Sunday, December 14, 2014

Die Meistersinger: A Musical Lecture

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is a hard sell. There's no way I'm ever going to make you wish you had been with me at the 'Met Live in HD' performance at our local theater recently. All I can do is explain why it held my interest from one word to the next, from one note to the next, almost every moment.

The hardest aspect for me to get around concerns the HD broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera house in New York: the amount of light adequate for the stage presentation is not adequate for the video cameras. As a result, all the costumes appear to be some shade of gray, especially for the long night scene. I found myself starving for color.  I thought at first that the costume designer was on some crazy modernist tangent, but the still photos of the opera I found online seem to show warm, natural colors, so we have to blame a technological weakness of the HD broadcast medium.

The next most serious problem was that the tenor is comically obese. The tenor is supposed to be a dashing knight who can win the heart of a woman merely by ogling her in church, and who can win an elite singing and poetry contest without any training or practice. Johan Botha, the tenor who sings the role, is so fat that his jowls jiggle distractingly.

Johan Botha as a singing knight in Die Meistersinger
My shot from the movie screen of the curtain call.

On the right, Botha as the knight and  Annette Dasch as the fair maiden, Magdalene;
On the Left, Karen Cargill as Magdalene's attendant and Paul Appleby,
as the apprentice shoemaker; in the center, Martin Gantner as the town baker
and chairman of the singers' guild. Internet grab.
Opera singers tend to be overweight; most of the cast could stand to lose a little weight, but you accept the singer on the far right as a beautiful maiden, and even her attendant on the far left manages to be coquettish, but Botha is so heavy that he has lost mobility, especially in his face. No matter how hard he tries to project emotion, he always wears the same eager, fatuous grin. I'm sorry, but that's a problem.

And how does Botha keep his place in one of the most demanding opera companies in the world? He has a damn good tenor voice. In the finale, when he performs the winning song, it is truly a winner; you seriously believe that he could win any singing contest. But the heart of a beautiful maiden?

Next comes the plot, which is as familiar as the plot of a teen movie: it is merely a singing contest, with the hand of a beautiful maiden (and all the worldly goods of her father) as the prize. Not surprisingly, the dark horse contestant (Botha) is from out of town, and he has new ideas about singing and poetry, ideas that are rubbished by the committee of judges. After a crash course, he sings with such passion and verve that he wins everyone over and gets the girl. Ho hum. There is no suspense or surprise to draw us along.

While the plot is familiar, the music is so fresh and innovative that it's a little disorienting. Most of the time, the singers seem to be talking; they exchange a few lines at a time as if in conversation. The characters spend much of their time explaining things or arguing, instead of expressing their emotions. I was quite involved with what they were saying, and the poetic way they were saying it. The music seemed entirely subordinate to the the words and ideas. By the way, Wagner wrote both together, just like the contestants in the story.

With ideas dominating, the music flows on and on, like a river. There are no songs with beginnings and ends. There are no detachable melodies. The music is very melodic, but for much of the opera, it is one long continuous melody. It takes you into a sort of dream state, like Indian raga music. Musical figures or themes appear and disappear, and blend together. It's as though beneath life's conflicts and confusion, there is always a stream of beautiful music. Lucky Wagner.

The most amazing thing about this opera is that it's subject is the theory of composition: How to compose a song; what makes a good song; the relationship of convention to innovation; the role of the critic; the experience of the composer. Wagner is stunningly systematic. He starts out by comparing composition to the craft of shoemaking. The delightful concept behind the plot is a village where the craftsmen are also poets who sing the songs they write; in the mid-1500s the town of Nürnberg actually had a guild of craftsmen who were singers. So Wagner starts out by looking at musical composition as a craft. Next he takes up the question of who gets to be the ultimate judge of quality. Should it be fellow performers, like the Academy Awards? Or should it be "the people," like a popularity contest? Next question: does a performer need a teacher or can he get his inspiration from life experience?

An excellent comedy sub-plot is built around the process of judging a song. When the knight first tries out for the singing contest, his performance is "marked" harshly according to some obscure set of rules by the town clerk, who is an expert judge, as well as the knight's potential rival. The clerk even stops the performance, and the knight must assert himself over a hubbub to deliver the final verse. Later when the clerk attempts to serenade the fair young maiden the night before the contest, the cobbler drowns out his efforts with a rain of hammer blows on the sole of a shoe he is making, getting revenge on the pompous ass. In the contest itself, the clerk is tricked into singing a song written by someone else, a song he doesn't understand, and he makes a hilarious mess of it. The baritone Johannes Martin Kranzle does a great job on this tricky role.

Since the story is about how to write a song, it's true hero is the town's music teacher. Based on a real-life shoemaker-poet who also wrote music and plays, the character of Hans Sachs is one of the most complex and fully developed parts in any opera. Sachs has been the custodian of the guild's high standards for many years, yet he is open to innovation. He can be spiteful, as when he wrecks the clerk's serenade; he can be open-minded, as when he listens sincerely to the knight's first song at the try-outs. He has tender feelings for the fair young maiden, but he is realistic enough to know that he is too old for her, and noble enough to promote her romance with the knight of her dreams. In the third act he has a pensive solo about man's foolishness, yet he rises out of this depression to make everything come out right for the lovers and for his village. Fortunately, Michael Volle was magnetic in the role. His stage presence was vital and confident, and his bass-baritone voice ranged from powerful and authoritative to mellifluous and shaded. He made the 'teacher as hero' very believable.

Michael Volle as Hans Sach, the shoemaker and music master;
Annette Dasch as Eva, the fair maiden.
Internet grab.
Wagner's creativity was comprehensive. The lyrics sung by the contestants are beautiful nature poetry, quite typical of German literature in the mid-19th century when he wrote it. In addition to poetry, the opera has a pretty romance, a lecture on composition theory, comic scenes of great hilarity, a soul-searching solo, pageantry and songs for a huge chorus, and spiteful satire targeting Wagner's own critics. It's no wonder it took him four and a half hours to say it all (he could have been a teensy bit more concise in a few places); with two 45-minute intermissions, the entire performance clocked in at six hours. It was a challenge: viewers really needed to get a bite to eat and walk around a bit while the complicated sets are being changed out. But it's not as hard as you would imagine. It's kind of swell to be in Wagner's world, hypnotically musical. I was in no hurry to leave.