Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg
The ironies of Wagner
From the December, 2014 issue
If I say "Wagner," some of you will say "very long operas with supersized sopranos sporting Viking helmets." Plus, you'll probably add "the world's second-loudest anti-Semite, behind only you know who." And of course you'd be right--and wrong.
So, first the music. Everything you think you know about Wagner applies--and doesn't--to Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg. It is long--The Met: Live in HD broadcast on December 13 at the Quality 16 Theaters will run, counting intermissions, from noon to 6 p.m. And, as with his other operas, Wagner wrote the libretto as well as the music, so it is epic, the story struggling with that age-old balance of technique and feeling in art. But Meistersinger is also Wagner's only comic opera, meaning nobody dies.
It is also, at times, funny. Yes, Wagner, funny. Mistaken identities, jealous suitors, and comedic bits abound. While an untalented wannabe sings, a cobbler/mastersinger works on a pair of shoes for him, pounding in a nail for every mistake the singer makes. There is also love at first sight and, after surmounting suitable obstacles, the triumph of true love.
While true love is not--thankfully--limited to the svelte, or any other standard of beauty, it would not be inaccurate to say that Annette Dasch, the Eva in this production, is easy on the eyes. Opposite Dasch, tenor Johan Botha, who can't be accused of being willowy, but can be praised for both the beauty of his tone and his vocal power, will be reprising the role of Walther. On the podium will be the incomparable James Levine, who's conducted at the Met for more than forty years. At age seventy-one, he seems to have recovered from injuries that sidelined him for several years and will undoubtedly summon the energy and endurance necessary for this mammoth production.
Back to Wagner's anti-Semitism. His repellent essay "Jewishness in Music" and his vitriolic attacks on Mendelssohn and other Jewish musicians deserve, and have received, the enduring revulsion of
all right-thinking people.
But Wagnerian ironies abound; practically no one reads that essay now, but countless people the world over have found beauty and inspiration in Wagner's music. (Example: James Levine is the grandson of a cantor.) This Meistersinger broadcast will be seen in eighty-seven countries, from Albania to Uruguay, and will have a worldwide audience of nearly 100,000 people.
Some hold that Wagner based Beckmesser, the villain in Meistersinger, on a Jewish music critic and cite that as proof that Wagner's anti-Semitism even crept into his music. But there is another reference in Meistersinger, albeit unintended, that seems more important. Today we can hardly hear the name Nuremberg without also hearing the word trials. And those trials, and the atrocities that sparked them, are sadly, but also hopefully, far more widely known than even Wagner.
Those who already love Wagner's music won't want to miss this production. Those whose experience is limited have an ideal opportunity to challenge and expand their impressions.
[Originally published in December, 2014.]
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