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Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg is Wagner’s most metatheatrical opera (edging Tannhäuser by a nose). A composition about composing, we watch the master singers of one era (opera stars) play the master singers of another (the guild of Meistersingers of Renaissance Nurnberg) as each works their way toward a hit. Along the way we’re taught what it takes to make the perfect song, told in ringing melodies about tunes that will stay with us, and instructed poetically in the art of poetry. The riddle of whether an artist of genius could write – and talented singers perform – a bad song is brought forcefully to the fore again and again.
But the aspect of meta-theater that is most prominent in this production of Meistersinger is the tension between the old and the new. In 1868, this tension was already there: a controversial, innovative composer, Wagner, premiered an opera based on the most stolid of German folk heroes —the beloved Meistersinger and shoemaker Hans Sachs, who wrote by rote. Internally to the drama, Sachs is offset by the young, romantic knight Walther; Walther’s rebelliousness is eventually tempered and refined by Sachs, who admires some of Walther’s innovations.
Due to the circumstances of its performance, this Met production recapitulates that tension. The story and setting that were innovative in 1868 are now preserved in hallowed tradition, and Otto Schenk’s faithful production, which itself dates to 1993, aimed to capture them more or less as originally intended. This is the Schenk production’s swan song; it’s due to be replaced later this decade by a conceptual performance set entirely on Sachs’ desk. Hearing Walther, Sachs, and Beckmesser, debate the balance of tradition and innovation, you cannot help thinking of tensions between traditionalists and the avante-garde that still roil the opera world today.
Well, count me as a ‘stick in the mud.’ And for those who think likewise, this lavish, old-fashioned production was a holiday treat of singular magnitude. Not only was the staging true to Wagner’s vision, but the piece was staged ‘uncut’ — not a word or note missing. At six and a half hours, it’s the longest in the Met’s repertoire, and throughout, the music was generally very strong.
This was due above all to the spot-on play of the orchestra, directed by Met favorite James Levine (the audience loves him, and isn’t afraid to show it). It’s de rigeur to speak of the endurance of those who play the Sachs role – deservedly so – but what then of the musicians who play all of Sachs’, Beckmessers’, Walther’s, etc. solos without relief? The musicians do it semi-anonymously, and knowing the audience knows (and the musicians depend on) exactly how every note should sound. For this reviewer, who’s played in a pit once or twice, they’ll always come first – and here, they were spotless and strong throughout
A close second though was the moving, warmly human Hans Sachs, played by the veteran James Morris. If this performance was a triumph for tradition, Morris’ realistic portrayal of the humanist poet-singer, carried by a rich, penetrating bass-baritone, was much of the reason why.
His Sachs was offset by a well-played foil: on the night I attended, Martin Gantner, who normally plays Kothner, subbed in for the ill Johannes Martin Kränzle as Beckmesser, the pedantic, older suitor of Eva. Gantner played the pettish clerk exceedingly well, threading the line between buffoonery and overwrought villainy to a humorous, suitably annoying characterization. If he could hold up against Morris for six and a half hours – and he could – we should hope to see more of him at the Met soon.
Against these two luminous performances, Walther and Eva were perhaps inevitably going to shine as lesser lights. Johan Botha has exactly the sonorous voice the heldentenor who plays Walther needs, and his eventual Meistersong was a treat to hear. But in his stage manner, he came across as staid, more like a satisfied burgher than the daring romantic trying to overthrow them. This trade-off between dramatic technique and vocal ability is perhaps something we sometimes have to put up with in the opera (though Wagner, with his concept of the totality of art, would not have been pleased). Annette Dasch had the opposite problem: Eva was vivacious and often stole the stage visually, only to be outshone vocally.
Visually, this production is a feast. The second act’s staging of a Nurnberg street could have been a Christmas postcard – had it not proved to have so many working parts. As the act wore on, the lighting department managed to perfectly recreate a winter evening’s sunset and twilight, to the point where it gave an uncanny frisson of delight. Such effects as these contribute to the totally absorptive (if occasionally exhausting) nature of this opera, especially when produced in a traditional style.
Ultimately, this is an excellent, traditional production of Wagner. As such, its strengths – and its weaknesses – are ultimately the composer’s. Chief among the latter is the length: at six and a half hours, it was physically challenging even for the stunning athletic specimen that is your reviewer. One must also remember, in the visually packed third act, to shake off the historical association of a bunch of Germans carrying banners to a rally outside Nurnberg –Wagner’s vision came first.
Its strengths, though, vastly outweigh the negatives. The Met’s Meistersinger overwhelms one because Wagner’s original conception was overwhelming: it, as Sachs says of Walther’s tune, stays with you for days after. This lavish, faithful, and above all well-staged and well-performed production is a treat on par with a full-length Hamlet by the RSC in original costume: not something to consume every day, but absolutely something you should see. And if you believe, as I do, that while great artists transcend their periods to speak to the ages, they speak to the ages in the idiom that they originally chose, then this is a can’t-miss.
Nicholas M. Gallagher
Nicholas M. Gallagher is a staff writer at The American Interest. You can read him online at http://www.the-american-interest.com/byline/nicholas-m-gallagher/ or follow him on Twitter at @ngallagherai