A brilliant score, a moving performance, a dreary production

Meistersinger at the Met

In December I had the chance to attend two performances and a dress rehearsal of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Die Meistersinger, and felt (as I so often do) mystified to be blessed so plentifully.  The last time I had attended Meistersinger was March 2007, when I saw this production.  I had watched some DVD performances, but there is nothing to compare to that C major chord when sitting in the hall.  It is a uniquely gratifying and inspiring experience.

Some of the many aspects of the score that astounded me anew:

The orchestration, and how cleverly Wagner establishes the unique sound of the work by using nearly the entire band for the first C major chord, but then taking out all the violins for the rest of the first measure, bringing them back in in the second measure for the wonderful upward scale.  And again, a minute or so later, after the wild and joyous run of the violins that precedes the fanfare, the omission of the strings entirely to introduce that theme, allowing it to be started by the trumpets and tympani but then carried by the winds and (oddly) the harp.

The mastery of tonality and almost self-conscious ease with which the score slides from key to key.  Nowhere am I more impressed than in the five bars before the Third Act Quintet, when by half-steps and seemingly lucid repeated melodic cells he maneuvers us from C major to G-flat major, as easily as slicing pie.  Try that on your Wurlitzer – it’s quite a piece of writing.

The tiny charms that dot the play itself – for example, the absence from the First Act meeting of Niklaus Vogel, whose disposition causes the singer cast in the role to miss every performance.  (“Gut’ Bess’rung dem Meister!” “Walt’s Gott!” “Schőn Dank!”)

The hidden secrets that lay within so many of the words.  Only recently did I realize that, when Sachs calls on Eva to christen the “selige Morgantraum-Deutweise,” she extemporizes upon each component of the name:

Selig, wie die Sonne meines Glückes lacht,

Morgen voller Wonne, selig mir erwacht:

Traum der hőchsten Hulden,

Himmlich Morgenglühn:

Deutung euch zu schulden, selig süss’ Bemühn!

Weise, mild und hehr….

Repeated viewings even de-fused my indignation at this useless production.  Like so many of the Wagner productions mounted by the Met Opera in the 1980s and ‘90s, it was postcard-like, kitchy and bland.  The second act opens with a jolly chorus vaguely sweeping the air with silly brooms – right out of a Gilbert and Sullivan number.  With the exception of Beckmesser (whose pantomimed wincing and back-aching were all too familiar), not a single person in the crowd in the Third Act looked or behaved as if they had been beaten up the night before — indeed, they comported themselves as if the sole reason they were there was to make a jolly entrance on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.  The entire endeavor seemed to be aimed at making sure no one sees anything they had not already seen or expected to see, or entertained any thought about the work they had not thought before.  It was a series of familiar, reassuring and anti-intellectual pictures, a pretty backdrop for great music-making.  And that’s not theatre.

What a shame, especially in this work.  A lot of things happen in the play: an untutored arrogant artist learns the necessity of form to the creation of lasting beauty; at the same time that a lovely woman escapes the fate imposed upon her by her father, of either a loveless marriage or no marriage at all; at the same time that a widower comes to terms with his age and his loneliness; at the same time that a young and devoted apprentice is promoted to journeyman, gains his true love, and realizes the moment in his life when “my schooling is finished, I will be her lover, and perhaps one day a Master”; at the same time that the truth is re-affirmed for all of us – by all of us through our proxies, the chorus —  that art belongs to the people, not to the rule-makers, and indeed that the quality and innovation of our art, more than our politics or our wealth, will defines the very legacy of our times.

And when will someone break out of the mold into which the role of Hans Sachs has been entombed for 150 years?  Yes, he is perceptive; and yes, he is clever.  But let’s remove the adjectives and look at what he does in the play.  In the first act David reports that he is regularly beaten.  In the second act it is established that David’s food is withheld and that he lives in daily fear of physical attack.  In the third act David refers to being hit by a leather strap, and we see Sachs strike him across the face for no better reason than “to give you a reason to remember this day.”  Sachs is physically abusive, profoundly anti-social, standing apart from – and refusing to agree with — the rest of the Masters, arrives late for the St John’s Day celebration, and cruelly defrauds Beckmesser, whom he deliberately humiliates in front of the assembled town, the Masters and his hoped-for lover.

(By the way, when we watch Twelfth Night is anyone comfortable watching Feste’s sadistic abuse of Malvolio in the prison scene?  And does anyone fail to resonate with Malvolio’s final words, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”? Or with Olivia’s condemnation that “He hath been most notoriously abused”?  Then why do we accept what Sachs does to Beckmesser as mere harmless fun?  Will no one investigate who this dark, lonely, violent man really is?)

David McVicar and Gerald Finley began taking risks with this role at Glyndebourne in 2011, and I look forward to seeing Stefan Herheim’s acclaimed reimagining of the work when it comes to the Met in five years or so.

Meanwhile, is anyone willing to join me and take an oath to condemn expectable and picture-postcard productions of this or any other work of this radical, boundary-crossing, explosive, revolutionary artist?


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