I don’t know why, but every time I hear the four mighty chords that begin Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger,” tears come to my eyes. Perhaps it’s the sheer grandeur of this music. But this is not the grandeur of the gods and goddesses of Valhalla or the legendary heroes that make up most of the great German composer’s oeuvre. It’s an homage to the little people: the everyday bakers, goldsmiths and shoemakers who made up the guilds (sort-of trade unions, as well as social clubs) of medieval Europe. Wagner’s only comic opera is a love letter to these common folks.
In this case, the guild in question is kind of a sub-group, made up of tradesmen who also are singer-songwriters, hence the title “Mastersingers.” It’s a pretty exclusive club, not terribly welcoming to newcomers. But that doesn’t stop Walther von Stolzing (Brandon Jovanovich, singing bravely and beautifully through a cold), a knight newly arrived in town, from trying to muscle his way in. His motivation is simple — love. The master singers are holding a competition with the prize being the hand of the beautiful Eva (Rachel Willis-Sørensen), daughter of a rich goldsmith. Walther has fallen in love with Eva (and vice versa) through soulful glances in church and, despite his lack of training and experience, is determined to sing his way to the altar. Of course he cannot do it alone, and that gives us the real hero of this piece, Hans Sachs the shoemaker, a beloved citizen of Nuremberg and respected meistersinger himself.
Sørensen and Jovanovich are well-matched, both physically and vocally, but the kindly and occasionally irritable cobbler is the true hero of the tale and Wagner’s mouthpiece for his ideas on art (old forms vs. new), love (young vs. old) and the greatness of Germany (in a somewhat off-putting coda at the end). As sung by British baritone James Rutherford, who has done the role at Bayreuth as well as numerous other prestigious venues, this shoemaker/poet is less commanding than, say, James Morris, who owned the role for years, but infinitely human. A widower, with a secret crush on Eva himself, he is lonely, morose, both abusive and generous to his apprentice David (a sprightly Alek Shrader), wise, kindly and, above all, beloved of everyone in town.
Except maybe Sixtus Beckmesser, the malicious, fussy Town Clerk who also has set his sights on Eva (“Oh, the trouble I have with men,” she sings at one point as she juggles her suitors). Well-sung by German baritone Martin Gantner, this Beckmesser’s comedy relies more on shtick and props, pratfalls and malapropisms than acting. (Robert Orth was much funnier in an earlier San Francisco Opera staging.) Beckmesser is yet another example of Wagner using his art to grind his personal axe. The character is widely regarded as a symbol of the critic and, some say, for Jewish critics in particular and Jewish people in general. So, what else is new? Wagner himself has revealed a wide streak of anti-Semitism in his writings so it is no surprise if a Jew is singled out for operatic ridicule.
Rounding out the cast is Sasha Cooke, an adorable Magdalene, maidservant to Eva and beloved of David. And, of course, the chorus, never so fine as in the lovely “Wach auf” that begins the singing competition near the end. Another lovely ensemble moment comes in the first scene of that last act, when Sachs and the two pairs of lovers sing what begins as a trio and ends up in a quintet that speaks to the hopes of the young and the resignation of the not-so-young.
If the first act of this very lengthy opera is overlong and pedantic in its exposition of the Meistersingers’ rigid and stultifying rules (which Walther, with Sachs’s help, will circumvent), the closing scene of the opera is jolly and colorful with stilt-walkers, jugglers and dancers filling the town square in celebration of the Midsummer Day song contest. Directors Marie Lambert and Ian Rutherford have staged this one well. Same for the Act II melee in which the townspeople turn on one another — and poor Beckmesser in particular — in a brief frenzy of Midsummer madness. And, if the first, and again long, opening scene of the last act feels as static as Act I, it may be because not much happens beyond the composition of Walther’s Prize Song.
Sir Mark Elder conducted the orchestra which, with the exception of one very sour horn at the end, delivered the magnificent score in high style. And, oh, those four opening chords…