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Gem in a Tarnished Setting

Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg at Lyric Opera

Opera review, March 5, 1999

The new Lyric Opera production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg is almost a fiasco. The conception is idiotic and the execution unbelievably shoddy. The stage direction is so incompetent that the simplest plot elements are reduced to gibberish, and the sets are the worst I've ever seen at a professional opera house--some of them would disgrace a grade-school pageant. The whole thing ought to be remembered as one of the biggest disasters in the Lyric's history.

But it won't be--because it's also a magnificent musical performance. In the abstract that shouldn't be enough: a successful production ought to be equally strong as music and as spectacle. But in the real world, you take what you can get--and as hellish as this thing is on the eyes, it's glorious in the ears. The cast is uniformly excellent, the Lyric orchestra sounds better than I've ever heard it, and the young conductor Christian Thielemann--who's making his Lyric debut--is clearly a major talent. And then of course there's Wagner's astonishing score, which is performed uncut and at a deliberately unhurried pace. This is the longest single opera ever written; the Lyric production begins at 6 PM and lets out at midnight. But I can honestly say I was never bored, never in a hurry for the curtain, never less than thoroughly enchanted. If the test of an opera is that it can triumph over a bad production, I'm now convinced that Die Meistersinger is the best opera in the repertoire.

But then there's always been something indestructible about it. It stands in the middle of the operatic world like the Matterhorn. Wagner's other masterworks are remote otherworldly visions; Die Meistersinger is massively grounded in reality. It's the only one of his big operas set in a real time and place, Nuremberg in the 16th century; and it's the only one with an actual, specific human being as a hero, the famous cobbler-poet Hans Sachs. There really were guilds of mastersingers in Germany then, and the opera's debate between musical tradition and innovation is something they actually did argue about.

Of course that much history any hack could have looked up in an encyclopedia. What makes Die Meistersinger unique is the way the historical circumstances are woven into a dazzling tapestry of sensory detail. Most operas, even most of Wagner's, exist in a fog of visual generality; you couldn't describe the specific look of Valhalla in the Ring any more than you could draw the floor plan of Aida's palace. But the backstreets and rooftops of Die Meistersinger's Nuremberg are as vivid as those of your own neighborhood; in every scene you know not only the exact location but the weather, the temperature, and the time of day. You even know that there are lilacs behind Sachs's workshop and that their scent suffuses the quiet alley in the long summer evenings.

It's over this massively specific background that Wagner spreads a wispy fairy-tale trifle of a plot: a singing contest where the winner earns the right to ask the beautiful heroine Eva to marry him. The three contenders represent different attitudes toward the art of music. There's the wandering knight Walther, the singer of pure spontaneous inspiration; the talentless clerk Beckmesser, who blindly follows the musical rules of the mastersingers; and the great Sachs, who teaches Walther to balance his inspiration with respect for tradition and thus win the contest and Eva's hand.

People sometimes take this situation as a serious allegorical statement about music, but I've never been able to buy that: the singing contest is too blandly schematic and its resolution too obvious. Nobody ever wonders if Eva and Walther will end up together, or if Walther will learn to respect musical tradition, or if Beckmesser will get his comeuppance. The only unforeseen plot twist comes when Beckmesser finds a song that Walther and Sachs have been working on and decides to pass it off as his own--which happens about midway into the third act, or about five hours in. But even here Wagner goes out of his way to defuse the suspense: he immediately reveals that Sachs knows about the theft and is weaving it into his plot to bring Eva and Walther together--which of course comes off without a hitch.

So what are we watching for so long? Neither a plot nor a Platonic debate about the nature of art, but the slow unfolding of an emotional landscape. The real drama is in the secret love Sachs feels for Eva and in his willingness to renounce it for her happiness, in the half-conscious knowledge she has of Sachs's love and in her almost willingness to return it. This current of sadness and irresolution, which is always flowing underneath the bright surface, keeps opening out into unexpected gulfs of melancholy. It does so at the end of the second act when a brawl in a back alley erupts into a riot (which vanishes like a summer squall before the night watchman comes by on his rounds), and Sachs is suddenly overcome with sadness at the absurdity of human affairs. He has already been feeling he's too old for Eva, and now he's starting to feel he's too old for the world. The melancholy emerges again in its most startling form at the finale, after Eva and Walther are betrothed, when Sachs suddenly warns the townspeople that they should treasure the work of the mastersingers because doom is hanging over Germany: if their homeland is invaded and their way of life destroyed, they will have nothing to sustain them but the enduring beauty of German art.

