The Metropolitan Opera revives Wagner's epic Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Wagner’s epic Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is as much about the creative process as it is itself a work of art. It reflects Wagner’s introspective examination of the workings of his psyche, every bit as penetrating as Freud’s self-psychoanalysis. If you’re a believer, then it’s heroic, profound, even ‘heavy’ as we used to say…if you’re not a fan, okay, fair enough: at least with Meistersinger you can sit back and enjoy the music, the singing and the Met's production. Reading Freud is far less entertaining, trust me.
It goes like this: to extent that art communicates the soul of the artist to the soul of the people, the artist must be open to his muse at all times, inspiration often coming in the form of dreams. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer crystalized Wagner’s thinking on this as much as Schopenhauer’s works would influence Freud’s thinking about dreams decades later. After laying out all this stuff about art (and along the way dropping hints that he, Richard Wagner, is next in the line of the past masters of German music, Beethoven and the like), he has Hans Sachs, the master singing cobbler, the centerpiece of the tale, tell it like it is: if a culture, a nation doesn’t value and support its own art, the art will dwindle. In a nutshell, that’s it.
Why, you may ask, does it require 275 minutes to get to this point? This is Wagner, remember.
The Metropolitan Opera revived its current production of Die Meistersinger as conceived by Otto Schenk and team: sets by Günther Schneider-Siemssen, costumes by Rolf Langenfass, and lighting by Gil Wechsler. They are essentially the same team that brought us the previous productions of Wagner’s Ring and Parsifal.
Meistersinger is a gentle comedy, a simple story laced with heady theory, broadly paced over a long evening. Surrounding moments are filled with enough busy work to keep one’s attention up but not so much as to compromise the mood with distracting silliness.
Hans Sachs, the hub of the drama as it were, was taken this evening by veteran Wagnerian James Morris. That he sang the entire role without noticeable strain is by itself heroic; that he imbues his musings with a keen sensitivity to the text betrays the mark of a seasoned, intelligent artist. Bravo!
His foils, Sixtus Beckmesser and Veit Pogner, also Mastersingers, are artfully created. Johannes Martin Kränzle is a compulsive Beckmesser, plagued by insecurities and frustrations. One imagines that he paces and fidgets even off stage, as he does on the streets of Nürnberg in Act II. Hans-Peter König’s Pogner is a solid tradesman and Bürger, strong in voice and grand in stature.
Wagner purposely lowered the temperature (and vocal demands) for Walther von Stolzing and Eva Pogner, the romantic interest in Meistersinger, after his over-the-top Tristan und Isolde. Also, happily, the pair don’t discuss love as much here. Johan Botha’s Walther is brightly sung, as is Annette Dasch’s Eva. Dasch effectively underlines the complexity of Eva’s relationship with Sachs. If the first act of Meistersinger is essentially didactic, all rules and restrictions, and the second more comic, culminating in the pillow fight on the streets of Nürnberg, the long third act is rich in emotions. Walther and Eva come to life and Hans Sachs is honored.
Well, that’s the ‘upstairs.’ The ‘downstairs’ characters are well taken here also: Paul Appleby is a cheerful, extraverted David, Sachs’s apprentice, and Karen Cargill is a happy, cuddly Magdalene, Eva’s attendant. Kudos to both for creating such a caring relationship.
Of the several Mastersingers, Fritz Kothner is the longest role: bass Martin Gantner takes attendance and reads the rules with style. Bass Matthew Rose is a sonorous Night Watchman.
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus, under Chorus Master Donald Palumbo, brought the long evening to a close as the townsfolk praise Sachs and German art. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, under James Levine, played superbly. Levine’s approach was at times thoughtful and introspective, especially underlining Sachs’s ruminations, and at other times grand as needed. Die Meistersinger is indeed a masterpiece and a privilege to hear in a live performance.
Review performance date: December 6, 2014.
Photos by Ken Howard
Be advised: the performance running time is 5 hours 50 minutes, including two intermissions.
Make it special. Happy Holidays.