an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

“Die Meistersinger” in Covid Times

Lise Davidsen as Eva, Michael Volle as Hans Sachs, and Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther in Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg." Photo: Richard Termine / Met Opera
Lise Davidsen, Michael Volle, and Klaus Florian Vogt in the Met Meistersinger

Like every lifelong Wagnerite, I regard any opportunity to experience Die Meistersinger as  special. It was my first opera at the Met, in 1962 – and also my most recent, last night. There have been half a dozen other Met Meistersingers in between. I’ve also encountered Die Meistersinger in San Francisco, Bayreuth, and Munich, and at the City Opera (in English).

These performances have varied greatly in certain details, but the sensation of Meistersinger uplift has been a constant. This time felt different: the opera’s central theme – the centrality of the arts in society, in a community of feeling, in a nation’s identity – today seems under siege. And of course there is the pandemic.

Die Meistersinger is an opera that must actually feel communal to register fully. On this occasion, there were swaths of empty seats downstairs, especially for acts one (because many arrived late) and three (or left early). I felt no tingling of expectancy from this scattered crowd. The fellow next to me occasionally examined his watch. The applause was tepid.  Symptoms of indifference? Of unfamiliarity? Post-Covid disorientation?  

The performance started slowly. The orchestra sounded soggy. Walther lacked the vocal heft to drive the act one climax. I felt I was witnessing an artifact from another epoch, dutifully mounted for posthumous inspection. 

But act three told. It almost always does. Eva commences an erotic game: claiming that her shoes pinch (they do not), she makes Sachs fondle her foot. When Walther appears, resplendent, the real reason for her visit is disclosed: she stands transfixed. Sachs takes out his jealousy on his hammer and leather: “Always cobbling, that is my lot!” Wagner’s instructions here read: “Eva bursts into a sudden fit of weeping and sinks on Sach’s breast, sobbing and clinging to him. Walther advances and wrings Sachs’s hand. Sachs at last composes himself and tears himself away as if in vexation, so that Eva now rests on Walther’s shoulder.” Sachs is unmollified: he rails against clients who cannot be satisfied, against widowed cobblers being made a sport, against women generally. So Eva takes charge. It was you who awakened me to womanhood, she sings. And if it weren’t for Walther, I’d marry you instead. This strategic lie prods Sachs to a pivotal act of resigned self-understanding: he will never remarry. Seizing the moment, he announces a christening of Walther’s song. The godparents will be himself and Eva, the witnesses David and Magdalena. For good measure, he promotes David from apprentice to journeyman. And he appoints Eva to lead the ceremony. This takes the form of a quintet; the opera’s musical and dramatic apogee, it seals the personal transformation of all five participants. Eva has acquired the mettle of an adult. Walther has honed his unruly genius. David, with whose callowness we are acquainted, will now wed the older, more experienced Lena. And Sachs will remain a widower and an artisan, reconciled to the wisdom of age and the boldness of youth.

I wept. And again at the beginning of the second scene – where there is no cause for weeping. It’s all Nuremberg, celebrating a singing contest: Wagner’s tableau of a wholesome and united civic culture, fortified by music, poetry, and dance. Today: a seeming chimera.

Further impressions? Hans Sachs, Wagner’s shoemaker/philosopher/poet, is both serene and disconsolate, elevated and eruptive. Donald McIntyre, who sang Sachs at the Met in the 1990s, reportedly called him “bi-polar”; and McIntyre memorably clinched this character’s propensity to anger and dark introspection. In the current Met run, Michael Volle – like most Sachses — projects a more uniform benignity. But his range of mood and address remains varied and knit.

Sachs’s two scenes with Eva illustrate in microcosm the human dimension of this miraculous opera. She herself is a miracle: could Mathilde Wesendonck – here in part Wagner’s muse — have possibly married as much sweetness and innocence with so charming a propensity for guile? In Evchen, every morsel of shyness or deference is suspect. In act one, she’s instantly and recklessly in love with Walther. Harboring no illusions about Beckmesser, who will sing for her hand, she proceeds to enlist Sachs’s help with a cunning as natural as it is desperate. Playing on his impractical affection (he is her father’s age), she teases him with the possibility of herself becoming his wife – an exchange in which both know more than they dare acknowledge. The tables turn once Sachs, through feigned innocence, forces Eva to anxiously declare her actual mission: she needs to know how Walther fared earlier in the day. Will he become a mastersinger and hence eligible to wed her? Can Sachs assist?  “For him all is lost,” Sachs replies in provocation. “Mister high and mighty – let him go!” Sachs having thus regained his composure, Eva loses hers. “It stinks of pitch here!” she exclaims and turns on her heel. “I thought so,” Sachs reflects. “Now we must find a way.”

Eva’s act two declaration that “an obedient child speaks only when asked,” and her father’s dim response (“How wise! How good!”), comprise a hilarious cameo of a relationship she surely rules. At the Met, Lise Davidsen’s straightforward delivery of this line summarizes the kind of detail her ingratiating Eva glides past. But her soprano commands a memorably radiant top (she over-balances the quintet) — and she seems a natural actress awaiting further instruction. Georg Zeppenfeld, as Pogner, is an artist of consequence with a voice just large enough for the Met’s over-sized auditorium. Johannes Martin Kranzle, the Beckmesser, fails to elicit sympathy (as the late Hermann Prey did opposite McIntyre’s Sachs); but his, too, is a portrait that tells. As for Klaus Florian Vogt’s underpowered Walther, I was at least grateful for his stamina and diction. Antonio Pappano, who conducts, savors the breadth of Wagner’s score. I appreciated the patience with which he weighted the pauses often prefacing its sublime moments.

If you are searching for a wholly satisfying Meistersinger experience on CD, good luck. The best I know is the 1936 Met broadcast conducted by Artur Bodanzky. Friedrich Schorr is Sachs – his signature part. Elisabeth Rethberg is Eva. The tenor is Rene Maison – an unremembered Belgian who if he materialized today would eclipse all competition in such parts as Walther, Florestan, Lohengrin, and Erik. I also recently sampled, on youtube, a 1949 Munich Meistersinger with the young Hans Hotter as Sachs, Eugen Jochum conducting. The act two Fliedermonolog is something to hear. 

Re-experiencing Die Meistersinger at the Met in challenged times made everything else seem small. It was a good feeling.

Speak Your Mind


an ArtsJournal blog