Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, September 23 and 24


Lyric Opera, through October 21

H.L. Mencken thought Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg was Western civilization’s single greatest work of art. English critic Ernest Newman described it as “the greatest of all comedies in music.” And Georg Solti in his introductory note to last weekend’s concert performances said that he thought it “the most complete and most brilliantly conceived opera.” With all this against it, how does this tale of the foibles and virtues of 16th-century bourgeois Nuremberg by a dead white European male continue to speak more truly to the heart of the modern operagoer than The Death of Klinghoffer or Satyagraha?

In all of his other masterpieces Wagner dealt with mythic situations and legendary characters. His gods of Valhalla and lovers faithful unto death are larger than life–and perhaps a little remote, though Wagner makes us care about them and their fates. By contrast Die Meistersinger deals with everyday people and their small concerns: a love affair, a promotion, a song contest. It speaks more directly to the modern listener because it deals with real people, not the epitomes of banal evil that contemporary opera offers. Wagner’s musical and dramatic genius makes the inhabitants of this small city in Germany universal. All who have loved can see their reflections in Walther and Eva and can hear their thoughts echoed in the young lovers’ music. The poet-cobbler Hans Sachs displays the wisdom and regrets of the mature thinker. And who among us hasn’t had to deal with a Beckmesser–a carping pedant, unimaginative and underhanded and usually in a position of authority?

Ever the theatrical chameleon, Wagner immersed himself in the world of his Renaissance common folk and made them individual. Each of the baker’s dozen of Meistersingers has a distinctive personality–or the makings of one in the hands of a singer of sufficient artistry. The young knight and his love, the goldsmith’s daughter, are not stock lovers. After all, Walther has decided to take a sensible job in the city, and Eva has more trouble keeping his temper under control than his ardor. The secondary couple, David the apprentice and Magdalene, are more than mere comic relief. David has his humorous aspects, but he doesn’t stoop to slapstick. The simple joy expressed by all four of these characters in the third act elevates the spirit of this work to a plane well beyond the baldly comic. Beckmesser is a three-dimensional villain–nasty but not stupid or farcical, and with plenty of comic facets.

Even more brilliant are Wagner’s musical innovations. He opened the show with a perfect chorale and put romantic interludes between phrases. He systematized a historically convincing set of rules for the Meistersingers, then followed them to create Walther’s prize song. He made the prize song, reiterated as a requirement of the plot, different enough in each version to hold our interest. He included a waltz as lush as one by Strauss as warm-up music for the third-act entrance of the Meistersingers, and followed up with a choral greeting to Sachs from the admiring Nurembergers that evokes more religious feeling than most hymns heard in a church.

Wagner’s final invocation of “holy German art” is often misread as some sort of precursor of national aggressiveness. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s a stirring theme reminding us to preserve those things that are best in civilization against the forces of darkness–which often emanate from within us.

The original plan for Die Meistersinger was for a little opera that could be performed by any decent provincial German opera house. The final result was a score that was the largest ever published up to that time, that required resources even the mightiest opera house can only occasionally assemble. Luckily for opera lovers, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra assembled those resources this past weekend for a two-day performance–the high point of Sir Georg Solti’s programs this season and potentially this season’s operatic high point.

Ordinarily one would rebel at the thought of a concert version of this eminently stageable and approachable opera, protesting that one of Wagner’s more ethereal works, such as Tristan und Isolde or Parsifal, was better suited to the concert hall. And ordinarily one would be right. But in this case there was an excellent excuse: this series of performances is being recorded for release in 1997. Recordings of live performances are tricky enough when you have audience noise, without adding rumbling stage equipment.

