The Met in HD: A massive, masterful ‘Meistersinger’

Meistersinger crowd scene.
Loud arguments wake the sleeping town. In lower right, Eva (Annette Dasch) and Walther (Johan Botha) try to elope. (Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

WASHINGTON, December 17, 2014 – Last Saturday’s matinee performance of Richard Wagner’s gargantuan opera, “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” which was simulcast live to movie theaters worldwide as part of the “Met in HD” series, could likely have been opera’s best deal ever.

With tickets priced at $25 or so, die-hard Wagnerites got to see this rarely-performed gem in the comfort of steeply-raked, seriously comfortable stadium seats such as those at Northern Virginia’s AMC Tysons Corner 16 theater complex where we attended this operatic main event.

That kind of physical environment—including full surround sound projection—proved a big plus Saturday. That’s because this monster of an opera runs a full six hours (count ‘em), including two half-hour intermissions. Lengthwise, that puts it right up there with “Die Götterdämmerung” (“The Twilight of the Gods”), the grand finale to Wagner’s famous “Ring Cycle” of operas.

As in the Deutsch Oper Berlin’s staging of “Götterdämmerung” here at the Kennedy Center, way back in 1989—the last time Washingtonians got to see the full Ring Cycle—we understand that New York Met patrons attending “Meistersinger” evening performances can choose to purchase a full-course dinner along with their opera tickets. Diners quickly adjourned to tables set up on the mezzanine levels during each of the two lengthy intermissions, first for appetizers and the main entrée, and later for coffee and dessert.

That’s an elegant way to handle a work of this length and keep the audience happy. Met in HD theater-goers don’t have it quite that nice. But those long intermissions offer plenty of time for stocking up on big buckets of popcorn, Haagen-Dazs ice cream bars, and Bloomberg-hostile Big Gulp sized Diet Cokes, not to mention blessedly leisurely bathroom breaks.

Another thing that helps when attending a Wagner extravaganza: taking a lengthy nap ahead of time.

Well-rested and alert, and armed with viable food and bathroom strategies, Saturday’s surprisingly full audience inside the usual Theater #15 at the Tysons AMC kicked back and wallowed in a phenomenally great performance of “Meistersinger” courtesy of a great cast of singers, an awesomely well-trained chorus, and a brilliantly ready-to-play Met Opera Orchestra under the baton of their beloved Music Director, James Levine.

A Wagner opera, in the main, is a bit different from what fair-weather opera fans generally prefer. While a Wagner opera always has a predictably grand, dramatic sweep, it rarely gives you tunes you can take back home and sing in the shower. We’re dealing with “sung drama” here, an operatic approach controversial in its time but one that gained adherents over the decades and largely persists even in new operas written in this century.

The idea is to weave music into an already coherent drama, transformed, of course, into a more lyrical opera libretto. Wagner’s idea, grossly oversimplified, was to join all the major arts—music, drama and poetry—into one overarching art form, a vision he finally felt he’d perfected in his Ring Cycle.

“Meistersinger”: The Story

“Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” (1868)—“The Master Singers of Nuremberg” in English—is just as ambitious as the Ring Cycle in its way. Yet for all its massive length, it’s somehow more accessible.

No gods, goddesses and supermen here. This is the relatively simple story about a disparate bunch of 16th century German tradesmen whose idea of a Lions Club is to form an invitation-only guild of super-singers. Renowned throughout the land for their vocal excellence, they’re a greatly-respected and integral part of the city, and being admitted to their ranks is viewed as a singular honor.

Each year, the Nuremberg Master Singers have a singing contest that takes place in public before an eager crowd of citizens. But we’re promised a unique event as the opera unfolds. Veit Pogner, the town goldsmith, pledges to his fellow Master Singers that his unmarried daughter, Eva, has agreed to be united in marriage with the upcoming contest winner.

Almost if on cue, a wandering young knight, Walther von Stolzing, shows up at the Master Singer’s meeting and requests permission to join the group. After wangling an on-the-spot audition and doing well—at least in our opinion—the Master Singers reject his application because his song varies widely from their approved content and format.

Complicating matters, the supercilious town clerk, Sixtus Beckmesser, is already scheming to marry Eva himself, and is correctly suspicious that the young knight has already caught Eva’s eye.

Sachs and Eva.
Hans Sachs (James Morris) prepares to give the hand of his daughter Eva (Annette Dasch) to the winner of the singing competition. (Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

After a considerable amount of Sturm und Drang, we finally get to the actual singing contest in the opera’s final half hour. Due to the machinations of cobbler Hans Sachs—the Master Singers’ nominal leader and most popular figure, himself secretly in love with Eva—Beckmesser makes a botch of his singing before the populace. The untutored Walther, carefully coached by Sachs, is permitted to sing his song and is enthusiastically acclaimed the victor by the ecstatic crowd. It’s easy to predict the rest.

We go on at some length here on the plot and structure for one important reason: as we’ve noted before, Wagner didn’t intend for his works to be merely operas. Politics, poetry, philosophy and human drama were all integrated into the musical and dramatic structure of his works, and “Meistersinger” is no exception.