This fiercely nationalistic speech, with its sinister references to "foreign influences" on German culture, always comes as a rude shock--particularly for those of us in the audience who aren't purebred Aryan. But while I don't want to discount the vileness of Wagner's attitudes, the speech does serve a purpose. It's historically appropriate, for one thing; peaceful towns like Nuremberg actually were engulfed by the chaos of the Thirty Years' War. More important, it's a necessary element in Wagner's artistic vision. Die Meistersinger is Wagner's image of paradise, and every story of paradise is really a story of paradise lost. We have to see that the serene loveliness of Nuremberg is ephemeral, that even as we watch, it's receding irretrievably out of reach.

This message is subtly reinforced by Wagner's score. At first hearing it seems sunny, nostalgic, and conservative. Wagner's basic tendency was always toward the style of Tristan und Isolde, with its darkly mysterious chromaticism and its ceaseless wanderings from key to key, but here he holds himself in check, turning out hundreds of pages in a genial and unthreatening C major. He also makes constant use of familiar operatic devices--formalized arias, ensembles, and choruses--that he usually scorned as despicably retrograde. And it's the only one of his major operas to include any sustained reminiscences of earlier musical styles--from the opening hymn sung by a church choir to an actual song by the historical Hans Sachs. That's a singular tribute, given that Wagner ordinarily appeared to think he owed nothing to the past.

His uncharacteristic restraint pays off in some amazing moments: passages that might have seemed routine in one of his other operas are here incandescent. Perhaps the most magical comes in the ethereal quintet at the end of the first scene of the third act, when the voices dreamily float into G-flat major as though entering a new world. More typically, his control results in an atmosphere of suppressed tension: almost every extended passage sooner or later starts straying into more complex harmonies or flirting with outright dissonance. This is what makes the music so powerful. Just as with the onstage action, the surface loveliness of the score--and no music has ever been more consistently lovely--conceals an incessant undertow toward darkness.

But there is a curious problem. One of the wittiest touches in the score is the way that Beckmesser's songs all keep haplessly degenerating into the same goofy melody. Yet this joke rebounds on Wagner: his music is endlessly fascinating, various, and fresh--but it's so strongly unified and distinctive that it obliterates its individual voices. Except for a few carefully underlined effects--like Beckmesser plucking at his lute--everybody sounds the same. This is another reason the singing contest is a dramatic washout: since all the contestants are equally wonderful to listen to, what difference does it make who wins?

Ultimately the result is that the thick circumstantiality of the libretto seems like a mirage. Nuremberg may look and feel like a real place with historical roots and a living tradition, but the music undermines all that. It turns the setting into another one of Wagner's imaginary worlds, a myth of a happier age that's as private and ahistorical as the dream landscape of Parsifal or the gloomy metaphysical vistas of the Ring.

I'm guessing that this was the animating idea behind the Lyric production design. All the settings that Wagner specified are missing; 16th-century Nuremberg has been ditched for a weird Victorian-style fantasy in which everybody dresses in off-white formal wear and the crowds wave colored flags with no insignia. It's a Nuremberg where all the specific historical markers have been expunged and replaced by meaningless tokens--a dream image of a generalized past rather than a real place.

Since the sets and staging have been unanimously panned and have no chance of ever being seen after this run, I suppose there's no harm in pointing out that the idea isn't worthless. I've seen it work elsewhere, in the recent crop of Shakespeare movies, for instance. Both Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet and Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night conjure up hallucinatory 19th-century settings as a kind of abstract neutral ground between modern dress and period authenticity. But to succeed, this has to be done with wit and intelligence--qualities not found in the Lyric production. The dominant tone of grotesque absurdity is established early on in act one, where the town's church is represented by a huge scrim bearing a medieval painting of Jesus and his disciples. When the action moves farther back on the stage, the extras rip a big hole in it where the faces were--so that for the rest of the act the audience is staring at a gigantic image of a headless Christ.