Assisted no doubt by his status as the preeminent living Wagner conductor, Solti assembled a dream cast. Ben Heppner is familiar to Chicago audiences from Lyric Opera’s worldpremiere performances of William Bolcom’s McTeague. Here he was in an altogether different role as his robust tenor scaled the heights of Walther’s bold love and aristocratic hauteur. Karita Mattila made her CSO debut as Eva. Her voice is both strong and youthful, a splendid choice for the character of Pogner’s teenage daughter. David and Magdalene were ably sung by Herbert Lippert and Iris Vermillion; Vermillion’s young-sounding mezzo was especially refreshing given the frumpy middle-aged tones usually associated with her character. The goldsmith, Pogner, was sung by Rene Pape, whose impressive resonant bass gives the hint of a great Sachs to come. Alan Opie as Beckmesser offered much less “bad singing” than is usually associated with this role, effectively removing the logical obstacle presented by one of the senior members of the singing guild barely being able to string two notes together correctly. Besides, slapstick doesn’t go far on a concert stage. Hans Sachs received the loving attention and mellow tones of Jose van Dam. This role combines gentle introspection, decisive activity, and serene moral authority in a way that challenges any singer, but van Dam admirably carried it off, though sometimes at a bit lower volume than expected (perhaps his mind was focused on the pending recording as much as on the current performance). The heavy artillery of the CSO, reinforced by more than 150 members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, carried away the honors in the forte portions of this score and delicately negotiated the more introspective parts of this towering work. Solti, desiring to lighten the score a bit, chose tempi that were occasionally a trifle quicker than the norm, but I don’t say that that’s a fault. The concerts should prove the basis for a great recording, and those who attended had a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

In the days of Ernest Newman one could be pretty sure that no operas older than Mozart’s would be encountered in an opera house, except possibly, once in a great while, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Handel’s Xerxes (1738) received five performances during the life of the composer, then promptly vanished from the stage for 186 years, to be revived only in 1924. The program notes state that Xerxes “has proved one of Handel’s most popular operas” since its revival. Indeed. Now name three others you’ve seen.

The aesthetic that animates Xerxes is as dead as the castrati who took its main roles, yet this opera and this staging provide a diverting evening. Unfortunately the modern opera house is still under the influence of the operatic aesthetic of the 19th century–house lights down, audience expected to listen with rapt attention to every measure of music. And since every single repeat of every single aria is included, this opera runs about as long as Lohengrin, but without as much action. Four or five arias from each of the principals would have been plenty.

Musically the show is impeccable. It seems unlikely that Handel ever had such attention lavished on a production during his lifetime. Elizabeth Futral was the heroine of the evening, literally and figuratively. As the young lover Romilda, her purity of tone, exceptional ability to float lovely notes, agile coloratura, and striking good looks were riveting. Mezzo-soprano Ann Murray in the title role was also a rare treat, breathing life into the petulant and frustrated monarch and offering an outstanding example of baroque singing. Kathleen Kuhlmann was a fine choice for the betrayed and bitter princess Amastris; her portrayal was so forceful one might want to toy with the idea of switching Kuhlmann and Murray in their roles.

Many of the comic aspects of the evening fell to soprano Alison Hagley, whose singing was excellent as Romilda’s scheming sister Atalanta. Countertenor Christopher Robson was adequate as Xerxes’ brother Arsamenes. The artificial nature of this type of singing makes it difficult to be pleasing to the contemporary ear; Robson made a gallant attempt, but he was clearly running out of voice by the third act. Kevin Langan was a fine and pompous Ariodates, the father of Romilda and Atalanta, while George Hogan, as Arsamenes’ long-suffering servant Elviro, garnered most of the laughs not bestowed on Atalanta.

The orchestra played the predictable score with vigor under conductor John Nelson. The Lyric Chorus was given a few nice moments, but nothing like the monumental numbers of Handel’s sacred works. Dyed a uniform dingy gray, the chorus members looked like survivors of some 18th-century concentration camp. The intent was probably to make them look as striking as the white-faced supernumeraries, but they only looked shabby. The other visual aspects of the performance were appropriate to the essential fluffiness of the material.