The stodginess of Beckmesser and many of the Master Singers with regard to the freedom to innovate in art is the composer’s way of condemning the many opera critics who despised what he was doing with the form. In the composer’s mind, they preferred instead a mindless conformity to antiquated rules rather than encouraging artistic freedom of expression.

Ditto the radical Wagner’s political views which got him in a great deal of trouble with authorities early in his career. On that plane, “Meistersinger” is critical as well of Europe’s still-stifling royal and elitist trappings and impermeable class structures. In “Meistersinger,” ironically, it is minor royalty in the person of Stolzing who is petitioning the middle-class Master Singers for admission to their guild, and not the other way around, although the Master Singers themselves act just as stodgily at times as do the upper and royal classes Wagner detested.

Fortunately, all this highfalutin’ stuff is artfully concealed in “Meistersinger’s” easy-to-follow and often charming romantic story as well as the opera’s boisterous and occasionally slapstick humor. It’s all highly effective and lighthearted—words we’re unaccustomed to using when discussing the works of Richard Wagner.

In other words, what we have here is a very long but very human comic romance about ordinary people with ordinary lives who nonetheless strive, at least in music, to achieve the extraordinary. Except that, since we’re dealing with Wagner and not Donizetti, it takes six hours, not three, to get through all the material and deliver the payoff.

And what a payoff audiences got during Saturday’s HD simulcast performance.

Saturday’s Live in HD performance

At the top of the charts was bass-baritone James Morris whose superb voice and impressive acting chops put this production on a higher level. In his late 60s but looking scarcely 50, his vocal skills remained up to the task, enabling him to deliver a consistently impressive performance in this most lengthy and exhausting of roles. His character, the charismatic cobbler-poet Sachs, is beloved of the townspeople.

And Mr. Morris earned the adulation of the Lincoln Center audience and the one at Tysons Corner as well, even earning a sustained ovation inside the theater here where he couldn’t possibly have heard it.

Beckmesser sings.
The villainous but hapless Beckmesser (Johannes Martin Kränzle) botches his entry in the singing contest. (Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

A bit less successful was tenor Johan Botha who portrayed Walther von Stolzing. While he sang his final contest piece quite well, he seemed at other times to be straining somewhat. That said, we’re always sympathetic when it comes to marathon performances of Wagner, most of which require a superhuman effort from the principals. Perhaps Mr. Botha pushed a bit too hard, and paid a price, at least during part of Saturday’s performance.

A comic opera always needs a comic villain. In this one, it’s the constantly scheming Sixtus Beckmesser, portrayed in this production with a convincing but bumbling nastiness by baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle. Constantly looking about, with his eyes and visage filled with malice and apprehension, everything Mr. Kränzle’s Beckmesser does is unintentionally funny, yet we never doubt his malice.

Better yet, however, Mr. Kränzle is a superb singer as well. He is vocally strong when asserting himself earlier in the opera. But his voice comically stumbles and falters in his contest song in a self-deprecating manner that’s totally consistent with his character’s ultimate ineptitude. This is operatic comedy at its best.

Walther (Johan Botha) sings.
Eva’s knight in shining armor, Walther (Johan Botha) has a go at the Meistersinger prize-and the hand of Eva. (Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

The ladies don’t have a great deal to do in this opera, even Eva, our heroine. Nevertheless, the very attractive soprano Annette Dasch proves a winning Eva in this production, backed up by her lovely yet deceptively powerful instrument and her ability to win the audience over quickly in her brief scenes.

Secondary characters were all well sung in this production. And, if we haven’t mentioned it before, the Met Opera Orchestra under Mr. Levine was in its glorious, symphonic best not only during the opera. They particularly excelled in the famous opening overture and also in the grand finale during which six of the trumpet players plus a few percussionists actually donned medieval garb and joined the crowd on stage as part of the Master Singers’ welcoming committee, adding some extra spice to the scene.

And before we adjourn, we should also offer a few dozen enthusiastic bravos to the incomparable work of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus. In action and in costume, they still delivered the goods with enthusiasm and precision in this opera, whose rousing choruses underscore some of “Meistersinger’s” finest moments.

And, as TV’s Columbo used to say, by the way: a big hat tip to the Met for bringing back its wonderful sets for this production. Created by Otto Schenk for the Met’s previous 1993 production, these three glorious main settings—one for each act, with a few adaptations en route—are the kind of settings (and costuming) we so rarely see these days even in supposedly grand operas.

Frankly, in today’s post-collapse environment, such extravagance costs too much for most opera companies. The Met, of course, has been having some of its own budget problems lately, but can still pull this sort of production off on occasion. The fact that theatergoers can now sample, albeit at some distance, some of this kind of magnificence provides value-added to Met in HD patrons.

Proof? We overheard several random discussions among the Tysons AMC patrons as they shuffled out the exits after Wagner’s 6-hour opera marathon. “I wasn’t sure I could deal with six hours,” said one lady, “but it was all wonderful and worth every minute.”

Said another, “Whew! I’d do it again. You never get to see anything like this any more. It was so exciting I forgot about the time.”

We agree.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

The encore performance of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” Live in HD (approximately 6 hours in length) happens Wednesday, December 17 at 6:00 p.m. local time at participating local movie theaters.

For tickets, information and theater locations visit the Met’s website.

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