witty men in history, but Die Meistersinger has surprised me with its good humour, spacious geniality, and gentle exuberance.  It is still very long (about 4-1/2 hours in performance) but it has a good story and a set of good characters that were a pleasure to watch.

The story, briefly, is about a young man, Walther, who seeks entrance to the guild of the Master Singers in 16th century Nuremberg.  The beautiful young woman whom he loves, Eva, will bestow her hand in marriage upon the winner of a singing contest, but only members of the guild are eligible to participate.  The guild Masters complain that Walther’s manner of song is unconventional and ugly, breaking all of the established rules, but one member, the cobbler Hans Sachs, sees the merit in Walther’s composition and helps him to gain admittance to the guild.  He sings beautifully, of course, and he and Eva live happily ever after.

It is not difficult to discern the self-regarding allegory at the heart of Wagner’s story: Wagner himself is Walther, and the guild Masters are the musical establishment, deaf to the glories of his new manner of song.  To his credit, he did not write a simple-minded celebration of artistic radicalism; at one point Sachs reminds the irate Walther that conservatism protects and sustains much that is good and praiseworthy.  And even if the opera is one giant criticism of those who opposed Wagner’s artistic vision, he was magnanimous enough not to indulge himself in shrill denunciations.  The work is genuinely light-hearted and charming.

I read, with some surprise, that Die Meistersinger was a favourite of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.  The founding of the Nazi party was celebrated by a performance of the opera, and its music was used in Triumph of the Will.  For the life of me I cannot see why it should have tickled Hitler’s perverse fancy, unless it be on account of the brief episode near the end when everybody sings the praises of German art.  Pretty benign stuff.  This is a good reminder — which will be even more important to keep in mind when we come to the Ring cycle — that the meaning of an artistic work is only partly due to its history of appropriation.  Hitler does not get to tell us definitively what Wagner means.

The music of Die Meistersinger is unlike anything else that I have heard from Wagner.  It is bouyant, sometimes lyrical, and always good-natured.  The use of leitmotifs is pervasive, and in certain scenes (such as at the end of Act II), used to superb effect.  I was amused to hear the Isolde leitmotif from Tristan und Isolde making a cameo appearance as well.

**

Enough talk.  Let’s hear some music!  The most famous music from this opera is the orchestral prelude, which can be heard here.  I have selected two other episodes that I particularly enjoyed.

The first comes from Act II.  Beckmesser, the most curmudgeonly of the town’s Meistersingers and a rival with Walther for Eva’s hand, practices his song beneath her window on the night before the competition.   Earlier in the day Beckmesser had “marked down” Walther’s song, rejoicing at each transgression of the rules.  Here Sachs gives him a taste of his own medicine, striking his cobbler’s hammer each time Beckmesser makes a mistake.  Beckmesser is sung by Thomas Allen and Sachs by James Morris; the production is from the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  English subtitles are included:

In Act III, the central characters prepare for the festival at which the singers will compete, and they pause to sing a lovely quintet.  This doesn’t advance the story at all, but it is sure pretty.  Here is some footage from the 1963 Bayreuth festival, with Josef Greindl, Anja Silja, Wolfgang Windgassen, Erwin Wohlfahrt, and Ruth Hesse singing.  Text and translations here (scroll down to where Sachs sings “Die selige Morgentraumdeut-Weise”).

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