Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Marking of Die Meistersinger

Thoughts on Wagner’s “comic” opera (seen at the Met on December 6, 2014)

Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera
I live for Italian opera and have always been scared of Wagner. I thought that trying a “comic” work such as Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg would be a soft and painless entry into the Wagnerian world. I was so wrong. While the six hour length did not bother me, I very much disliked the pedantic approach of going on and on about what good singing should and should not be and building a whole absurd plot to try to prove the point. All I got from this is that Wagner does not know what master singing is or at least is incapable of achieving it in his own right in this opera. 

Let’s play Wagner’s game for a moment and wear “The Marker”’s hat to give Die Meistersinger some grades:

Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera
Dramatic tension and plot: below zero - one can see from the beginning that the lovey dovey couple will end up together and the only obstacle to that seems to be a singing competition ruled by a bunch of old school form devotees and our hero will win because he sings from the heart instead of by the rules. And the journey through which we get to the happy ending is not a particularly exciting one, the turning point being the fine-tuning of a song.

Comic timing and sense of humor: below zero - it is seriously not funny at all. The attempts at comedy are pitiful and awkward and basically all focused on the character of the town clerk Beckmesser, his highlights being things such as the scornful marking of mistakes in his rival’s song and his inability to serenade because Sachs the cobbler keeps hammering away. Oh and let’s not forget that he limps for the second part of the opera because he got beaten up by the cobbler’s apprentice.

Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Met
Pacing: below zero - Wagner takes too much time to make a point that isn’t even compellingly made, not to mention the fact that it is an utterly obvious one that was clear after the first hour before the first act was even over. And by then there were still another four and a half hours left.

Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Met
Emotional impact: below zero - the point of Wagnerian opera seems to be to remove from the operatic medium any and all moments of heightened emotions, any moments of musical virtuosity, all arias, in favor of including hours on end of the most boring quotidian details of ordinary life that are hard to care about. It’s like exchanging a single five minute aria like “Cortegiani vil razza dannata” from Verdi’s Rigoletto, in which the plot is advanced, character is communicated, emotions are heightened and a story is told through musical energy, for three hours of aria-less, arid, insipid insignificant details that plod along at a snail’s pace while we wait for the opera to make its overwrought and overly obvious point. Which is one that I might add, when it does finally make it, only does so in pretty cheesy ways. The prize song is a sorry excuse for an aria. There is no emotional impact there. Play it on its own for anybody on the street and my guess is that it won’t elicit much of a response. Do the same with Donizetti’s “Una furtiva lagrima”, and any unsuspecting listener will fall victim to its gravitational emotional pull. I’m sorry but Wagner just isn’t on the same level. Does he ever tap into the emotions? Does he ever get there?

Photo credit: Metropolitan Opera
Libretto and Lyricism: below zero - the only poetic moment is supposed to be the big passionate song our hero sings to win the competition and the hand of his beloved (incidentally, what sort of father gives his daughter away as a prize of a singing competition?), with lyrics that boil down to stuff like “I had a beautiful dream where I was in a gorgeous garden and I saw an amazing woman under a tree /  then it was evening and I saw the most beautiful woman by a fountain and was really really inspired”. This is not poetic (or moving for that matter). It is empty mumbo jumbo that has nothing to do with the love relationship of the protagonists. Wagner needs to specifically have other characters be visibly moved by this aria (“Kothner is so moved that he drops the sheet which he had started reading”) and expressly compliment it (“No one can woo like him!”), since otherwise it would not be particularly moving (or wooing for that matter).

Pleasantness: below zero - this is not something that I would like to listen to, savor or relive again. Once in a lifetime it’s plenty.

Musical firepower: pretty high - the beefed up orchestra is sure impressive and the score complex and multilayered. That may be good for a symphonic concert but it’s not by itself enough for an opera.

Proto-nazi factor: pretty high - not only the last act’s parade with all the insignia of the different master singers looked disturbingly like a third reich pageant, but also Zach’s final aria is as nationalistic as it gets:

Beware! Evil tricks threaten us:
if the German people and kingdom should one day decay,
under a false, foreign rule
soon no prince would understand his people;
and foreign mists with foreign vanities
they would plant in our German land;
what is German and true none would know,
if it did not live in the honour of German Masters.

Photo credit: Metropolitan Opera
Don’t get me wrong; my hat goes off to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, James Levine and the cast of singers who all did a great job in keeping this opera alive for six hours. It’s just that comic Wagner is really not my piece of cake, next time I will man up and dive straight into his tragic stuff.

- Lei & Lui

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