Thursday, December 25, 2014

Metropolitan Opera – Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnburg. December 23, 2014.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.  Balcony (Seat B25, $87.50).

Story.  There are basically two storylines in the opera.  The first is how the self-taught poet-composer young knight Walther von Stolzing defies the tradition of how meistersongs are composed and still manage to win the Meistersinger contest.  The other is the love story between the two couples Walther and Eva, and David (Sachs’ apprentice) and Magdalene (Eva’s attendant).  The main character, however, is Hans Sachs who is involved in both stories.  Sachs helps in Walther’s win by coaching him on how to write the song, and by foiling the attempt by Beckmesser to win the contest by stealing Walther’s work.  In the love story, he is for a while the love interest of Eva, but he directs Eva’s love towards the younger Walther.

Conductor – James Levine.  Walther von Stolzing – Johan Botha, Eva Pogner – Annette Dasch, Magdalene (Eva’s daughter) – Karen Cargill, David (Sachs’ apprentice) – Paul Appleby, Veit Pogner – Hans-Peter Konig, Sixtus Beckmesser – Johannes Martin Kranzle, Hans Sachs (shoemaker) – James Morris.

Let us first dispense with the length of this opera, which is billed as a 6-hour event on the Met’s website (from 6 pm to 12 midnight).  In reality it is not quite that long: the opera started at about 6:10, and there were two intermissions of 45 minutes and 40 minutes. That leaves 4:25 hours as the actual performance time; still a lengthy one, but not overly so compared to some other Wagner operas (Gotterdammerung and Tristan and Isolde come to mind.)

The other issue is the story.  What I wrote above captures the gist of the plot.  However, it doesn’t do justice to the details Wagner wove into the opera.  First, he describes in considerable detail the Meistersinger competition process, from what the rules are and how the winning Morning Dream Song (Selige Morgentraumdeut-Weise) gets composed.  The main character, Sachs, also does a lot of introspections, one of which is “Madness, madness, everywhere madness” (Wahn, Wahn, uberall Wahn.)  At the beginning of the last Act the audience is also introduced to the different guilds of the period: for each of them a banner is trotted out by a group of artisans of that particular craft.

I often joke that Wagner, being his own librettist, probably had no one to help with editing his story; and he really liked his own writing.  As with many of his other operas, an aggressive editor could have condensed the work considerably without leaving out much of the drama or the music.  Lest this be considered a scandalous statement, people (Maazel and Gilbert come to mind) have one-hour versions of the Ring, and some composers would condense their own music (Stravinsky’s Firebird and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake are well-known examples.)

The sets were nicely designed.  Realistic, not like those undefined sets of the Ring and Tristan and Isolde, and quite elaborate.  The scene for Act 2 reminds both Anne and me (independently) of what we saw in Oberammergau, and the tradesmen and their banners remind me of the Maypoles we saw on the same trip; yes, I know Bavaria and Nuremberg are rather different regions.  I traveled quite often to Nuremberg on business in the 1990s, and remember well the city wall (Act 3) around the city.  I wonder how they manage to keep the flag on the wall flapping.

 The set for Act 2 depicts Hans Sachs' workshop.  It reminds both Anne and I of this 3-D frame we got when we visited Bavaria during the summer.

In the last scene different banners for different guilds were brought onto the stage.  Something similar to maypoles being erected.  This one is from Schwangau.

In the Playbill, Michael Volle discusses how he needs to pace himself in order to last the entire performance as Sachs.  I was wondering why that was so after the first act, not knowing the character had so much singing to do in Acts 2 and 3.  For this performance James Morris sang the role of Sachs, and he did well overall.  One could make a case that he was indeed holding back a little so he could go the distance, but who could blame him?  Johan Botha as Walther did an excellent job singing, but given his enormous size, it really took a lot of “suspension of reality” to think of him as Eva’s young love interest.  Konig as Viet Pogner, Kranzle as Beckmesser, and Appleby as David had relatively minor roles compared to Morris and Botha, but they came through.  The one disappointment was Dasch singing the role of Eva; her voice was simply no match for the strong male voices around her.

I was worried and curious how Levine would do, given the state of his health the last ten or so years.  Very well, thank you … at least from what where I sat.  He still needed to use the special chair made for him, but he was energetic and engaged.  Perhaps the longer than usual intermissions were put in to give him time to recuperate, but they are well worth it if they indeed make conducting such monumental compositions possible.

This is billed as a comedy; to me it is only true in the Shakespearean sense of a play’s being either a comedy or a tragedy.  There are some funny moments in the story, such as the riot scene that ends Act 2 or how Beckmesser made a fool of himself in Act 3, but they don’t dominate the story.  For me the other aspects of the story do not carry enough drama to make the opera riveting.  As for me, even though I did lose concentration a few times, I didn’t nod off at all.  The music is quite lyrical, especially considering the period in Wagner’s career it was composed, but sounded straightforward to the first time casual listener.  The storyline is simple despite the details introduced, and not the usual myths that characterize so much of Wagner’s work.  Many theses doubtlessly have been written to analyze these differences, but they remain academic for someone who sees this (at most) a few times.  In that sense this opera is a disappointment.

The final scene has Walther initially rejecting the title of Meistersinger.  Hans goes into this long spiel of how important it is for the glorious German traditions to be upheld.  If I had been Wagner’s editor, I definitely would have cut this out.  I am a bit surprised that subsequent editors have not excised this from the opera, especially given Wagner’s notoriety as an anti-Semite.  Even the Playbill acknowledges that this is an issue.

The New YorkTimes review is generally positive, but the reviewer seems to think Levine has lost some of the energy he had when he last led this show.  There was also an article on James Morris; he and Volle were called in after the originally program tenor withdrew.  I didn’t realize he will turn 68 shortly!  Amazing.  Also, this set will be retired after this run, and will be “replaced by a fanciful production by Stefan Herheim” in 2019.  Altogether a rather poignant moment.  Morris also made the statement that “there’s not one note in the opera that I would cut.”

We went up together with CS, with me driving his car.  We found to our delight free parking on 65th and got in early enough to grab something to eat at Europan.  CS’s is a $25 rush ticket in the orchestra area.  There were quite a few empty seats tonight, so Anne and I moved downstairs (right side of row Y) after Act 1.  The acoustics were so much better that I am (i) tempted to get some rush tickets; and (ii) consider upgrading my subscription in the future.

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