A thrilling interpretation of Hans Sachs, and of what happens on the play

McVicar’s Glyndebourne Meistersinger

I treat myself pretty well when it comes to attending Wagner performances.  But in 2011, when I had a ticket to see Gerald Finley perform Hans Sachs at Glyndebourne, I just couldn’t afford the ticket, the flight over, the hotel, the time to do it, or even maybe the bananas and grapes during the interval.  So I sold the ticket.  Ah, well.

But here we have the DVD of this brilliant production by David McVicar, demonstrating anew that this score rewards principled scrutiny and that Mc Vicar — whom I first encountered in the Glyndebourne Julius Caesar and who later blew me away with the Covent Garden Nozze di Figaro — is as perceptive a stage director as we have.

The role of Sachs was received, in my youth and presumably before, as a wise and kind old fellow who observes others’ folly with a knowing smile.  Then we had some Sachs interpreters who added the sense of getting old and passing the torch, yet were still wise, still kind and still smiley (pretty much).  Then there were one or two who peered over the abyss of despair — but as tourists, not participants.  Now we have Gerald Finley, who sets a new standard of interpretation to this thrilling role.

Finley’s Sachs has trouble with his eyes on Sunday morning after church.  He scribbles as he squints.  He hasn’t washed and his clothes are crumpled.  His fingers are so full of pitch and ink that when he puts his hand assuredly on someone’s shoulder they flinch for the condition of their shirt.  Walther wakes him up, excites him momentarily.  But he eases back into an odd resignation and frailty.  Why?  Is this Sachs or Gurnemanz?

In the second act, the proximity of his neighbor’s beautiful daughter makes him uneasy.  When he brings his last and shoes outdoors to work, he also brings a bottle and a glass.  His drinking becomes more than a sip at a time.  His teasing becomes sharp, then malevolent, and when the neighbors complain about his hammering he shouts back at them.  In the crowd he is as loud and boisterously as anyone else, swinging his bottle back and forth, laughing, anarchic, drunk.

The morning after he has not been to bed.  He wakens in his chair in the clothes from last night, the bottle still on the floor by him.  His mouth is fuzzy.  The sun hurts his eyes (as, we remember, it had the morning before, and as it must have done every morning for many years).  As that sad music plays, he takes the cover off the portrait of his dead wife and his dead children (as, we assume, he does every morning) and accepts once again the raw fact of his loneliness.  His hangover is so deep that he barely can engage with David.  Maneuvering the relationship with Walther and Eva becomes yet another deeply painful reminder that he has been alone, he is alone, he will always be alone.  He shuffles to the festival perhaps a bit late and his neighbors unveil a surprise they have been rehearsing — a chorale in his honor.  Sachs is so full of self-loathing that he has no place for such honor.  If they only knew the truth….

This is theatre art of a very high level.  Fresh ideas at every turn.  The details of the relationships among all of the characters, not just Sachs, are revealed moment by moment.  Pogner’s failure to understand what his daughter needs in Act II; David’s learned sweetness incompletely masking a feral violence in him, ready to punch people out; the gang physicality of the young people of the town, wanting only the tiniest spark to convert teasing in Act I to violence in Act II.  This is riveting stuff.

In the text, Sachs mentions only in passing that he was once married, and once had children.  McVicar and Finley take this fact and give it the weight to so richly deserves.  Think about it: Sachs had a happy family and now he is alone.  Through that prism, how does he behave?  What reason does he have to make sure his hair is combed, his hands are washed, his clothes are clean?  Who demands from him respect or other-directed love?  What conversation, what tasks or concerns keep him from despair?  Who gives him affection or devotion?  No one.  And this is the man who coaxes a meisterlied from a young man for whom song is intuitive.  As Sachs explains patiently, “In the Spring of his life a man can easily sing of love because he knows little else.  But as the Winter approaches, and the pressures of life, and business, and family… If he can then sing of love, then he is a Master.”

A master indeed.  Thank you, Mr. Finley.

(For a clip of the Wahn monologue, click here.  For a taste of the complex interrelationships in this production — including the remorse that Sachs feels for his role in tricking Beckmesser — click here.)

3 Comments

  • Peter Crisp wrote:

    Agree completely – a most perceptive review (as ever). Ironically, although it was of course splendid live in the theatre, some details are much more noticeable close up on DVD. We always sit towards the back at Glyndebourne. When this is I hope revived, we shall have to go for the front of the stalls!

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