The Metropolitan will present Die Meistersinger in its “Live in HD” series this coming Saturday, December 13. The company’s only previous telecast of Wagner’s comedy dates from 2001. Available on DVD, it was conducted by James Levine, as it will be on Saturday; it will be seen in the same pictorial, traditionalist production, the work of Otto Schenk and Günther Schneider-Siemssen. The excellent 2001 cast featured James Morris, Ben Heppner, Karita Mattila, and Thomas Allen.
Meistersinger received its U.S. premiere at the Met in 1886 and has been a repertoire staple ever since. Apart from the very early and nearly never performed Das Liebesverbot, it is the composer’s only comedy. And except for Das Liebesverbot, it is his only work devoid of the supernatural. In 16th-century, middle-class Nuremberg there are no gods and Valkyries, mermaids, dragons, love potions, or knights of the Holy Grail. In fact, the central character, Hans Sachs, is an historical figure, a cobbler and a poet. Both his shoemaking and his knowledge of verse are deeply embedded in the libretto.
Structured around a singing contest for which Sachs, a mastersinger, is a judge, Meistersinger focuses on the place of art in society through the character of one of the contestants, Walther von Stolzing. Walther progresses from undisciplined inspiration in Act I to the Act III completion of the Preislied, a prize love-song that both expresses his ardor and wins the approbation of the mastersingers and the populace. The opera reaches its climax in a crescendo of public acclaim for Hans Sachs, for his generosity, good sense, and, problematically for generations of listeners, for his defense of German art. Sachs’s warning against foreign influences (generally understood as French or Jewish) is a direct appeal to German nationalism. On the occasion of the opera’s first production at Glyndebourne in 2011, The Guardian noted, “Music from Meistersinger was chosen to accompany the inaugural celebrations of the Third Reich in 1933, it was used by Leni Riefenstahl in her propaganda films, it was conducted on film by Wilhelm Furtwängler to symbolize the greatness of Germany's war effort, and it was the only piece performed at Wagner's theatre in Bayreuth during the war years.”
The four clips that follow provide a sampler of Wagner at his most lyrical. When asked with whom he has studied poetry, Walther answers sweetly, the medieval minstrel Walther von der Vogelweide, whose verses inspired him. And what school instructed him? The birds of the forest. His answers come forth in the three stanzas of his song. Leo Slezak, a remarkable tenor who appeared at the Met between 1909 and 1913 in roles as diverse in their demands as Mozart’s Tamino and Wagner’s Tannhaüser, sings “Am stillen Herd (At the quiet hearth)” with an ease of address and a purity of timbre preserved in this 1905 recording.
Hans Sachs, too, is a poet of nature, but with a philosophical bent, as he repeatedly proves through the course of the opera. His Act III, scene 1 monologue, “Wahn! Wahn! (Madness, madness)” first reflects on the follies of human nature in its thirst for anger and strife. Sachs, who finds peace in contemplating his beloved Nuremberg, then evokes the fragrance of his elder-tree on Midsummer’s Eve. Friedrich Schorr, a phenomenal heroic baritone and perhaps the most renowned Sachs of the 20th century, encompasses the piece’s power and tenderness.
The first scene of Act III ends with an ecstatic quintet whose harmonies are proof that the benevolent cobbler has intervened put things right: he has given youth its due, renouncing his claim to Eva, and has helped Walther complete the song that will win Eva’s hand; Sachs has also promoted his affable apprentice David to the rank of journeyman, thereby assuring his marriage to Eva’s nurse, Magdalene. All sing as if in a dream. Led by, and then capped by the floating lines of the soprano, the five voices intertwine in common joy. The recording here is from a 1935 Vienna performance conducted by Felix Weingartner. Lotte Lehmann is the Eva. When she sang the role soon after her 1934 Met debut, Lawrence Gilman threw aside critical restraint and wrote, "with her [first] words, [she] made one exclaim involuntarily to oneself, 'But this is the real thing.'"
The payoff at the opera’s conclusion is Walther’s prize song. In the previous scene, Wagner whets our appetite for the finished piece; Sachs makes helpful comments as the budding poet composes. The final version of the stanzas of the Preislied signals the triumph of love, of community, of art. Lauritz Melchior, unquestionably the greatest Wagner tenor of the 20th century, an irreplaceable Tristan and Siegfried, never sang the less demanding Walther in his long Met career. But even at the age of sixty, soon after he left the company, the freshness of his voice and his infectious joy are manifest in this 1950 television rendition of the aria.