Thursday, October 4, 2012

Wagner’s Meistersinger - A Human Comedy


courtesy Wikipedia
 There is no end of debate about Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. It is simultaneously the most genial, most humane woolly bear of an opera Wagner would ever compose. On the other hand it's most admiring critics are quick to point out the opera’s internal double life: it is the most openly nationalistic, perhaps covertly anti-Semitic and historically problematic of the Wagner canon. Nike Wagner, great- granddaughter of the composer and great- great- granddaughter of Franz Liszt, writes of this duality extensively in her book The Wagners (see chapter 7, Folly and Wit) for those interested in the ongoing intellectual argument. Having said all this I have the suspicion that at the distance of over one hundred and forty years since the premiere in 1868 and the approaching Wagner bicentennial (1813-2013), the statute of historical - aesthetic limitations may well be running out on Wagner’s comedy. Viewed as a stand alone piece, freed of its historical freight, it is for all its shortcomings a wonderful, if archaic nineteenth century treat. It is, some say, the longest opera ever written that is retained in the repertory. It’s “humor” is not exactly the rapier wit of Restoration comedy or Moliere, let alone Shakespeare. But, its musical delights pass all criticism. Accepting its epic length, running with intermissions, (usually two), Meistersinger can run a staggering six hours. As I say an artifact of another time, but a masterpiece none the less.

courtesy Wikipedia

The plot mixes history and fiction. Nurnberg and the historical Hans Sachs joined by a cast of dozens. At the heart of the drama is a love affair between Eva Pogner and Walter von Stolzing. She wants to wed the young aristocratic singer but to do so he must first qualify as a Mastersinger, with all its mad rules and then compete with others for her hand in a song contest. As always, the winner gets the girl. There is internal dissension in the singing group - how is the winner to be judged? And here is the truly modern twist at the heart of the opera. Are they to use the old rules challenged by Walter and questioned by Hans Sachs or rewrite them in the light of his new song?
Morgen leuchtend im rosigen Schein,
Von Blut und Duft,

Warm in the sunlight, at dawning of day,

Where blossoms rare, made sweet the air,

With beauty glowing past all knowing,

Here is the real Wagner symbolically claiming for himself, the romantics and the Music Drama, a new standard that must be understood in its own way by new rules and taking a not at all subtle swipe at his critics, especially the authoritative Hanslick of Vienna. The plot moves from Walter’s rejection by the ruthless “Marker”, Sixtus Beckmesse, a stand in for the critic. Walter learns from Sachs, blending the old and new styles and creates a new song accepted by the people, the Masters and vanquishes Beckmesser. The controversial close of the opera, for some, is when Wagner’s interpolation of verses praising a uniquely “German Art” (Heilige Kunst) which the National Socialist regime twisted toward its own end. For myself, taking a page from Jacques Barzun; let’s not confuse old fashion 19th nationalism, with 20th century politics of destructive nihilism. Leave the Great Master his personal eccentricities and ourselves hours of unalloyed delight.

Tune in to this Saturday Afternoon at the Opera and Wagner’s epic comedy, Die Meistersinger.  Remembering Fischer - Dieskau  as Hans Sachs and a young Placido Domingo - offering a Prize Song for the ages. Here at noon on KPAC and KTXI.  

by Ron Moore

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