The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of Die Meistersinger in 1995 was a genuine blockbuster–a fitting fireworks display to cap off Georg Solti’s illustrious career, which had been intertwined with Wagner’s music from the start. But the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of the five-hour comic opera, on loan from the Brussels Opera House, is likely to top even that. After all, Die Meistersinger is a folk pageant, and the CSO’s concerts, though extraordinary, were still only concerts, with little acting and none of the opera’s customary period costumes, elaborate sets, or crowds of extras. The plot, set in the 16th century, revolves around a contest to determine who will be inducted into Nuremberg’s guild of master singers. One contestant, Walther von Stolzing, finds himself caught in a love triangle with a young woman named Eva and his older mentor, Hans Sachs. Wagner assigns motifs not only to each major character but to each of their emotions, from ardor to ambivalence, and together with the comic tumult of styles advocated by Walther’s fellow competitors, this produces a richly nuanced, dizzyingly multifaceted score. Walther and Hans Sachs win the day by calling for a new folk singing, a kind of radicalized tradition; the Nazis would later famously appropriate this music, parroting Wagner’s call for a “holy German art” and marching to his choruses at their rallies. Wagner himself has been accused of anti-Semitism, in part because the character of Beckmesser, a bumbling philistine, is clearly modeled after the composer’s nemesis, an influential Jewish music critic–yet Beckmesser’s parts are among the opera’s most dignified and poignant. Director Kurt Horres, a veteran Wagnerian, and designer Andreas Reinhardt update the traditional folk color of the staging to the 1840s, when Wagner himself was a young man; conductor Christian Thielemann’s rigorous, archly romantic interpretations likewise depart from orthodoxy. At Lyric he has at his disposal a top-notch cast headed by Gosta Winbergh, a Swedish tenor, as Walther; bass Jan-Hendrik Rootering as Hans Sachs; baritone Eike Wilm Schulte as Beckmesser; and soprano Nancy Gustafson, an Evanston native, as Eva. Friday, Tuesday, and next Friday, February 19, 6 PM (plus performances through March 13), Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker; 312-332-2244. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Dan Rest.