Die Meistersinger von Chicago

Last week I trekked to Chicago to see my first live performance of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The Lyric Opera of Chicago is featuring the Glyndebourne production this season, and starring the Hans Sachs: James Morris. Rounding out the cast was Johan Botha, Illinois native Amanda Majeski, and Bo Skovhus. While I’m not here necessarily to write a review of the performance, I’d definitely like to reflect on my experience.

In brief, Die Meistersinger stands out among Wagner’s output. First, it’s his only comedy. (More specifically, it’s the only comedy in the Bayreuth canon.) As a loyal Wagnerite, I concede that humor is generally the last characteristic associated with the composer. He has occasional comedic moments in other works (e.g., “Das ist kein Mann!”), but weighty melodrama is often his weapon of choice. And, what’s more, it’s an actual comedy – instead of just “funny for Wagner.” (And if comedy’s not your thing, then you’ll at least find the subplot regarding arguments of aesthetics quite relevant.) Second, it’s his only opera that’s not about a vaguely Medieval – or earlier – plot or legend. It revolves around the actual singing guilds in Renaissance Europe. (And Hans Sachs, the main protagonist, was a real person, though he’s arguably more of a template than anything else in Die Meistersinger.) Third, Die Meistersinger is a structural departure from Wagner’s other works. In it he employs more traditional operatic devices – aria, chorus, ballet, a quintet, catchy melodies – albeit in his own Wagnerian manner. Finally, it’s long. And that’s saying something when discussing Wagner. Despite Der Ring des Nibelungen‘s mammoth length (~18ish hours over a week), Meistersinger is his longest standalone work. (Parsifal and Götterdämmerung aren’t far behind, however.) Including the two intermission, Chicago’s production lasted 5.5 hours, from 5:30 to 11:00 PM.

[Before going any further, it’s worth addressing the work’s controversy – something I’ll mention but not dwell on here, as it’s not the post for it. While Wagner in general was heavily propagandized by the Third Reich, Meistersinger was given particular attention by the Nazi regime. This stemmed from Hans Sachs’s final monologue, heavy with nationalistic sentiment. (It’s worth noting that the work was completed in 1868, a time rife with Franco-Prussian tension.) Also, the character of Beckmesser, the antagonist, is often considered an anti-Semitic Jewish caricature. It’s still debated today, and Katharina Wagner, the composer’s great-granddaughter and current co-director of Bayreuth along with her half-sister, has weighed in on the topic – she thinks Beckmesser probably relied on Jewish stereotypes.]

The production itself was wonderful. (See the above video for a taste.) While the staging was Walther’s peeping in on the congregation in the opening scene, the first act was “open” visually. Every inch of the stage was used in the second and third acts. From the streets and doorways and balconies of Nürnberg, to Hans Sachs’s detailed home and workshop, to the city’s celebration and contest, the sets were elaborate and helped to welcome the audience into a Nürnberg of centuries past. Perhaps what I appreciated most was the fact that the set grew in complexity throughout the work. After the prelude, the audience was treated to the opening scene’s expansive though minimal design. However, about four and a half hours later, at the start of the city’s festival, I felt as if the set engulfed the whole theater. (Did I mention that I sat in the first balcony?) The curtains rose on that final scene to full orchestra, chorus, dancers, jugglers masquerading on stilts, and other visual delights. Music and drama aside, it was a clever way to continually draw the audience in throughout such a massive work. After Chicago’s quasi-minimalist productions for 2005’s Ring and 2009’s Tristan und Isolde, it was nice to see something more fleshed out.

The performing was stellar. Botha was a joyous Walther von Stolzing and Majeski‘s Eva was heavenly. If what I saw last week was any indication, she’ll be one to watch over the next many years. She had a lighter timbre for Wagner, but the fact that it was never abrasive fit well with the piece’s tone. But James Morris towered over the rest of the cast – musically and literally (he’s 6’5″) – as Hans Sachs. He’s been arguably the world’s leading Sachs for the last number of years, as evidenced in The Met’s 2001 production (the one I enjoy at home). I saw him as Wotan in Chicago’s 2005 Ring, and he amazed me again in Meistersinger. Finally, honorable mention goes to the scene-stealing Bo Skovhus as Beckmesser. Not only did he sing magnificently, but his physical comedy throughout really brought the character’s foibles to life. I was struggling to contain my continuous laughter during and after Beckmesser’s his final, confused aria. (The rest of the audience was laughing, but I lost it.) He and Morris alone were worth the price of admission. Vocals aside, Sir Andrew Davis did wonders at the orchestra’s helm. Aside from a couple slight French horn hiccups in Act I – a farewell nod to Dale Clevenger? – the orchestra was near flawless.

Finally, the overall experience itself was transcendent. Again, Gesamtkunstwerk is better experienced firsthand rather than explained. All of the above elements, experienced together, led to my being transported out of my seat and into the story for a few hours last week. From the overture’s opening chord to the finale, I at no point looked down at my watch to check the time. I savored every minute of it, and it ranks as one of my favorite live musical experiences as an audience member. I look forward to seeing it again sometime. (Hopefully the next production and cast hold up!) Until then, I look forward to seeing Lyric’s production of Parsifal this fall!

A discussion of the piece and production by Lyric’s creative heads Anthony Freud, Renée Fleming, and Sir Andrew Davis:

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