That's only the opening salvo in a barrage of idiocy. There's no point recording it all, but I'll mention a couple of the more striking moments. There's the tableau in the singing contest where people in the crowd hold up giant pretzels. There's the second-act street fight, inscrutably relocated to a public park where a trapdoor in the grass is flung open and a crowd of nightshirted brawlers streams up as though rising out of a mass grave. And then there's Sachs's workshop, which consists of a couple of battered pieces of furniture on a floor of bright green AstroTurf, in front of a blank white flat with a couple of nails for coats and a hole for a door. I thought the sets couldn't get more outrageous, but the first glimpse of this one did pack quite a wallop.

But what's strange is how easily you can shrug all this nonsense off. The whole thing is so affectless it might as well be played in street clothes on an empty stage. Maybe I've just seen too many of these exercises in absurdist revisionism--if a libretto specifies a castle in Renaissance Italy, the production is inevitably set in a roadside diner on Neptune. Out of self-defense I've learned to tune out the design and focus on the story. That's possible with this Meistersinger, since it's played more or less straight: Walther is still a wandering knight, Eva is still in love with him, and Sachs is still melancholy. Yet this is where we run into the single worst failure of the whole production--the emotional tension between Eva and Sachs has been entirely suppressed. They act as if they barely know each other; any question of love between them is unimaginable. I don't know whether to blame it on incompetent directing or on interpretive perversity, but it's unforgivable. Everything else that's wrong is background static; this cuts out the heart of the opera.

If you can somehow get beyond that, the cast can generally be praised for performing well under trying circumstances. Nancy Gustafson as Eva and Jan-Hendrik Rootering as Sachs are both excellent--at least when they aren't interacting with each other. Gustafson's voice was a little pale the night I saw her (I've been told it was stronger at other performances), but she was always exquisite to watch. Rootering is maybe too monotonous--especially given that so much of his inner drama has been deleted--but his voice is always strong and lyrical. It's also a pleasure to listen to Gosta Winbergh's Walther, though I do have to say that he looks and acts too old; he should seem callow compared to Sachs, and instead he comes off as mature and companionable, like an old college friend in town for the weekend. The most agreeable performance is that of Eike Wilm Schulte as Beckmesser. Though he's directed to perform some peculiar bits of business--including a grotesque silent-movie stalk through Sachs's workshop--he's otherwise a charming and funny villain. It's rather touching that at the finale he stays onstage to congratulate Sachs rather than running off in disgrace.

Yet the real star is conductor Christian Thielemann. Few scores are more daunting than this one, and few conductors I've heard are able to come up with a controlling vision that can carry them through to the end. I can think of only one who's been totally successful: Rafael Kubelik, who recorded a beautiful version in the mid-1960s (available on the small import label Calig). Kubelik discarded the harsh, strident, declamatory style in which Wagner had traditionally been sung (the "Bayreuth bark") and instead led the cast through a sweetly flowing bel canto performance; the orchestra, which is so tightly wound into the score it's one of the characters, was turned into a subdued and delicately melodious chorus. The enormous drama seems as small and intimate as a private performance among friends.

Thielemann takes a more daring approach, playing the score for its wild and deep Romantic grandeur. This is a particularly chancy thing to try at the Lyric, because the orchestra isn't renowned for its sonic power. But he's pushed them to their limits, and they've delivered handsomely. It's also a bit chancy for Thielemann personally, because he's acquired a reputation for fakery and bombast. (His recording of Wagner overtures on Deutsche Grammophon is excruciatingly hokey.) But here he defies expectations and produces a committed, reverent reading. The tempi are extremely slow--even discounting the intermissions, the performance is the longest I know of. This could have been a punishing stunt, but instead it gradually gathers extraordinary power and conviction. What's most impressive is that Thielemann's control never flags, even after so many exhausting hours. As the coda approaches, the energy level is still rising and the strands of emotion are melting together into Wagner's sublime fusion of triumph and resignation, joy and loss, the happiness of young love and the dread of the coming darkness. Even amid the visual garbage, Theilemann succeeds in making a powerful case for Die Meistersinger as Wagner's most profound work--an enduring monument to the evanescence of earthly things.